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Defining "Resist not Evil" and the Proper Use of Force

Posted Jun 20, 2024 by Danutasn Brown in Christian Life Style
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This article will address and define the proper use of force, injury, and non-resistance and non-violence in the context of Jesus’s command to “Resist not evil” in Matthew 5:39

The Proper Use of Force

Adin Ballou, the great Christian philosopher of non-violence, explains some important points that many misunderstand in chapter 1 - Explanatory Definitions of his classic 1846 work “Christian Non-Resistance.” The first is that this philosophy, which comes from Jesus saying “Resist not evil” but instead “turn the other cheek,” does not mean being passive in regard to evil. Dictators and tyrants want to explain it that way, that citizens must just accept whatever the dictator decides without resistance. This type of non-resistance is different to the Christian form:

“Necessitous non-resistance, commonly expressed in the phrase, ‘passive obedience and non-resistance,’ imperiously preached by despots to their subjects, as their indispensable duty and highest virtue; also recommended by worldly prudence to the victims of oppression when unable to offer successful resistance to their injurers.

With this last mentioned kind Christian Non-Resistance has nothing in common.”

This form of non-resistance is total passiveness in the face of evil, and we will see that what Christ means is that we not use sinful, injurious resistance. Moral resistance of a higher, holy nature is allowed, for of course we “resist the devil.” (James 4:7) And furthermore, he states that there is a “uninjurious benevolent use of force.” Let us let him explain:

The term "non-resistance"

The term non-resistance itself next demands attention. It requires very considerable qualifications. I use it as applicable only to the conduct of human beings towards human beings - not towards the inferior animals, inanimate things, or satanic influences. If an opponent, willing to make me appear ridiculous, should say - "You are a non-resistant, and therefore must be passive to all assailing beings, things and influences, to Satan, man, beast, bird, serpent, insect, rocks, timbers, fires, floods, heat, cold and storm," - I should answer, not so; my non-resistance relates solely to conduct between human beings.

This is an important limitation of the term. But I go further, and disclaim using the term to express absolute passivity, even towards human beings. I claim the right to offer the utmost moral resistance, not sinful, of which God has made me capable, to every manifestation of evil among mankind. Nay, I hold it my duty to offer such moral resistance. In this sense my very non-resistance becomes the highest kind of resistance to evil.

This is another important qualification of the term. But I do not stop here. There is an uninjurious, benevolent physical force. There are cases in which it would not only be allowable, but in the highest degree commendable, to restrain human beings by this kind of force. Thus, maniacs, the insane, the delirious sick, ill-natured children, the intellectually or morally non-compos mentis, the intoxicated and the violently passionate, are frequently disposed to perpetrate outrages and inflict injuries, either on themselves or others, which ought to be kindly and uninjuriously prevented by the muscular energy of their friends. And in cases where deadly violence is inflicted with deliberation and malice aforethought, one may nobly throw his body as a temporary barrier between the destroyer and his helpless victim, choosing to die in that position, rather than be a passive spectator.

Thus another most important qualification is given to the term non-resistance. It is not non-resistance to animals and inanimate things, nor to Satan, but only to human beings. Nor is it moral non-resistance to human beings, but chiefly physical. Nor is it physical non-resistance to all human beings, under all circumstances, but only so far as to abstain totally from the infliction of personal injury, as a means of resistance. It is simply non-resistance of injury with injury - evil with evil.

So we see that using force to restrain a psychotic man who is hurting himself is ok – the goal is not to injure him, but to restrain him. Now this does raise some questions about the use martial arts to restrain or stop a person. These each individual must think according to his own conscience and relationship with God. What is forbidden is to return injury with injury:

The almost universal opinion and practice of mankind has been on the side of resistance of injury with injury. It has been held justifiable and necessary, for individuals and nations to inflict any amount of injury which would effectually resist a supposed greater injury. The consequence has been universal suspicion, defiance, armament, violence, torture and bloodshed. The earth has been rendered a vast slaughter-field - a theatre of reciprocal cruelty and vengeance - strewn with human skulls, reeking with human blood, resounding with human groans, and steeped with human tears. Men have become drunk with mutual revenge; and they who could inflict the greatest amount of injury, in pretended defense of life, honor, rights, property, institutions and laws, have been idolized as the heroes and rightful sovereigns of the world.

Non-Resistance explodes this horrible delusion; announces the impossibility of overcoming evil with evil; and, making its appeal directly to all the injured of the human race, enjoins on them, in the name of God, never more to resist injury with injury, assuring them that by adhering to the law of love under all provocations, and scrupulously suffering wrong, rather than inflicting it, they shall gloriously "overcome evil with good," and exterminate all their enemies by turning them into faithful friends.

Here we see clearly the idealistic hope Ballou has for this doctrine; his belief that it has the power to end the seemingly endless cycle of human suffering. 

But still the question of definitions still remains. What about "force"? Ellen White talks about God not using force: "Satan's deceptive power was to be broken. This could not be done by force. The exercise of force is contrary to the principles of God's government..." (DA 22) What kind of force? Surely not the “force of love,” for God is love. Ballou addresses the term “force”.

The term "force," etc.

Having thus qualified and defined the term non-resistance, it would seem proper to do the same with several others, frequently made use of in the discussion of our general subject. One of these terms is force. Non-Resistants, like others, have been in the habit of using this, and similar terms too loosely; thereby giving needless occasion for misunderstanding, on the part of the uninformed, and misrepresentation on the part of interested opposers. The word force is thus defined by Walker: "strength, vigor, might, violence, virtue, efficacy, validness, power of law, armament, warlike preparation, destiny, necessity, fatal compulsion." Now if we should use the word force, as the contrary of non-resistance, without any qualification, the idea would be conveyed that non-resistance was identical with absolute passivity, and that it necessarily excluded all kinds and degrees of force, under all circumstances whatsoever.

The generic meaning of the term force is "strength, victor, might," whether physical or moral. Thus we may speak of the force of love, the force of truth, the force of public opinion, the force of moral suasion, the force of non-resistance. Or we may speak of the force of gravitation, the force of cohesion, the force of repulsion, &c. Or in relation to the muscular force of human beings, we may speak of benevolent force, kind force, uninjurious force; meaning thereby various applications of muscular strength for the purpose of preventing human beings committing on themselves or others some injury; in which prevention no personal injury is inflicted, but real kindness and benefit done to all parties concerned. As non-resistance is not identical with absolute passivity, but allows, implies and requires various kinds and degrees of moral and physical "strength," according to circumstances, the term force must not be used as its converse; unless it be with such qualifications, or in such a connection, as will give it some one of its conventional significations, so that it shall mean violence, warlike force, positive vengeance, destructive force - in fine, INJURIOUS FORCE. Injurious force of all kinds and degrees, between human beings, is incompatible with non-resistance. Such are the qualifications with which the term force will be used in this work.

The term moral force will be understood from the preceding remarks, as synonymous with moral power - the effective influence of moral "strength, vigor, might." Physical force, as distinguished from moral force, is a term used to express the idea of material force, the action of one body on another, compelling the weaker to yield to the stronger by mere animal strength or mechanical power. As moral force may be either good or evil, injurious or uninjurious, according to its kind, its object, its spirit, or its manner of application; so may physical force be good or evil, injurious or uninjurious, according to the same considerations.

When a licentious man corrupts the mind of an innocent youth by bad examples, bad counsel, bad maxims, and other evil influences, in which there is no physical force, he exerts a most injurious moral force. He demoralizes the principles and habits of one, whom he ought to encourage and confirm in virtue. When a good man converts a sinner from the error of his ways, by good examples, counsels, maxims and other purifying influences, he exerts a most beneficent and salutary moral force. So when a man by physical force destroys or impairs the life, intellect, moral sentiment, or absolute welfare of a human being, he uses an injurious physical force. But in restraining a madman from outrage, or holding a delirious sick person on the bed, or compelling an ill-natured child to desist from tearing out the hair of a weaker brother, or interposing his body and muscular strength to prevent rape, or any similar act, wherein he does no one a real injury, while he renders to some or all the parties concerned a real benefit, he uses a rightful uninjurious physical force.

So we see here that when we say, “we will not force anyone, just as God doesn’t force anyone,” we mean through injurious moral, and more particularly, physical force. Some take this to mean we should never use physical force at all, but Ballou makes it clear in this last paragraph that there is good not-injurious physical force, and he gives some examples of it: “restraining a madman from outrage, or holding a delirious sick person on the bed, or compelling an ill-natured child to desist from tearing out the hair of a weaker brother…” etc.

Ballou continues:

Again: a child dangerously sick requires some medical application. very disagreeable, yet indispensable to his recovery, which can only be applied by physical force. Or an insane adult is in the same circumstances. Or a person infected with hydrophobia, and subject to terrible paroxysms of the disease, needs to be confined; and yet for want of judgment, even in his intervals, refuses to be. Or a man subject to violent impulses of propensity or passion, rendering him dangerous to all around him when excited, needs to be excluded from general society, or otherwise watched and restrained by keepers, in order to prevent serious mischief to others; and yet he resents und resists all entreaties to submit to such restriction. Or a wicked man is exceedingly alarmed, disturbed and offended by a truthful exposure of his iniquitous proceedings, or by the faithful remonstrances and rebukes of some good man.

Now in all such cases the will must be crossed, the personal freedom abridged, and the feelings pained. Must it not be an injury to coerce, restrain, expose and reprove such persons, however necessary to their and the public good, and however kindly executed? Is it not generally more intolerable to be crossed in one's will, and wounded in one's feelings, than to be beaten, maimed and otherwise maltreated? Answer: It is not man's imaginations, thoughts, and feelings, that determine what is, or is not injurious to him. Love itself may "heap coals of fire on a man's head." Truth may torment his mind. The most benevolent restraint may be painful to his feelings. He may be made, for a while, quite unhappy by crossing his evil will. He may prefer to be smitten and mutilated, rather than be exposed in his secret iniquities, or endure the faithful reproof of the upright. Such persons often prefer an injury to a benefit. They are not, for the time being, in a state of mind to understand and choose what is best for them. Therefore their wills, feelings, and opinions are not the indices of their own good - much less that of others.

Is it good for a capricious obstinate child to be indulged in opposing a necessary medical application? Is it good for an insane or delirious sick adult to have his own will, even to the commission of murder and self-destruction? Is it good for a man to have unlimited freedom, when he will almost certainly make it a curse to himself and others, by gross involuntary outrage, or uncontrollable passion? Is it good for a wicked man, under specious hypocritical disguises, to perpetrate the most atrocious mischief, unexposed and unreproved? These things are not good for mankind. On the contrary, it is good for them to be crossed, restrained, coerced and reproved, by all uninjurious moral and physical forces, which benevolence prompts and wisdom dictates. To cross their wills, and pain their feelings, by such means, under such circumstances, is not an injury, but a substantial good, to them and all who are connected with them.

It may be said, "These things cannot be done uninjuriously. It would be impracticable." Cannot unreasonable children be nursed, delirious adults controlled, dangerously distempered people prevented from doing themselves and others harm, outrageous non-compos persons restrained, hypocrites exposed, and sinners reproved without inflicting injury on them? Then can nothing good be done without doing evil? Imperfection is indeed incidental to all human judgment and conduct; and therefore it is probable that some mistakes and some accidental injuries might happen. But the reason and common sense of mankind, once fairly pledged to the true principle of action, would seldom fail to discharge all these duties to general satisfaction.

Still it may be asked: "What is to be done if uninjurious force should prove inadequate? May life be sacrificed, limbs broken, the flesh mangled, or any other injuries allowed in extreme cases?" Never. The principle of non-injury must be held inviolable. It is worth worlds, and must be preserved at all hazards. What cannot be done uninjuriously must be left undone. But these extreme cases are mostly imaginary. The truth is, that what cannot be done uninjuriously can scarcely ever be done at all. Or if done, had better have been let alone. Experience in the case of the insane has already proved that incomparably more can be done by uninjurious forces, scrupulously and judiciously employed, than by any admixtures of the injurious element.

This last point is interesting: using injurious force on the insane has not worked; it hasn’t made their condition better. I hope it is clear that this doctrine of Christian non-resistance, or non-violence, or no-force, whatever we may call it, doesn’t mean doing nothing. Ballou has given many examples of how force CAN be used, properly and righteously. See the booklet at the end of this article.

Finally Ballou explains in detail what Jesus meant when He said “Resist not evil.” It definitely doesn’t mean we should just allow evil to happen, letting evil be done because we cannot resist it. His technical breakdown of all this is extremely helpful to us:

The key text of Non-Resistance

Now let us examine Matthew 5: 39, "I say unto you, resist not evil," &c. This single text, from which, as has been stated, the term non-resistance took its rise, if justly construed, furnishes a complete key to the true bearings, limitations and applications of the doctrine under discussion. This is precisely one of those precepts which may be easily made to mean much more, or much less, than its author intended. It is in the intensive, condensed form of expression, and can be understood only by a due regard to its context. What did the divine teacher mean by the word evil, and what by the word resist?

There are several kinds of evil.

1. Pain, loss, damage, suffered from causes involving no moral agency, or natural evil.

2. Sin in general, or moral evil.

3. Temptations to sin, or spiritual evil.

4. Personal wrong, insult, outrage, injury, or personal evil.

Which of these kinds of evil does the context show to have been in our Savior's mind when he said "resist not evil?" Was he speaking of fires, floods, famine, disease, serpents, wild beasts, or any other mere natural evil agents? No. Then of course he does not prohibit our resisting such evil.

Was he speaking of sin in general? No. Then of course he does not prohibit our resisting such evil by suitable means.

Was he speaking of temptations addressed to our propensities and passions, enticing us to commit sin? No. Then of course he does not prohibit our resisting the devil, withstanding the evil suggestions of our own carnal mind, and suppressing our evil lusts.

Was he speaking of personal evil, injury personally inflicted by man on man? Yes. "Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth; but I say unto you that ye resist not evil," i.e. personal outrage, insult, affront - injury. The word evil necessarily means, in this connection, personal injury, or evil inflicted by human beings on human beings.

But what did Jesus mean by the words "resist not"? There are various kinds of resistance which may be offered to personal injury, when threatened or actually inflicted.

There is passive resistance - a dead silence, a sullen inertia, a complete muscular helplessness - an utter refusal to speak, or move. Does the context show that Jesus contemplated, pro or con, any such resistance in his prohibition? No.

There is an active righteous moral resistance - a meek, firm remonstrance, rebuke, reproof, protestation. Does the connection show that Jesus prohibits this kind of resistance? No.

There is an active, firm, compound, moral and physical resistance, uninjurious to the evil-doer, and only calculated to restrain him from deadly violence or extreme outrage. Was Jesus contemplating such modes of resisting personal injury? Does the context show that he intended to prohibit all resistance of evil by such means? No.

There is a determined resistance of personal injury by means of injury inflicted, as when a man deliberately takes life to save life, destroys an assailant's eye to save an eye, inflicts a violent blow to prevent a blow; or, as when, in retaliation, he takes life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, &c. Or, as when, by means of governmental agencies, he causes an injurious person to be punished by the infliction of some injury equivalent to the one he has inflicted or attempted. It was of such resistance as this, that our Savior was speaking. It is such resistance as this, that he prohibits. His obvious doctrine is: Resist not personal injury with personal injury.

May all of this be more and more clear for us. We need the spirit of Christ to know how to act in each situation, but at least with this guiding principle we will know better. Thus to conclude:

If smitten on the one cheek, they must submit the other to outrage, rather than smite back. If the life of their dearest friend has been taken, or an eye or a tooth thrust out, or any other wrong been done to themselves or their fellow men, they must not render evil for evil, or railing for railing, or hatred for hatred. But they are not prohibited from resisting, opposing, preventing, or counteracting the injuries inflicted, attempted or threatened by man on man, in the use of any absolutely uninjurious forces, whether moral or physical. On the contrary, it is their bounden duty, by all such benevolent resistances, to promote the safety and welfare, the holiness and happiness of all human beings, as opportunity may offer.

For more detail on the question of using force to defend others, check this article: What about using injurious force to protect others?

And we have made a booklet compiling many examples of non-resisting evil in this booklet: