Jesus’ teaching on non-resistance to evil is hard.

The best translation of Matthew 5:39 is not immediately obvious.

The NRSV translates it as:

But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. (NRSV)

“Evildoer” is a noun. The Greek word po-nā-ro’s is an adjective; but no noun is provided for it to qualify, seeming to suggest that the NIV decision to supply “person” may be a good choice.

But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. (NIV)

I am not entirely comfortable, however, with the designation of a “person” as “evil”. I certainly believe actions can be evil. I am less convinced that a person himself can actually be evil.

The King James Version, leaves out “person” and turns “evil” into a noun

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil. (KJV)

This makes Jesus’ statement even more difficult and demanding than if he was simply prescribing non-resistance in the face  an “evil person.” Surely, there are times when “evil” needs to be resisted.

The Good News Bible, ducks the whole issue by mistranslating the injunction to say,

But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. (GNB)

This may be in keeping with the example that follows (“if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”) but it is not in keeping with the Greek text.

Eugene Peterson also ducks the issue, having Jesus say,

Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’

If I had my choice, I would translate this verse to say,

Do not resist a person who does evil.

Although, it is not in keeping with the Greek text and turns an adjective into an adverb, this allows for the possibility of resisting the action, while not resisting the person.

In whatever way we handle this verse, the important thing is that Jesus is attempting to jab a stick in the spokes of the wheel of violence. Violence will never be stopped by violent means. Violence always begets violence.

Jesus’ desire here is to break the cycle of violence. Resistance perpetuates violence.

At some point in the spiraling cycle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” someone has to call a stop. The only way to stop “evil” is to live in the face of that “evil” from a completely different posture. As Einstein said,

No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that caused it.

Jesus set the tone for reversing the endless cycle of violence at the beginning of his “Sermon On The Mount” in the opening section known as “The Beatitudes” where he outlined the qualities that bring blessing into the human community –

Blessed are those who are:

  • poor
  • gentle
  • merciful
  • pure in heart
  • peacemakers

These qualities have the power to reverse the constant reverberation of revenge. These attitudes and actions can begin to stem the tide of violence. Jesus wanted his audience to understand that the energy we live by is the energy we create out there in the world. If I live with anger, resentment, bitterness, arrogance, and defensiveness, I should not be surprised when the world becomes a more violent, less tolerant, more painful place.

Non-resistance is a heart attitude that seeks to remain open to people even when those people seem dangerous and threatening. Non-resistance recognizes that the person we perceive as our enemy is, like us, a person who has been shattered by the realities of life and who is living out of that brokenness rather than the wholeness that is our God-given gift.

We can only help restore the violent person to peace when we are willing to live with them from that place of wholeness and reconciliation that is the true character of human nature.

I know in my heart, that if anyone sought to harm the people I love, I would do everything in my power to resist that harm. When I imagine, especially someone aiming to hurt our beautiful innocent vulnerable granddaughters, I feel the resistance rising from deep in my gut. I would not stand idly by while you threaten my family.

But, perhaps even here, my resistance to the evil intended could emerge from a place of non-resistance. I will respond in a more life-giving way to “evil” when my response comes from that millisecond pause between stimulus and response that is at the heart of my spiritual practice. When I stop and open to the reality of what is going on, I respond from a more grounded, non-reactive place in my heart. That momentary pause allows me to reconnect with that place of gentleness that is my true nature. From this place, I may respond forcefully, but I will also respond in a way that has the chance of reducing the escalation of violence.