Hospitality in a Hostile World: Being Serious About the Madness of the Sermon on the Mount

Already since the terrorist attack on Friday analysts and commentators have been warning France – and, implicitly, the rest of the world currently waging war against ISIS in Syria, most notably the US – to be careful not to “play into the hands of ISIS” and let our anger and desire for vengeance lead us blindly into a disastrous war as happened following the 9/11 attacks. By Sunday, however, France had begun aerial assaults upon ISIS targets.

Meanwhile, on our side of the pond, fear of the Syrian Other has risen to manic levels. Several states have declared that they will accept no more refugees. A large part of the inspiration for such a move is the discovery of a Syrian passport near the body of one of the attackers Friday night. Some have suggested, however, that the precise purpose of planting this passport may have been hopes of stoking European fear of, and hatred for, Syrian immigrants. As Dierdre Fulton reports on Truthdig:

“One theory is that ISIS hopes to turn Europe against Syrian refugees,” Kingsley wrote. “This would reinforce the idea of unresolvable divisions between east and west, and Christians and Muslims, and so persuade Syrians that Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate is their best hope of protection. ‘You know what pissed off Islamist extremists the most about Europe?’ summarised Iyad El-Baghdadi, an activist and jihadi-watcher, on Twitter. ‘It was watching their very humane, moral response to the refugee crisis’.”

Justin Salhani concurs, writing: “ISIS has released statements saying it wants the West to turn on refugees, proving its assertions that Western nations are at war with Islam. The extremist group has also said on at least 12 occasions that Muslims should be seeking refuge in their self-declared Caliphate as opposed to ‘the lands of the infidel.'”

Watching the response of United States politicians (to say nothing of citizens) suggests that, if this in fact reflects the aims of ISIS, they have been nothing if not effective. As Adam Taylor observes, “one of the most persuasive arguments against equating refugees with terrorists is simple: It’s exactly what the Islamic State wants.”

With all of this in mind, I think we are faced with an opportunity here – an opportunity to not let the terrorists win by reinforcing a narrative of “us” versus “them”; to not continue the cycle of violence, hatred, and revenge (and implicitly thereby to affirm the legitimacy of violence, etc.), a cycle which will not end until someone has the courage to take the risky step of simply renouncing tit-for-tat violence and the logic of lex talionis (more on this in a minute); an opportunity to demonstrate the love, compassion, and hospitality so powerfully exemplified in the Judeo-Christian scriptures and tradition of which we are the inheritors (even those heretics, skeptics, and atheists among us); an opportunity to deny evil’s superior power over good and to instead overcome evil with good – in short, an opportunity to be loving and welcoming, which (I think) are the best weapons in our arsenal in the fight against fear, hatred, and violence.

That all sounds nice, it may be objected, and the Bible gives us a lovely ideal, but this is the real world and we have to be practical and we have to defend ourselves. However, I think (and here I will surely start to lose readers if I haven’t already) that we are in the unique position of affirming and participating in a tradition (again, whether we are church-going Christians or Sunday-is-for-sleeping atheists) that wants to radically disrupt and overturn the business-as-usual, eminently practical, feet-on-the-ground rationality of the kingdoms of the world.

Though myself a heathen, heretic, and theological ne’er-do-well, one of the reasons that I still love the Gospels is Jesus’ talk of a new kingdom, a kingdom that is both among us and still to come, in which everything is turned upside down, in which the last are first, forgiveness is unconditional, strangers and weirdos are always welcome, violence is not repaid for violence, and gifts are given without anything being expected in return – in short, pure madness, holy hell, and sacred anarchy (to borrow John Caputo’s words). Human relationships are no longer matters of economic exchange but rather of overflowing love and grace.

And nowhere does Jesus say, only welcome strangers if you are certain that it is safe to do so; only give to a beggar if you are sure she won’t use your money to buy drugs; only be nonviolent if your life isn’t actually in danger. Specifically in regard to nonviolence, D. Stephen Long sums this up nicely:

Nowhere does Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount suggest that it is only for individuals. There is no footnote or proviso where Jesus says, ‘You are to live this way except when it comes to the defence of your neighbours, then you must use the violence at your disposal to protect them.’ In fact, the Sermon on the Mount is not private instruction for individual consciences; it is the political platform for the new kingdom or city that Jesus proclaims, the city that is to be ‘set on a hill’ and illumine the world (Matt 5:14-16).[1]

What madness! Yes, indeed. But the kingdom that Jesus proclaims is not of this world. And that does not mean, I am convinced, that it is therefore a kingdom of some magical hinter-world. Rather, I think, it is a radically new kind of kingdom which is breaking into this world and disturbing the present kingdoms. Mark Van Steenwyk calls this kingdom that Jesus preaches an “unkingdom,” and Jesus its “unking.” For what kind of king establishes the kingdom described above? Would not such a king be, by all worldly lights, naught but an anti-king, the very opposite of a power-grabbing monarch?

I am convinced that two of the most powerful and radical ideas on which this Unkingdom turn are radical nonviolence and radical hospitality.

I mentioned lex talionis earlier. You will hear this phrase a lot if you spend any time at all in Christian anarchist and/or pacifist circles (like Jesus Radicals or Young Anabaptist Radicals). In short, lex talionis is the law found in the Hebrew Bible of an eye for an eye. When Jesus cites this law, however, he immediately overturns it: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say unto you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also[.]” For centuries (well before the birth of “Christian anarchism,” even) certain Christians have been calling attention to the significance and radical implications of this passage. It may be old hat to some, but I think it is worth reviewing.

In his excellent work Jesus and Nonviolence, Walter Wink argues (and he is by no means the first to do so) that the word that is translated as “resist” is best understood as implying “violent rebellion, armed revolt, sharp dissention.”[2] Kurt Willems agrees with Wink’s translation, writing that “antistēnai is the word repeatedly used in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible as ‘warfare’ and is also used in Ephesians 6:13 in the context of active military imagery.”[3] Such an interpretation furthermore confirms the words of Long cited above that Jesus was not teaching private morality but a distinctly social ethic. Indeed, scholars as different as John Howard Yoder and Bart Ehrman agree that Jesus was executed precisely because, in the words of Yoder, he was “a social critic and an agitator.”[4] Ehrman agrees, pointing out that “only two known people were specifically called ‘the son of God.’ The emperor was one of them, and Jesus was the other.”[5]

Jesus was boldly proclaiming the coming kingdom of God, of which he (Jesus) would be the king. It does not get much more subversive than that. “This was the message he delivered to his disciples,” writes Ehrman, “and in the end, it was the message that got him crucified.”[6] Once again, the kingdom that Jesus was preaching – the Unkingdom of which he is the unking – is not a magical other-worldly palace, but a very this-worldly in-breaking and overturning of the kingdoms of the world. And I think we have a role to play in realizing this impossible Unkingdom.

(Otherwise, if Jesus never meant for us to take his words literally, if we are supposed to just sit on our hands and wait for God to come back and fix all of our problems, then I don’t want anything to do with such radically life-denying defeatism. It’s a convenient way to avoid having to accept any responsibility, but it ultimately sounds to me like Gnostic escapism — which, I am convinced, comes down to nihilism in the end.)

Christian anarchists and pacifists argue that Jesus’ teachings imply a refusal to perpetuate the cycle of violence. Responding to violence with violence only results in more violence. As Jacques Ellul says, “Violence begets violence — nothing else.[7] Accordingly, commentators who argue that violent intervention in the Middle East is largely to blame for the rise of ISIS don’t sound too crazy. It’s blowback. Imagine several of your friends and family members, while attending a wedding, are killed by a US drone strike – a strike sent on the shaky suspicion that a militant or two might have been present and which is anyway considered a success because your father and brothers are all over the age of fifteen which is enough for them to classified as suspected militants. What could possibly fuel more anger and resentment toward the US? What better inspiration could there be to join a radical group committed to waging a brutal war with the western world?

Violence begets violence. And it will happen again. I suspect that ISIS knows that if they are able to evoke a violent military response from France that will only mean more recruits for them.

So, what of the bit about hospitality? I mentioned earlier the disturbingly hostile responses to immigrants that we have been hearing recently. Since we never know which Muslims might be secret members of ISIS, the reasoning seems to go, we had better keep them all out. And this fear is, to a certain extent, understandable. But ultimately such xenophobia, if left unchecked, will plant the seeds of fascism.

More to the point, I have been arguing that we are the inheritors of a tradition that teaches radical hospitality. (Here’s a nice list of references.) And that is no hospitality that only welcomes sameness and familiarity, comfort and safety. Rather, as Kierkegaard says,

Your neighbor is every man [sic], for on the basis of distinctions he is not your neighbor, nor on the basis of likeness to you as being different from other men. He is your neighbor on the basis of equality with you before God: but this equality absolutely every man has, and he has it absolutely.[8]

Or in the words of Caputo:

We welcome those who are welcome to begin with, not those who are unwelcome. But if hospitality is what we say it is – that is, welcoming the other – then ought it not be a matter of welcoming those who are unwelcome? Should it not extended beyond our neighbors to strangers? Beyond our friends to enemies? Beyond the invited to the uninvited?[9]

Such hospitality is by no means easy, but, then, when was it ever supposed to be? “[I]f you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” That’s the easy part. The hard part is greeting – and loving – one’s enemies (or, in this case, those who look like one’s enemies and therefore inspire the same fearful reaction). Is it risky? Of course! But that is “the madness of the kingdom.”[10] And anyway, “There is always a risk in everything worthwhile.”[11] Is it possible that among the Syrian refugees – men and women trying desperately to save their families from the chaos and death of civil war, as any of us would similarly do – there is a militant Jihadist? Yes, it is possible (although considering the fact that initial reports indicate that most of the Paris attackers were French- and Belgian-born nationals, fears that militants are hiding among refugees from Syria seem pretty exaggerated). Just like it’s possible that your all-American neighbour is a white supremacist who has plans to shoot up a black church.

Either way, as I’ve said, I am convinced that if we let this fear drive us, if we respond only with hostility and violence, we will just exacerbate the problem; not only will we be reinforcing the beliefs of violent militants, but we will be telling the rest of the Muslim community that we are in fact the hateful, hostile, violent society that we are feared to be. A good way to make someone your enemy is to tell them that they are your enemy and treat them accordingly. And, as noted above, it would be very much in the favor of ISIS for us to do so.

If we lose faith in the power of good to overcome evil – love to overcome hatred, compassion to overcome violence, welcome to overcome hostility – then we have lost it all. If we refuse to give up the worldly logic of lex talionis then we have given up on Jesus. He was maddeningly impractical, to be sure. But, then again, revolutionaries always are. Revolutionaries are the ones who call for the impossible — who demand that we make the impossible possible. That’s what I want. The possible is easy. The possible is lex talonis. I want to push against the limits of the possible and challenge the status quo, a desire that I take to be at the very heart of the Sermon on the Mount.

 

Appendix (of interest to those concerned with matters of biblical exegesis):

I can foresee the objection that Romans 13 gets us off the hook of having to take Jesus literally and assures us that Jesus’ teachings aren’t that crazy. Anyone who has ever made a habit of talking about Christian anarchism and/or pacifism has grown accustomed to responding to this objection on a pretty regular basis (as in, every time the words “Christian anarchism and pacifism” cross your lips). The passage has been addressed many, many times, and there are many, many interesting points that could be raised, and but so I will try to keep my comments here short.

(Though in a very real sense I have no dog in this race — in the end my views are unaffected by what Paul may or may not have said — I think it is important to discuss alternative interpretations of this passage so that a more coherent Christian position on nonviolence and the state can be sketched out. Why do I care about finding a “coherent Christian position”? Because, as I’ve suggested, I think there are riches in the teachings of Jesus which tend to be swept under the rug because it is thought (implicitly, though it is not explicitly said) that Paul’s teachings trump those of Jesus.)

For one thing, I think it’s a little odd that I am supposed to not take Jesus literally on the basis of seven verses written by Paul (and a few more written by Peter, of course). True, the latter half of Romans 12 is basically a verbatim recitation of the Sermon on the Mount, but Romans 13:1 signals a rather strange departure from this. After all, Jesus never said anything of the sort (not even, I maintain, in the (in)famous “render unto Caesar” passage). First and foremost, then, I think that Christians should privilege Christ (this is not to advocate some kind of anti-Paul Jesusism, per say, just what seems to me like a perfectly legitimate method of prioritization).

One interesting interpretation that I think is particularly worth pointing out is that of Kevin Daugherty, who argues that it is in fact an unfounded assumption that this passage is referring to governing authorities at all. The Greek, he says, does not necessitate such a reading. Instead, Daugherty suggests, the passage could perhaps be better understood to be referring to religious authorities who wield a symbolic, spiritual sword, “Unless of course, Ephesians 6:17 means that the Holy Spirit can literally cut me.”[12]

What is helpful about such an interpretation is that it quells cognitive dissonance over how Paul could quote Jesus’ Sermon and then so suddenly seem to contradict it. Indeed, Paul himself clearly did not believe that obeying the governing authorities was of overwhelming importance, and the rulers clearly did execute wrath upon him, in spite of his “good conduct.” Accordingly, if we want to give Paul the benefit of the doubt (which, admittedly, I don’t always want to do – especially when he talks about women) this reading would be the way to go.

But even assuming the traditional translation the passage does not have to be read as condoning all forms of state violence (i.e., military, police, capital punishment). John Howard Yoder points out, for example, that “The sword (machaira) is the symbol of judicial authority. It was not the instrument of capital punishment,” nor was it “the instrument of war,”[13] so the passage has nothing to do with war or Christians’ involvement therein. Furthermore, Yoder writes, “verses 3-4 did not include any services that the Christian is asked to render”[14]; rather, these verses describe the authority as carrying out a function “which the Christian was to leave to God”[15], meaning, in other words, that the role taken up by state authorities is one which can only rightly be claimed by God and therefore state authorities have no claim on the allegiance of Christians.

Once again, we have a reading that does not so blatantly contradict the teachings of Jesus and is therefore preferable. Indeed, this makes perfectly good sense considering that the early Christians were followers of a man who had gone around declaring himself king of this crazy new kingdom and subsequently got himself killed for doing so. Of course authority only comes from God – which is bad news rather than good news for the state and those who would seek to morally justify it.

This turned out to be quite a detour into Christian anarchist and pacifist debates, but I think it is all relevant to my original point. I am fully and painfully aware that there are aspects of the debates that I had to leave out, but – believe it or not – I was really trying to be concise.

 


 

Notes

[1] D. Stephen Long, “What About the Protection of Third-Party Innocents? On Letting Your Neighbors Die,” in York and Barringer, 21.

[2] Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 13.

[3] Kurt Willems, “Nonviolence 101 – Resistance is Futile… or the Meaning of ἀντιστῆναι (part 2),” available from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/2011/02/07/nonviolence-101-resistance-is-futile-or-the-meaning-of-ἀντιστῆναι-part-2/ (accessed 2 August 2014), para. 7.

[4] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (2nd Edition), (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 1.

[5] Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 225.

[6] Ibid., 128.

[7] Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections From A Christian Perspective, translated by Cecilia Gaul Kings, (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 100.

[8] Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, translated by Howard and Edna Hong. (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009), 72.

[9] John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 76.

[10] Ibid., 77.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kevin Daugherty, “Romans 13 and the State,” available from http://mennonerds.com/romans-13-and-the-state/

[13] Yoder, 203.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 198.