The Gospel Of Matthew Is A Long Way From The Koran, Or The Strange Ignorance Of Victor Davis Hanson

For all of his scholarly pretensions, Victor Davis Hanson has a curious lack of knowledge when it comes to understanding the Bible.  Twice in his book The Father Of Us All:  War And History – Ancient And Modern, he makes the mistake of viewing the personal morality commanded in the Sermon on the Mount as being normative Christian conduct for nations and states as a whole.  This is an easy mistake for people to make because of the failure of many interpreters of the Bible to understand the proper relationship between the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament.  Far too many people, Hanson among them, view the New Testament as a harshly discontinuous phenomenon that made the entire corpus of biblical law obsolete and therefore left Christians to figure out how to cope with statecraft without any firm scriptural guidance.

How do we know that Hanson views it this way?  Because he tells us.  Let us now examine Hanson’s two quotes that misrepresent the application of the Gospel of Matthew and its effects on Christian statecraft relating to military history.  First, Hanson says the following on page 43:  “Despite the admonitions of Edward Gibbon, it was not the advent of Christianity and “turn the other cheek” that ended the classically tragic view of the constant need for military preparedness to ensure the peace, and so brought down Rome.  Well before hundreds of thousands crossed the Rhine and the Danube, Christian philosophers and theologians developed the doctrine of “just war,” having realized that passivity and nonresistance could translate into suicide.”  Then, later on, on pages 94-95, Hanson says the following:  “The Gospel of Matthew is a long way from the Koran, but the Christian soldiers of the sixteenth century knew well enough that weakness in the face of the Ottoman galleys sweeping the Italian coast meant death or conversion.  Until the next world, violence alone ensured the survival of a divided, poorer, and more vulnerable Christendom in the Mediterranean.”

What is Hanson referring to with the label of “The Gospel of Matthew?”  The first quote points to his reference about turning the other cheek.  We find in Matthew 5 in particular several odes to peacemaking.  There is, of course, Matthew 5:9:  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”  Then, of course, there is the lengthy discussion of violence and hatred in Matthew 5:38-48:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But 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.  Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?  Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  

Let us make it clearly understood that Jesus Christ is talking to believers as individuals.  Specifically, these messages, from the praise of peacemakers to the urge for believers to turn the other cheek, are designed to prevent our own prickly sense of dignity from leading to conflict with others.  The prickly southern gentleman quick to invoke the code duello has no place in Christendom, nor does the “toxic masculinity” or easily outraged feminism or other intersectionality that is quick to shout down others for what is judged as offensive and hateful speech.  What is necessary to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, insofar as it relates to turning the other cheek, is developing a thick skin that does not find it necessary to respond to hostile words and undignified behavior in kind, to pay others back in the currency they act in.  It requires believers to be friendly even to those who are hateful, to behave with dignity when being treated in an undignified fashion, and in refusing to view offenses and hurts from others as a just cause for personal violence.  To be sure these have implications in Christian statecraft, but they are not a call to pacifism, rather a call to personal restraint and the maintenance of love and kindness in our personal dealings with others.

How can we be sure that Jesus Christ did not mean believers to be pacifists?  Jesus was forthright about the conflict that he brought to this earth.  See, for example, Luke 12:51-53:  “Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division.  For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three.  Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”  Nor was Jesus ignorant of the realpolitik of warfare between realms, as we can see from his politically pointed statements in Luke 14:31-32:  “Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?  Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace.”  

There is no question in the Bible that Jesus Christ viewed himself as a king, and saw fighting as a necessary part of kingship.  Let us witness his comments to Pilate in John 18:36-37:  “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.”  Pilate therefore said to Him, “Are You a king then?”  Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.””  And lest we not take this aspect of fighting for His kingdom seriously, we can always read Revelation 19:11-16:  “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war.  His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself.  He clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God.  And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses.   Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.  And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.”

There are other places one could go, but this gives at least a sense of the picture.  Christians are called to be peacemakers, but are not called to be pacifists.  2 Corinthians 10:3-6 gives the picture of spiritual warfare that believers are called to:  “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.  For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds,  casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled.”  Indeed, the New Testament as a whole shows a firm commitment to expressing both the spiritual requirement upon believers to, so far as depends on us, live at peace with all.  Yet there is at the same time a recognition that hostility to falsehood and a firm commitment to truth will bring conflict and division into this world, and that the establishment of God’s kingdom or the defense of what is true and right will by necessity involve conflict.  There is, in the New Testament, no expectation that believers will establish Christianity, at least genuine biblical Christianity, over entire nations or civilizations, but the continuity between the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament as a whole means that believers could benefit from the entirety of the biblical corpus on statecraft and warfare in the management of civil affairs, laws that have seldom been read, much less applied, in the behavior of those states which have called themselves Christian.  Those laws, however, are a subject for another time [1].

[1] A discussion of some of these laws can be found in the following places:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2013/09/20/neither-shall-they-learn-war-anymore-the-military-historian-and-the-millennium/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/01/03/deuteronomy-201-9-the-principles-of-biblical-warfare-part-one-exemptions-from-military-service/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/01/03/deuteronomy-2010-20-the-principles-of-biblical-warfare-part-two-how-to-fight-biblical-holy-war/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/01/18/genesis-14and-ancient-coalition-warfare-2/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/01/14/joshua-9-and-the-biblical-standard-for-treaties/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical Art of War, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Military History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Gospel Of Matthew Is A Long Way From The Koran, Or The Strange Ignorance Of Victor Davis Hanson

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    Many cannot make the distinction between “turning the other cheek” and pacifism. Your explanation was excellent. Our battles in the here and now are spiritual in nature and require behavior that is often mislabeled by society, but these misunderstandings are all part of the job description.

    • Exactly. It’s not necessarily a surprise that many people in society–like Victor Davis Hanson–are ignorant of these matters. It is more of a concern when believers are ignorant of them.

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Ripples Of Battle | Edge Induced Cohesion

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