Sunday, January 28, 2018

On the Mount (15)

There’s a useful little spiritual truth called the Corban Principle. That’s just my name for it; I’m sure I owe somebody older and godlier for introducing me to it, but I can’t for the life of me remember who ought to get the credit.

Anyway, it comes from that passage in Mark where the Lord Jesus calls out the Pharisees for allowing religious Jews to reduce their financial obligations under the Law by giving sums of money intended for the upkeep of aging parents to the synagogue instead, which effectively put the money in the hands of the Pharisees.

The practice was called Corban. It was an end-around the spirit of the Law of Moses, and the Lord called it “making void the word of God”.

The Corban Principle simply stated: God doesn’t want anything from you or me at someone else’s expense.

King David expressed the same spiritual truth to Ornan: “I will not take for the Lord what is yours, nor offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”

Eye for Eye and Tooth for Tooth

I bring this up in the context of our next subsection of the Sermon on the Mount because the following words are often alleged to imply things they simply don’t:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
Alright. I’ll bite. How does the Corban Principle come into this?

Corban in Action

Well, based in part on the teaching of this subsection of the Sermon, Plow Creek Mennonite Church takes a stand for pacifism so comprehensive it would not permit Christians to defend their country in time of war. Jim Foxvog would have you turn not just your own cheek, but the cheeks of your wife, children, neighbours, friends and fellow citizens. Taking such a stand would involve me in giving to God things that are not mine to give.

Moreover, John Piper cites this subsection of the Sermon as evidence it is immoral to bear arms. He quotes Luther’s “Let goods and kindred go / This mortal life also” by way of explanation. Hey, I’m fine with the goods, but I’m fairly certain leaving your kindred to face whatever’s coming their way without father or husband to stand up for them is not the sort of “letting go” Luther had in mind. Violating a wife or child’s reasonable expectation of protection to pursue an ideology of personal pacifism has a whiff of Corban about it — not to mention cowardice.

Me, Me, Me

I dislike arguments from silence, but I cannot help but notice that, like almost every word in the Sermon, this passage has to do with the responsibilities of the individual subject of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, a kingdom which will be inaugurated in blood. Thus we cannot consistently and reasonably pretend that Jesus advocated passivity as a general principle of discipleship or in the pursuit of Christ-likeness. It might be more accurate to say he requires unusual personal restraint and generosity as a testimony to his name in very specific sorts of situations.

Note further that it is your cheek you turn, your tunic and cloak you hand over, you that walks the extra mile and your wallet that you open to give or lend. To try to extend this passage beyond a very personal response to the unfair impositions of the world — to make it, for instance, about how Christian police officers should respond to criminals firing guns at them, or how the government of a country should treat an act of war, or about how Christian parents should respond to a home invasion or the rape of their daughter — is not only a very Corban-like copout, it also involves saying things Jesus simply didn’t say.

The Lord here invites his followers to be patient, selfless, a good testimony and not to insist on the personal rights they enjoyed under the Law of Moses. He does not suggest they do it in a way that passes on to others the real-world cost of their virtuous behaviour.

Limitless Passivity?

Nor is this provision of the Sermon a license for limitless passivity.

The words “Do not resist the one who is evil” are qualified by the examples that immediately follow: insulting slaps, the loss of a coat, the contents of one’s pockets and a long walk. That’s the scope of what the Lord is commanding. He is not spurring his audience toward martyrdom or penury, but rather generosity, grace, moderation and self-control.

The sons of the kingdom are not obligated to allow themselves to be murdered by criminals or injured so severely that they are no longer able to provide for their families. If Jesus intended such extreme self-sacrifice in the face of life-threatening assault, what did he mean by telling his disciples “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one”?

Furthermore, such an interpretation puts followers of Christ in the position of offering something they have no right to offer. A husband’s body is under the authority of his wife, and vice versa. It cannot be given away unilaterally — well, not morally at least.

Go the Extra Mile

Lest I be accused of unreasonably narrowing the scope of the Lord’s instruction, let me take a moment to broaden it slightly. Some take the words “go with him two miles” as an indication this subsection of the Sermon is intended to deal primarily with the believer’s response to unreasonable authority. It is suggested that the expression has a historical significance.

Adam Feldman explains:
“Roman soldiers could at any time demand of Israelites (or any other nations that Rome had conquered) to carry their gear for up to a mile. Jesus is not talking about work ethic. He is actually talking about oppression associated with religion and nationality.”
Now Feldman may or may not be correct here, but to limit the Lord’s command to impositions of the State seems to me implausible. The passage deals with the shame of personal insults (“if anyone slaps you on the right cheek”), legal matters (“if anyone would sue you”), street solicitation (“the one who begs from you”), and, unless one was known to be financially well off, what would usually amount to the demands of immediate and extended family (“the one who would borrow from you”). It’s a pretty holistic approach, including but not limited to the sometimes-unfair demands of government.

Back to the Law

Back to the Law for a moment, since we should never forget that the Lord’s original audience was under it, and exceedingly conscious of that fact. The expression “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”, is not originally from the Law of Moses (where it is indeed recapitulated, and continues “hand for hand, foot for foot”, if we are being precise), but rather from the much earlier Code of Hammurabi. When the Lord says, “You have heard that it was said,” he may be referring to either or both.

Under the Law, when there was an injury and the circumstances were such that it was impossible to rigorously prove intent, the person injured had the right to demand redress at the same level as their injury. It is unclear whether being subject to Roman rule made this sort of justice attainable for Jews at the time of Christ, but the religious theories of the day might well have seemed to justify the very natural temptation to take matters into one’s own hands when assaulted. Here the Lord once again requires of his followers the abnegation of rights to which they might otherwise have felt very much entitled.

The Christian Response

For the Christian, any potential argument for the reasonableness of revenge is short-circuited by an abundance of direct instruction in the epistles not to go that route (“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God”, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay”, “Love does not count up wrongdoing”, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling”, and so on).

Are Christians in danger of failing to make the necessary application of the Lord’s words in this passage to our own lives? Perhaps. But the number of Internet commentators who follow John Piper’s view of this passage suggests that on the whole Christendom is probably in greater danger of mass virtue-signaling its willingness to be assaulted than of demanding justice for those who are genuinely and unjustly afflicted.

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