Don’t Let Nero Burn You at the Stake on Purpose
It is common for people to take individual Bible verses and interpret them in bizarre ways that contradict common sense or other parts of the Bible. Both Christians and skeptics sometimes do this.
For example, a few years ago a non-Christian friend tried to use a verse from the Book of Matthew to try to prove to me that Christians should absolutely never “fight back”.
Matthew 5:38,39 Ye have heard that it hath been 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.
My friend’s interpretation of this verse is not unique. Throughout history, there have been many who used this verse to justify extreme pacifism as a Christian virtue. A girl I met in Iceland once told me she abandoned Christianity and started worshiping Odin because of her disgust with the historic pacifism of the Lutheran church. She understood that the Western World has to fight back against Islamic terrorism, and the Lutheran church was forbidding it.
When I did not agree with my friend’s interpretation of this verse, she responded that I was just “picking and choosing” the parts of the Bible I wanted to believe.
At the time, I did not know how to respond, but I have an answer now.
In general, it is a bad idea to start with “This verse doesn’t mean what it sounds like”, but if the way you are interpreting a verse doesn’t mesh with the rest of scripture, then your interpretation is probably wrong. The Bible is replete with stories about heroic individuals who ‘fought back’, heroes whom we are meant to emulate. So whatever this verse in Matthew means, it cannot be advocating for pacifism. If the Bible supported pacifism, it would be a consistent theme from front to back.
After a bit of digging, I found some viable alternative interpretations for this verse. In keeping with the rest of Scripture, and taking the context into consideration, it is probably more accurate to interpret it in the following manner:
1. Leave justice to the court system. (The Pharisees and their disciples had a tendency to take the law into their own hands, not perceiving a distinction between civil justice and personal vengeance. They were taking advantage of their aristocratic authority.)
2. Be slow to anger.
3. Do not escalate petty conflicts.
4. Do not get fazed when you think someone has insulted you.