Turning the Other Cheek

I’ve been reading this absolutely fascinating book called No God but One by Nabeel Qureshi. Qureshi was raised Muslim, and in an attempt to prove to his Christian friend that Islam was correct and Christianity was false, he did a great deal of research on the two religions and ended up converting to Christianity. In No God but One, he lays out the line of reasoning that led to his conversion.

It’s a great book, not only for the fascinating way he applies objective reasoning to the two faiths, but for the things he teaches the reader about both Islam and Christianity. As a devoted Christian who has done a bit of reading on my own faith, I was pleasantly surprised to be learning such paradigm-shifting information on Christianity. And one point has particularly stood out to me: Qureshi’s arguments for Jesus-as-pacifist.

I always assumed that Jesus’s teachings about peaceful living with others had some wiggle room, based on a few apparently contradictory parts of the text: a reading that made it easier for me to compare the New Testament teachings to the Old Testament ones rather than seeing the New Covenant as a more complete break with the past. But Qureshi lays out how those apparently contradictory segments in Jesus’s teaching are actually not as contradictory as they seem at first.

One of these verses is Matthew 10:34: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (NIV). Qureshi notes that “Augustine and Christians after him provided justification for war in part by asking questions about passages like these” (141). However, he points out that the context of this verse is not about war, but about divisions within families: the next two verses read, “For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law–a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household'” (NIV). In other words, Jesus’s teachings will necessarily be divisive and will divide families when some members follow Jesus and others don’t.

Qureshi also points out that the Greek word translated “sword” in English is machaira. Unlike a rhomphaia, a kind of sword used only for war, a machaira was a long knife/short sword designed to be a multipurpose tool for jobs like cutting meat or cleaning fish. Like a machete, it “can be used for fighting, but it is not its only or primary purpose” (Qureshi 142).

A rhomphaia

Machaira. Clearly a BIG difference!

Another passage where this translation issue is important is in Luke 22:35-38, where “Jesus tells his disciples to take swords, machaira, with them on their journey” (Qureshi 142). Some have argued that this was for them to defend themselves. However, when you realize that he was telling them to take a knife, not a sword, it makes it clear that “He was telling them to be prepared for a long journey and to take along the appropriate tools. Context is helpful again Jesus gives them a list of traveling accessories to take with them (money belt, bag, and sandals), and the sword appears in that list. As if to clarify this, Jesus told his disciples that two swords would be enough. If he envisioned a battle, two swords would never have been enough among that many; but they are plenty if envisioned as traveling tools” (Qureshi 142).

Basically, Qureshi argues, Jesus’s teachings are radically peaceful: “He never even sanctioned violence. When it comes to Jesus’ clearest dictum on fighting, there is no missing his message: ‘Put your sword back in its place . . . for all who draw the sword will die by the sword’ (Matt. 26:52 NIV). Even in matters of self-defense, his teaching is so utterly peaceful that it seems to come from another world: ‘I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles’ (Matt 5:39-42 NIV). This works in tandem with the otherworldly way Jesus tells his followers to treat their enemies: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matt. 5:44 NIV)” (Qureshi 139).

Wow.

I have never heard such a convincing and all-encompassing argument for Christian pacifism. It makes me think back to all the times I shrugged off “turn the other cheek,” thinking that contradictions in the Gospels meant I didn’t ACTUALLY have to do that–how many times I’ve gotten into pointless arguments that made me angry, unsettled, restless, unhappy, and anxious. How much better for even MYSELF to step back from such angry arguments, to refuse to engage in a nasty way with anyone. And how much more of an incredible witness for Jesus such revolutionary pacifism would be! I’ve long believed that following Jesus means displaying radical love, but I couldn’t figure out what that looked like or how to do it. Now I think it’s a little clearer.

So I feel like I’m being called to try and make a change in my life, a change that will bring me closer to God’s will for me, closer to making a difference in the world, and closer to being a happy and tranquil individual. While God often tells people not to test him in the Bible, there are a few places where he encourages believers to try out God’s commands and watch how he will bless them: “‘Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you [so great] a blessing until there is no more room to receive it'” (Malachi 3:10).

O taste and see that the Lord [our God] is good;
How blessed [fortunate, prosperous, and favored by God] is the man who takes refuge in Him.
O [reverently] fear the Lord, you His saints (believers, holy ones);
For to those who fear Him there is no want.
The young lions lack [food] and grow hungry,
But they who seek the Lord will not lack any good thing.
Come, you children, listen to me;
I will teach you to fear the Lord [with awe-inspired reverence and worship Him with obedience].
. . .
Keep your tongue from evil
And your lips from speaking deceit.
Turn away from evil and do good;
Seek peace and pursue it. (Psalm 34:8-13, AMP)

So I’m going to try this pacifism thing. I don’t expect it to be easy: quite the opposite, since being argumentative and vengeful is my natural instinct. But I also believe that the Holy Spirit empowers us to transform our lives in Godly ways. And it doesn’t mean that I’m never going to make an argument again: just that I’m going to try not to do it with anger and hurt feelings and the desire to crush the opposition. I’ve always admired people on Facebook who can get into a “comment war” with somebody and totally defuse a situation by being consistently tolerant, kind, and impersonal. That’s the kind of argumentation I want to learn how to do–and the kind of person I want to be. Any of you out there who are Christians, I really welcome your prayers!

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