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    sea of Galilee

    How to Win Enemies

    Augustine of Hippo and Howard Thurman of Daytona Beach follow the shocking implications of Jesus’ teachings on violence in the Sermon on the Mount.

    By Myles Werntz

    March 4, 2023
    • Michael Nacrelli

      It seems pretty clear that Augustine's sermon cited here isn't addressing the subject of just war ethics, but how Christians are to respond personally (and corporately) to violent persecution by unjust rulers, which is a very different matter.

    The Sermon on the Mount stands at the heart of multiple theological traditions and controversies, particularly its teachings on violence. Some insist that Jesus meant for us to live out these teachings fully now; others argue that this will only be possible when he returns. But what if the practical dictates of the Sermon are not the first thing we ought to focus on? What if instead of asking, “Is the Sermon practical?” or “Does nonviolence work?” we ask instead, “In what way does the virtue of Christ work in a violent world?” Two very different figures who have asked this question are Augustine of Hippo and Howard Thurman of Daytona Beach.

    Augustine on the Sermon’s Call to Suffer the Unjust

    Augustine preached on parts of the Sermon several times, and finally, in 393–394, sat down to write a full-length exposition of it. The Sermon is, he says, ultimately a teaching on the nature of wisdom: the Beatitudes are a kind of ladder to be climbed, with each step preparation for the next. We ascend through the Beatitudes, through poverty of spirit and mourning evil, through meekness and mercy, in order that we might be able to be pure in heart, to see God. Treating the Beatitudes as maxims that build on one another, he writes:

    Therefore, there are seven maxims which constitute perfection, for the eighth starts anew, as it were, from the very beginning: it clarifies and approves what is already complete. Thus, all the other grades of perfection are accomplished through these seven.footnote

    Put differently, the eighth Beatitude, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me,” is the one that culminates the first seven and clarifies them. It is the one that ties them together.

    Augustine identifies bearing injustice for the sake of the kingdom, and the witness this suffering makes, directly with the work of Pentecost:

    “We glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation works out endurance; and endurance trial; and trial, hope. And hope does not confound, because the love of God is diffused in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” [Rom. 5:3–5]. Now the profitable thing is, not suffering those evils, but bearing them with equanimity and cheerfulness for the sake of Christ.

    The virtues of the Beatitudes – being meek, hungering after righteousness, mourning wickedness – are all made visible in this: being the kind of people who would rather suffer for being the people of God than give up the way of the Sermon. Suffering injustice for the kingdom is what makes known the kingdom of God at work in the soul by the power of the Spirit. At each point in the Sermon, the justice to which Christians are called is the “higher righteousness,” and in no way more explicitly than in bearing witness to God’s righteousness while being unjustly punished and refusing to repay violence in turn.

    The Imperfection of Virtuous Living: Suffering for the Unjust

    The world is not an ideal place, and there are times, Augustine says, when one might need to follow the lesser righteousness, such as in taking an oath due to “the infirmity of those whom you are trying to persuade with regard to something.” It is “the infirmity” – that is, the sinfulness of the person who commands the oath – that guides our enactment of the Sermon, he says. When he comes to Matthew 5:38–42, then, Augustine has this account of bearing witness to the perfect justice, for the sake of the unjust, firmly in place.

    To return an eye for an eye, he says, is part of the journey toward justice, because it’s better than escalating revenge. And to show some forgiveness in this way is to be on the way to the perfection of the kingdom. But the fullness here is not simply to forgo violence that would otherwise be permitted by the Law. If the Beatitudes’ capstone is being willing to suffer injustice, then how we respond to violence ups the bar beyond simply not returning violence for violence:

    Even if a man rises above this degree of perfection, and does not retaliate at all, he is, of course, coming closer to the Lord’s precept, but he has not yet reached it. For even if you return no evil for the evil you receive, the Lord seems to deem it insufficient unless you are ready to receive even further evil.

    Once again, his concern is for the conversion of those persons who commit the injustice, as in his description of the practice of the eighth Beatitude. Unlike previous teachings in the Sermon, Augustine notes, this action is made visible in Christ’s example: Jesus “was prepared not only to be struck on the other cheek for the salvation of all, but even to have his whole body nailed to a cross.”

    In sum, for the sinner to be drawn into the kingdom, unjust suffering proves to be the action that most closely mirrors the work of Christ and is most clearly identified with the work of the Spirit in Acts. It is the perfect witness to the kingdom: Why would a person not just suffer injustice, but prepare for it? What would move a human to behave like this?

    This vision – that the way to amend injustice is by the conversion of one’s enemies through suffering their injustice without returning violence – sounds less like the Augustine-quoting realists of the twentieth century who sought to wield state power to pursue a positive vision of the good, and more like a very different twentieth century Christian: Martin Luther King Jr.

    To suffer injustice, as the form that righteousness takes in the world, King writes in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, requires “self-purification.” To persuade the unjust of their injustice requires not only accepting the burden of suffering unjustly, but persistently, patiently putting the question to the unjust, refusing to take up violence – and doing so not as an a priori commitment to nonviolence but as the visibility of the Sermon. It is to Howard Thurman, King’s mentor on this point, that we now turn.

    portraits of Howard Thurman and Augustine of Hippo

    Howard Thurman on Suffering, Violence, and Spiritual Preparation

    In our recent book A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence, David Cramer and I describe Thurman as offering a vision of mystical nonviolence, that is, the view that the first work needed to enact nonviolence is the work done in the soul. Christians come to God with closed hands, and it is only through prayer that our hands become open, not only to receive God but also to receive the neighbors whom we sometimes call our enemies. Fear blocks us at every turn, Thurman writes: we fear losing the ones we love, our property, our own lives. But this fear is turned out by love of God, a love that enables us to embrace our enemies.

    Augustine begins his commentary on the Sermon by looking at its logic and grammar, but Thurman, in his Jesus and the Disinherited, begins inductively, asking what we learn of the Sermon and our response to violence through the experience of unjust suffering itself:

    Many and varied are the interpretations dealing with the teachings and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. But few of these interpretations deal with what the teachings and the life of Jesus have to say to those who stand, at a moment in human history, with their backs against the wall.

    Thurman goes on: Christianity has forgotten the normativity of suffering that Jesus knew. Jesus, a “poor Jew” in Palestine, knew not only economic privation but also what it meant to be a “member of a minority group in the midst of a larger dominant and controlling group.” While others will take this experience of oppression and suffering as reason to not take the Sermon at face value, Thurman runs the other direction.

    Jesus, Thurman writes, embraced none of the options available to the oppressed: withdrawal, assimilation, or resistance. Rather, he rejected the hatred of the enemy that corrupts the soul, and taught his followers to embrace love of the enemy:

    Jesus rejected hatred. It was not because he lacked the vitality or the strength. It was not because he lacked the incentive. Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father.

    Like Augustine, Thurman emphasizes the damage violence-making and hatred-having does to the soul, and stresses that the Sermon directs us toward the purification of the soul if we are to properly address the violence of injustice. What is fitting for the soul dictates what is done in the body, as a witness to the kingdom of God that emerges through the bodies of those willing to suffer injustice, both for God’s sake and for the sake of the unjust. In a series of sermons collected as The Growing Edge, Thurman notes that people are creatures of habit, “the victims of all the forces that play upon their lives, shaping and modeling and fashioning them … The hated one is ever a victim of the predicament of his life!”

    Refusing Violence for the Sake of the Violent

    The confidence here is staggering, that one would be so secure in one’s relationship to God that the enemy and his healing would be the concern. In this, Augustine and Thurman see together. But Thurman goes further than Augustine in putting aside the possibility of violent correction of the unjust, remembering that God infinitely values the soul of the enemy, to whom God gives rain and sun undeserved.

    Augustine, we have seen, opts to counsel Christians to suffer injustice for the sake of the unjust, in imitation of Christ. But Thurman will extend this line of thinking more explicitly in the direction of nonviolence: Christ understood this situation of unjust suffering intimately, and thus is able to counsel us authoritatively in this way, that our souls might be prepared to image the kingdom of God in our bodies.  

    Taken together, it’s a compelling vision more substantive than a reading of the Sermon that looks purely to the tactics of the Sermon, or to how nonviolence might be deployed as one act among others. For both Augustine and Thurman, the love of God for our enemies means that refusing to take up arms against the unjust is intended to promulgate in the public sphere the perfection that God is working in our souls.

    Practically, then, this yields a twofold approach to the practice of suffering injustice. First, the suffering commended is a suffering shared. When Matthew or 1 Peter 2 exhorts us to bear suffering, it is a suffering they themselves share. That the ones suffering are of the same body as the ones not being targeted by the injustice calls for an obligation by the whole body to bear with that suffering, to honor that sacrifice visibly and clearly, to join in that suffering, and to help bear the weakness. What’s more, as Augustine points out, this suffering is one shared not just by the body of Christ, but by the head as well.

    The virtues of the Beatitudes are all made visible in this: being the kind of people who would rather suffer for being the people of God than give up the way of the Sermon.

    But does such solidarity just produce a moral victory? Hooray: now all of us suffer, without any active resistance to the cause of the suffering? This is where Augustine and Thurman’s vision takes an interesting, and perhaps radical, turn: the only way out of unjust suffering is by conversion of the unjust. To produce a policy that ends an injustice ends suffering in the short run and in a very specific form. And there is some value to this. But both Augustine and Thurman have a longer view, both with respect to what is ultimately at stake in unjust suffering (that we bear witness to the kingdom and its righteousness) and with respect to how injustice works. Because the unjust will continue to produce unjust laws, the way forward is the conversion of the unjust so that they join with the ones they have oppressed, in repentance and as one body.

    To this, there is much to add. The emphasis on the role of virtue in Augustine and Thurman is not a call to remain in an abusive marriage, for example, or for people who are suffering to be resigned to their fate. Being willing to remove suffering people from the place of violence, and being willing to suffer for that action, is fully consistent with this vision. As King would take Thurman to mean, suffering the abuse of the unjust is a kind of provocation, a confrontation of injustice and the first step of a movement toward justice.

    But it is an unapologetic turn toward the enemy not as one to be overcome, but as one whose violence is hurting them as well. The good not only of the suffering but also of the enemy is fully in view here, for violence is a rupture not just in individual bodies but in the body politic. The wounds of the innocent are the first concern, but the self-wounding of the violent cannot be forgotten.


    In turning toward this emphasis on virtue, nonviolence comes back to us chastened. The mistake in emphasizing the practicality of the Sermon, particularly on questions of violence, is that sometimes Christians can enact the nonviolence it teaches and it will fail magnificently. As Erika Chenoweth and Maria J. Stevan have cogently argued, even when civil disobedience or mass nonviolence has worked, it has rarely worked apart from many other factors operating alongside it.

    The “arc of the moral universe” of which King speaks is one of hope, not of probability: to enact the Sermon, trusting in the crucified and resurrected Lord that his words are wisdom, is not the guarantee of conversion or of safety. It is, however, the hope that the Lord is the one who, in putting violence to death on the cross, will be the one who renews the violent not by destroying them but by converting them.


    1. All references from Commentary on the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount with Seventeen Related Sermons, transl. Denis J. Kavanagh (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1951). 
    Contributed By portrait of Myles Werntz Myles Werntz

    Myles Werntz is an associate professor of theology and the director of Baptist studies at Abilene Christian University.

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