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October 20, 2012 by William H. Scarle, Jr. 

How does one reconcile the teaching of Jesus to love your enemies and to “turn the other cheek” with the responsibility to do justice and defend against aggression toward family or country?  Confusion on this question comes up frequently in conversation and in teaching situations.  Obviously it has a long history.  Entire religious movements have been established around one side of this issue.  We have the “peace” fellowships, the Quakers being the most obvious illustration.  Others have held that there are matters of justice that need to be rectified and some values are worth fighting for.

The arguments on either side of the pacifist controversy are complex and will not be resolved by this brief article.  However, the questions arise often enough in my own experience as a teacher and writer that some foundational principals might be helpful.

My mentor in theology was the late Carl F. H. Henry, by many regarded as the most gifted evangelical theologian of the twentieth century.  Dr. Henry wrote several books on ethics.  I mention only two to make a point.  In 1964 he wrote a volume entitled “ASPECTS OF CHRISTIAN SOCOAL ETHICS.”  In 1977 he wrote another book entitled “CHRISTIAN PERSONAL ETHICS.”  The principal involved here is that these are two different areas of human behavior.  They do not necessarily operate by the same rules, and for Christians they require different applications of the overarching rule of love.  The Apostle Paul said, “Owe no one anything except to love each other (Rom. 13:9).”  However, the application of love differs in the social arena and the personal arena.

Why would we say this, and why is it even necessary to say this?  The answer is simple, but not always recognized.  Jesus taught a personal ethic that I call a redemptive ethic.  It recognized justice but recommended that the demands of justice be set aside for the sake of possible reconciliation.  If I am offended by a “slap in the face” I may have a right to strike back.  However, if I do that it is doubtful that there will ever be reconciliation between the two persons involved.  Jesus taught his students that they should forfeit their just right to retribution for the sake of reconciliation.  He gave the ultimate example of this at his crucifixion when he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

It is not possible to carry this principal into the area of social ethics.  I certainly have a right to give up my own claim to justice.  I do not have a right to give up my neighbors claim to justice.  When we are told to love our neighbor it involves defending our neighbor’s rights.  We are told by the Prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”  Justice requires accountability and, yes, punishment for offenses.  This is why Augustine (354 – 430) wrote a treatise on a just war, laying down principles which are still relevant today.

How the ethics of love is worked out in these two separate arenas will of course differ among ethicists and theologians.  That there are clearly two separate arenas is beyond dispute.  From the Christian perspective, neither is centered in self-interest.  Both are focused on the responsibility we have to be “our brother’s keeper.”

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at