A friend sent me a clip of two Christian political commentators arguing that their cultural opponents were so sinful that they had sunk to the level of the subhuman. “This is demonic. Our enemies are demonic,” one said. “There’s no turning the other cheek; there’s no being winsome.”
This trope is so common at this point that I wasn’t even jarred to hear a professed Christian dismiss the literal words of Jesus Christ, breathed out in Holy Scripture—that his followers are to, when struck, turn the other cheek. In fact, several years ago, I started hearing from pastors getting pushback from political factions in their congregations if their sermons included even a glancing allusion to “love your enemies” or “turn the other cheek.”
What’s startling to me is not the seeming biblical illiteracy of those assuming the actual words of the incarnate Son of God are liberal slogans along the lines of “visualize world peace.” It’s that when pastors explain they are quoting Jesus from his Sermon on the Mount, the response doesn’t change. “That was fine for those times,” the counterargument will go, “but not in a culture this hostile to Christianity. That doesn’t work anymore. For this, we can’t be weak; we have to fight.”
Yet here we have even more biblical illiteracy than if Christians merely confused the words of Jesus for a Bob Marley song or a “coexist” bumper sticker. The Sermon on the Mount was delivered not in Mayberry but in Roman-occupied territory. A collaborator with a literally pagan, sexually libertine empire was seated on the throne of David. Crosses lined the roads for those who would dissent. And Jesus was speaking to those he knew would be arrested or tortured or killed. It’s hard to get more hostile than crucifixion.
more hostile than crucifixion.
The idea that kindness, gentleness, endurance, and self-control don’t work anymore comes up often. A common critique of evangelical pastor Tim Keller is that his patient explanation of the gospel, his belligerence against sin but not against sinners, works in a “neutral” culture of the past, but not in a “hostile” culture like this one. Setting aside the question of whether New York City in the late modern age could be considered neutral to evangelical Christianity, the larger point is that the idea of a culture neutral to Christianity is itself a liberalizing religion.
The Bible tells us that people, from Eden on, are not divided into those hostile to the gospel and those not. The apostle Paul writes, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:10–11). Hostility to God can show itself as felt hatred of God, but it also can—even more perniciously—show itself as the attempt to use God or Christianity for one’s own gain and goals (Acts 8:18–23).
To think that pretend Christianity—claiming the goals of Jesus while ditching his ways, embracing Christian values without individual new birth—is somehow closer to Christ than is outright paganism is the opposite of what Jesus himself told us (Matt. 21:31).
Interesting too is that those who seek to engage their opponents without giving up Christlike character are frequently dismissed as following a strategy that no longer works—as though any of these things were ever a “strategy” in the first place. The way of Jesus and the fruit of the Spirit do not work—and never have—by the metrics of the world. Lifelong marital fidelity doesn’t work either—if the goal is to maximize each man’s spreading of genetic material. For that, orgies work far better than one man and one woman giving their lives only to each other.
If we obey Jesus only when the culture is neutral enough to allow us to do so and still win on our own terms, then Jesus is not Lord and we are not his disciples—he is our disciple and we are his lord. And if we must adopt anti-Christlike character to win Christian victories over a secular culture, then perhaps we should wonder what’s gone wrong. When the centurions start to look more valiant than the crucified, then maybe our culture wars have taken us away from the Cross and toward something else.
If the American church thinks “Turn the other cheek” is surrender and weakness, wait until they hear “Take up your cross and follow me.”
Russell Moore is editor in chief of Christianity Today.
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