Monday, September 9, 2013

Jesus said, “Do Not Resist Evil” — Does that include Syrian President Bashar Assad?

In a recent blog I discussed the question of "What to do about Evil in the world?"  What to do with evil in the world is precisely the question facing the Citizens of the United States today through their elected representatives and senators in the American Congress.  The Obama administration has released intelligence whose credibility has not been challenged that President Bashar Assad of Syria used chemical weapons on citizens of Syria in the rebel-held section of Damascus killing a reported 1,429 people, 426 of them were children.  President Obama condemned the atrocity, which he says demands a military response on the part of the civilized world.  Congress is now considering a proposal to approve a limited and targeted military response against Assad and Syria, a nation that signed the Geneva Protocol of 1925 to ban the use of deadly gases on the battlefield. (Information from an Associated Press release "What makes Syria's chemical use 'red line.'")
Proposition: The use of sarin gas on a civilian population whatever the reason is an evil act.  What is sarin gas?  See the report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It appears that only France has stepped forward, after the British Parliament said "no," to stand beside the U.S. president in what started out to be President Obama's unilateral act to punish Assad for violating the 1925 Geneva Protocol, but now France has asked for more time to consult their national legislature, while President Obama has taken the issue to Congress.
So what does our country do about this particular evil act?  I am afraid that we will not find much help from Jesus on this particular question; he said "Love your enemies" (Luke 6:27) and "do not resist evil" (or the evil person, or the evil one, Matt 5:39).  Frankly as a standard for nations to apply not only are these ideas not practical, but they are dangerous to the nations that apply them.  (Or did Jesus really say that it was "time to take up the sword"? Luke 22:35-36.)  Should Congress support the President and risk plunging the nation deeper into the Syrian civil war?  Or should our country simply ignore Assad's use of sarin gas now for the second time?
Polls tell us that the American public is war-weary and America cannot continue being the world's "policeman."  But, on the other hand, does America's position in the world impose some responsibility for taking some kind of action?  Would not our isolationist tendencies in this regard, and our anti-war marches amount to condoning the use of sarin gas by Assad, and in so doing would we not be strengthening his hand for further use of chemical weapons?
Quite frankly I do not wish to live in a world where evil goes unopposed.  And that means sometimes those who do violence in the world must be opposed with force. We live in a world where ethical choices more often than not are dirty shades of grey, and our choice is not between absolute right and absolute wrong but between dark grey and a lighter shade of grey.  That is to say, whatever your ethical choice it is likely hurtful to someone.  But in this case, using sarin gas on a civilian population will always be an evil act!  It is not a dirty shade of grey!  And it is right that President Bashar Assad and Syria should be held accountable by the world community, war-weary or not.
I am not a "hawk," although I am a retired soldier (Korean War era, and reactivated from reserve status for the first Gulf War).  I would prefer that we not initiate military action against Syria, but doing nothing is not an option.
Elie Wiesel in a Commencement Address at Washington University in 2011 said: "My commandment is: you shall not stand idly by.  When you see an injustice, do not stand idly by.  You must intervene, you must interfere." (
I have wondered why the Obama administration has not at least sought the prosecution of Assad as a war criminal before the International Court of Justice at the Hague. Is it not true that doing nothing in itself is criminal, while standing idly by makes us all complicit in Assad's crime?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


  1. Charlie, this deserves a wider audience. I hope you will consider submitting this somewhere for publication. Your are correct; sometimes the best choice is not an option and we must choose the "least worst." The world is indeed many shades of gray.

    Marcia Morriset

  2. I like this very much - especially the fact that our need to take action rests not on "America's special place in the world," but on the expectation that all of us have an obligation to interfere (at some level, in some way, to the best of our ability) when injustice occurs.


  3. Charlie,

    Many shades of grey indeed, e.g. is the fact that millions of Americans are suffering and dying from malnutrition, lack of medical care, mental illness, lack of income, discrimination, etc. any less evil than the few hundred Syrian casualties of poison gas? Do Americans have any less responsibility to our own than we do the Syrians? Is the risk of Assad leaving Syrian government and being replaced by an even more violent government or even continued civil war to be considered? Americans have certainly witnessed to some very bad outcomes of our efforts to replace dictators in Africa and the middle east.
    Should the President go against the vast majority of Americans and order a military strike against Syria? I hardly know the answers to my own questions, but felt the need to add to the complexity of moral decision making. Our world is a hell of a place-thus so many afraid of possibly suffering an even worse one following our deaths.


    1. Good Morning, Jim!
      You have indeed increased the complexity of moral decision making! Does your figure "millions of Americans suffering and dying" come from your general impression or can you cite studies to support the figure? I do not doubt that we have great needs in this country crying to be met, but I am curious to know if someone has quantified your number. I agree with you that we in this country are as responsible for correcting the injustices in this country as we are for addressing injustice outside our borders. In short injustice and evil must be addressed wherever it raises its ugly head. There is, however, the practical matter of do how I as an individual go about addressing the "millions suffering from injustice in this country." The average person simply doesn't know how to go about doing that. I know the channels through which to address such issues in my own community but throughout the country??? Perhaps you have some suggestions? And if we do find ways to address "the millions suffering in this country" would that relieve us of the responsibility of addressing the deaths of "the few hundred Syrian casualties"?

    2. Charlie,

      It is easy to throw around numbers like I did in my comments to you, and also easy to google the 'net, e.g. poor in America. Many sites with statistics @ America's poor come up, e.g. that reports $49 million+ struggle to put food on the table or which reports 84 million lack adequate medical care. Various causes of this disparity surely exist, and perhaps the first is likely ignorance, stupidity, disadvantaged, etc, on the part of the poor. I tend to believes the 2nd most likely reason is that expressed by blogger Cary Fuller: "Poverty in America is not accidental. It is a direct result of funneling wealth upward to the elite". If this is the case, it seems to be our responsibility to vote for public servants that are more sensitive to the needs of the disadvantaged than the needs of the most advantaged- Fuller and I seeing the latter as present government/economic policy.

      With regards to addressing the evil in Syria, the U.S. recent experiences attempting to do so by military means reminds me that our policy should first be to not make a bad situation even worse. This clearly being the case in Iraq and perhaps also in Afghanistan. A U.S. military response in Syria may well turn out the same way.


  4. Hello Charlie,

    I would certainly regard “Do not resist evil” as part of the philosophy of the writer of Matthew, not of Jesus. The former, being a Messianic Jew, was apparently generalizing from “turn the other cheek,” which he likely drew on from Lam 3:30.

    Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple, on the other hand, appears genuine in essence, and indicates that he certainly did oppose evil. So also did his warnings to avoid the false (and therefore evil) teachings of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus wouldn’t have been known as a wisdom teacher if he kept contradicting himself – saying or demonstrating to resist evil sometimes and to not resist evil at other times. One must pick judiciously as to which statements likely originated from Jesus and which did not.

  5. Good afternoon, Jim,
    It is certainly possible that the saying Matt 5:39a is an invention of Matthew, since there is no parallel to the saying in Mark or Q--nor as far as I know anyplace else in the ancient world. If that is the case, Matthew is a creative writer indeed. Your citation of Lamentations 3:30 as a parallel to "turn the other cheek" (Matt 5:39b = Luke 6:29), which I regard as from Q, is interesting. Your argument that Matthew created Matt 5:39a and put it on Jesus' lips as the general truth of the "turn the other cheek" saying which Matthew knew from Lamentations 3:30 is compromised by the fact that Matthew does not cite the book of Lamentations--nor for that matter does any other NT writer! Further the Jesus Seminar has made an argument that both the "do not resist evil" saying and the "turn the other cheek" saying originate with Jesus. I don't know of anyone else, besides yourself, who challenges the originality of both sayings.
    The "temple cleansing," in the Jesus Seminar Acts of Jesus book becomes "an incident in the temple," and is not nearly so violent as it appears in the synoptic gospels and John. The idea that Jesus is a wisdom teacher is a Q tradition, clearly appearing in Matthew and Luke, but not as such in Mark and John.

  6. Hi Charlie,

    If I may respond: I’d say that the writer of Matthew wasn’t so much creative as he was very well steeped in the Scriptures, and intent upon inserting pieces from them wherever possible into his source. (He was not always accurate of course.)

    Sometimes he didn’t mention that he drew from an OT source or a prophet, as in Mt 9:13a, 10:35- 36. 18:16, 19:5, 19:18b-19a, 19:19b, 23:39b, 24:30, 27:46. A handy reference for these and all the others where the writer wanted the reader to know it had come from the Scriptures is at:

    In the case of Lam 5:39b the writer didn’t refer to the Scriptures, perhaps because it wasn’t then known who wrote Lamentations – apparently it’s still not at all certain if Jeremiah wrote it.

    Whatever way the Jesus Seminar described “the incident in the temple,” their source was the Gospels, where it’s clear that Jesus strongly resisted what he knew to be evil, though in so doing he did not inflict actual injury upon anyone. That Seminar decided that one of the criteria for genuineness should be dissimilarity of the saying from ordinary Judaic thought or even from rational thought (if I may stretch it a bit). Thus the Seminar would approve Mt 6:19a (Do not have a savings account), if I recall right, as well as “turn the other cheek.”