Christian Retaliation: A ‘classic’ sermon by Rev Richard Teed

“I tell you not to resist an evil person. Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.” (Matthew 5.39-41)

In our consideration of these words of our Lord I want us also to have in mind those wonderful words which constitute what is usually termed the ‘Golden Rule’:

Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them. (Matthew 7.12)

It will readily be seen that these words set before us a certain concept of retaliation. Ordinary retaliation, that which is pagan and un-Christian, looks back to what has been done, and determines in like manner to act towards the persons who have done these things. Thus, eye shall go for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, life for life.

Christian retaliation will not, and cannot, wholly overlook evil that has been done, but its attitude towards that evil is not a desire for vengeance, but simply a desire to do what is right in the circumstances. Christian retaliation asks itself what it would that others should do to itself in like circumstances, and then, answering that question fairly, it does this with all its power as a persistent and determined retaliation.

With such thoughts in our mind, let us approach the text we have before us. The Sermon on the Mount, from which the text is taken, is quite universally accepted as the ideal of Christian conduct. But, strange to say, it is just as universally admitted that that it is an ideal quite beyond our reach: thus, that nobody is expected to live in accordance with it now.

Such an order of life is supposed to belong only to heaven or to some very far-distant state of life on the earth. Now, to the New Church person, such a position is quite untenable. “All religion has relation to life.” If these teachings be both true and good, then they are ever the best practical policy for life. In no way can we justly conclude that our Lord wishes us to take His teachings and wrap them carefully up in a napkin and keep them for some bright and better day!

Yet, one needs to say at once that one must be intensely careful that one has really gripped the Lord’s teaching. He never spoke only according to the appearance. His words are spirit, and they are life. Thus in another place we read His instruction that we should cut off the offending hand and pluck out the offending eye. Our failure to observe this injunction in a literal way is not an evidence of lack of faith and courage but is the outcome of our realisation that our Lord meant something deeper than appears on the surface. To what purpose is it to pluck out the eye – the organ of vision – if there be lust at the back of the eye, which would remain untouched by such a physical mutilation? Can we not see that our Lord speaks in the picture-language of correspondence, whereby internal truths are depicted by means of our external language?

Thus then, we say without hesitation that the supposed virtue of non-resistance is no virtue at all but is a misinterpretation of what He taught. Complete non-resistance must be rejected not only because of its impracticability but because it is immoral and, in reality, contrary to the ideal Christian life. Can it be, for
instance, seriously suggested that the bully who strikes a little child is not to be resisted? Is it more pleasing to the Lord that we stand aside and let the bully thus injure a little one than that we offer what resistance we are able? Can it be suggested that it is really in accord with the Golden Rule that we allow a thief to have his way and rob us of all we possess? Is it not a higher duty to endeavour to prevent men from doing wrong, both for the common good and for their own sakes too? There is a sacred duty of defence. The warning we do all need is to watch lest that principle of defence be violated by a slipping over to aggression. It is at a certain point exceedingly hard to discern where the actual line of demarcation comes. It is, however, just here that the real significance and practical help of our text comes in.

In the words “that ye resist not evil” the accent should be placed upon the word “ye”. We, of ourselves, from ourselves, by ourselves, are not to resist evil. If we do, the spirit of aggressiveness and revenge is sure to be there. Unless we cut right out everything of our own selfhood, the resistance offered is vain, and is of that quality which meets with our Lord’s unstinted condemnation. The situation is merely aggravated. Resistance, in which is something of our own selfhood, has in it the spirit of vengeance, it breathes forth anger and is full of the spirit of pettiness.

The Lord is the true Resister of all evil. Is there anyone prepared to deny this? Has He not right from the time of the Fall been in eternal opposition to evil? And from this we find Him so often called in the Old Testament “A Man of War”. It was solely the urge to resist the evil which was threatening the destruction of mankind that brought him into the world for our redemption. He came to fight man’s foes and to save them. Thus He says at the last: “I have overcome the world”

Were it not that He resists evil, and ever so has, there could be no hope for the human race. In this resistance He is willing to use us, and is anxious for our co-operation. He calls upon us to allow ourselves to be instruments in His hands to accomplish His Divine purposes. To do so for us means a solemn and prayerful
devotion to duty. We can then surely see good reason why we should resist evil, and yet, if we will, evil can be resisted through our instrumentality. The contrast is explicit and emphatic.

Now let us approach the details of our text. In the light of the internal sense of the Word, which is now revealed for the New Church, we may see clearly all the virtues which it has ever been felt to lie therein; and yet the futility so apparent in the literal sense now disappears.

We notice at once that the text consists of three distinct divisions, which fact is at once suggestive to the New Church person. There is reference to the person of man, in the first place. In the second place, the thought rests upon his clothing; and in the third place it is the activity or the functioning of the man that is referred to.

The cheek is an extremely delicate and beautiful part of the body. Contact with it by another is intended to be most intimate and also pleasing and mutually gratifying. Is not the cheek peculiarly intended for the receipt of the kiss of love? It is to love and to things of charity therefore that the cheek corresponds. This correspondence is further emphasised by the adjective “right”; it is specified the “right cheek”, which apart from the internal sense would seem to be an unnecessary detail.

But the term “right” in the Word always has reference to things of love. Thus we read that it is at the “right hand of God” there are joys for evermore. Again, when our Lord’s disciples had been toiling all the night in vain to catch fish, He said, “Cast the net on the right side of the ship and ye shall find.” What a spiritual message is there for those who are prepared to heed, who would be fishers of men!

Our Lord teaches here that if the right cheek is assaulted, we are to turn to our assailant the other also. If the one cheek be charity in the internal sense, it is readily apparent that the other cheek is the doctrine of charity – its companion. If then, charity is assaulted, the duty of the Christian disciple is not to rave and blame and abuse the assailant but “to turn to him the other cheek also” – proffer, by precept and example, the true doctrine of charity so that our influence shall not be merely destructive, but constructive, by means of the teaching of that truth.

Passing on to the second portion of the text, we find in the Divine parable the words “coat” and “cloak”. These, as we have already observed, are not of the very person, but are the garments which are close to the person. Garments are intended to preserve vital heat in the body and also to set forth the comeliness and beauty of the human form. Such is the function of truth in relation to man as a spiritual being – that a distinction between the coat and the cloak quickly shows itself. The former is a close and comparatively tight-fitting garment. It is nearer to the human form itself. The latter is looser and blows about in any wind that comes. The coat may be, even as the Gospel declares was the coat of our Lord “without seam and woven from the top throughout”.

Such is the essential quality of Divine Truth. Our coat may partake of something of that quality. The heavenly doctrines of the New Jerusalem, which belong to the Word, and are now coming down out of heaven, are of that Divine quality; and such a coat therefore is ours in the New Church if we will to receive it. It is surely not without significance that it is so distinctly said concerning the New Jerusalem that it was seen “as a bride adorned for her husband”. She is arrayed in a seamless coat, woven from the top, as her wedding garment.

If one by his skill in argument and debate would sue at law and take away our coat we are not to be unduly perturbed. Let it go. Don’t be drawn into heated debate, inspired by the selfhood which loves its own intelligence, brilliance and wit, but seeing that our opponent is set upon taking our coat from us, let him have his seeming victory. Thus is the least harm done; thus is he likely to be least confirmed in his attitude of antagonism. By letting him have the coat we, in reality, lose nothing, and though he cannot use the coat himself, yet he can use your cloak. Let him have that also.

The cloak corresponds to external truths which are adapted to the needs and capacity of more external states. Instead of in anger withholding the coat from a mistaken sense of loyalty, let it go. Give your opponent the apparent victory, and give him, further, your cloak. The interior truths of the New Church relating to the Divine Humanity of the Lord and the Divinity of the Sacred Scriptures are beyond the capacity for the use of many, and they consequently are opposed, and cannot be accepted. For such, there is the outer cloak of comparatively external truth, as for instance, that there is a God, that man is not a mere material organism, that it behoves him to live a decent life, and that death cannot end all.

Thirdly, the Lord speaks of the urgent call that may come to us to go a mile and the Christian response to go twain. The mile is manifestly the picture of the road of life, the plane of the natural, “the trivial round, the common task”. If one will compel us to go along his way on this outermost plane, our Lord says, “go with him”. Don’t hold aloof, wishing to live an exclusive life, wrapping your garment around yourself, saying “I am holier than thou”. “Go with him.”

He did not pray that His disciples should be taken out of the world but that they should be delivered from the evil. Herein comes the significance of the “twain” that we are to go. The ordinary man goes only his one mile, looking at life only from the one point of view, which is self-interest; that is his one mile. The Christian disciple is ever to go the twain – which is the even balance of life, things of good and truth, of faith and of charity. Like Balaam in the company of Balak, the Christian must declare that while he goes with the man of the world in the life of the world, yet he cannot go beyond – or less than – the Word of the Lord and the life of His love. “Go with him twain.” Amen

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