Jesus' Sunna of Peace

by David L. Johnston

Dialog between various religious partners is not about melting differences into one tepid spiritual brew. Yet as we retain the distinctives at the core of our faith, we should enter the conversation with open hearts, attentive ears, and minds eager to learn. I’ve gained so much and have become a better follower of Jesus through my interaction with Muslim friends over the years. It works in the other direction as well.

The above title might have read, “Jesus’ Way of Peace.” But in the Islamic tradition there is a delightful way of parsing every word and deed of the Prophet Muhammad so as to truly enter into the revelation of the Qur’an and extend it to daily life. This is known as the “Sunna” – literally “the way of the Prophet” or his gracious example.

Sometimes Protestants have emulated Paul more than Jesus, and thereby impoverished their understanding of God’s Kingdom, which Jesus came to preach and demonstrate.

Here I ask both my Christian and Muslim friends to take a fresh look at the Sermon on the Mount in order to discern Jesus’ way of peace, an embodied teaching that inspired the likes of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and others. Here are Gandhi’s words:

“The message of Jesus, as I understand it, is contained in the Sermon on the Mount…. It is that Sermon which has endeared Jesus to me…. The message, to my mind, has suffered distortion in the West…. Much of what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount” (Pinchas Lapide, The Sermon on the Mount: Utopia or Program for Action? p. 3).

As I see it, Fuller Seminary ethicist and Baptist theologian Glen Stassen has done a lot to recover the potency of Jesus’ practice of peacemaking. His groundbreaking work in 1992, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace, offered a dynamic reading of the Sermon on the Mount and then delineated seven steps for achieving peace in zones of conflict. One chapter tells about how he had been on the inside track of the peace movement that in the 1980s succeeded in getting both Soviets and Americans to destroy their middle-range nuclear missiles in Europe.

Then a decade later, with the growing acceptance of his “just peacemaking” paradigm, he edited Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War. Thirty international scholars contributed to this work.

Finally, in 2004 he co-wrote a large volume with his former student David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (IVP), which garnered the top Christianity Today book award that year.

This is a brief summary of a three-blog series I just posted on my website. The Sermon on the Mount, argue Stassen and Gushee, is made up of fourteen triads (traditional righteousness – vicious cycle – transforming initiative) on different topics. Traditionally, scholars had seen only dyads (“you have heard it said … but I tell you”), but this led to a reading of the Sermon that was both legalistic and unrealistic. Over the centuries, it had often been dismissed – or just sidelined – because the ideals seemed too unattainable. Yet the Sermon is all about “transforming initiatives,” they argue.

As an example, take the passage about not exacting revenge:

Traditional Righteousness:

Matt. 5:38: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”

Vicious Cycle:

Matt. 5:39: “But I say to you, do not retaliate revengefully by evil means.”

Transforming Initiative:

Matt. 5:40-42: “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give your coat as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse one who would borrow from you.”

The series of fourteen “transforming initiatives” are easy to spot: their verbs are almost always imperatives (like, “turn the other cheek”), and they form the climax of each subsection.

Here, Jesus refers to the law of the talion: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Clearly taught by the Old Testament, it was in fact widespread in the Ancient Near East and went back to early Babylonian times. Yet it’s inadequate, Jesus says, because it will just feed into a vicious circle of revenge and counter-revenge. In other words, human nature being what it is, people will always be tempted to fight back “by evil means.” And it never stops.

The way out of the quagmire is to take action from a forgiving heart – an action that will urge opponents to rethink their bad deed and take advantage of the hand of friendship held out to them. It will take them by surprise, catch them off guard, and give them a chance for reconciliation.

"What if someone slaps you?" asks Jesus. "Turn the other cheek," he answers. This in no way means playing the doormat and asking for more abuse. But you have to see this action in its first-century Palestinian context (Roman-occupied Israel was actually called “Palestine”):

“In Jesus’ culture, ‘to be struck on the right cheek was to be given a hostile, back-handed insult’ with the back of the right hand. In that culture, it was forbidden to touch or strike anyone with the left hand; the left hand was for dirty things. To turn the other cheek was to surprise the insulter, saying, nonviolently, ‘you are treating me as an unequal, but I need to be treated as an equal.’ Jesus is saying: if you are slapped on the cheek of inferiority, turn the cheek of equal dignity.”

In essence, to turn your left cheek to the adversary was to resist evil in a nonviolent way. The same goes for a Roman soldier who forces a Jew to walk a mile carrying his equipment. While some Jewish men, the so-called “zealots,” chose to kill Roman soldiers whenever possible, Jesus says to bless them instead. By walking an extra mile, the Jew had the chance to catch the soldier “off guard” and initiate friendship.

This initiative aims toward peace and reconciliation. We know of course the story about the Roman centurion who pleaded with Jesus to heal his young servant – and do so at a distance, because he did not consider himself worthy enough to have Jesus enter his home. Jesus turned to the crowd, saying, “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” (Matt. 8:10).

This, of course, was the strategy behind Gandhi’s nonviolent mass protests which in the end succeeded in ousting the British occupier, and behind Martin Luther King’s use of direct action for the sake of civil rights for all, and behind the best impulses of the Arab Spring. This is also the spirit and tactic of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian friends working for justice and peace in Israel-Palestine, as documented in Little Town of Bethlehem.

It’s up to us all to do more in our own contexts of hate, suspicion and injustice – reaching to the depths of our souls to find the creativity, compassion, and courage that God wants to give us for this peacebuilding mission.

More by David Johnston can be found at www.humantrustees.org