I believe Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, is affirming the laws of the Old Covenant. He’s fulfilling them and giving them greater meaning, in an effort to explain what life in the kingdom will look like. He’s for sure not throwing out the Law or the Prophets. He’s not suggesting God has changed his mind about the justice thing. In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus is speaking to individuals who may be wronged when face to face with an evil person, and he tells them not to respond by defending their own personal rights, but to instead give up those rights completely. Jesus begins his comments here with Old Testament talk of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” — which, as best as I can tell, is always in reference to vengeance, paying someone back equally for an evil they’ve already done to another. I’m not sure this section offers directive to us in what to do in those moments just before an evil act is done to an individual other than ourselves. I don’t read this text as containing instruction for how we act when someone is oppressing the weak, or taking the lives of those who cannot defend themselves.
If our understanding of turning the other cheek requires that we refuse to come to the aid of the defenseless in a time of violence, it must also require that we don’t come to their defense in the other situations mentioned. Will we allow the poor to be taken advantage of in court, their land ceased for business projects or greed in general — and ought we encourage them to give not only their land but their homes as well. If an evil man has killed one innocent person, we turn over to them a second?
Our understanding of love and how it works MUST be grounded in the character of God, not in our hatred for death, or even in one of God’s own commandments. I hate murder and killing and violence as much as the next Christian. But I can’t throw out who God is in order to put all of my weight behind a view of non-violence, no matter the cost. It’s as if we’ve convinced ourselves that love and justice can’t coexist in a world, much less in a person, and absolutely not in a God. But the problem is God does exist in those extremes. Somehow love and justice must be tied together. Just as one individual might argue that another can’t ignore love in order to punish and bring justice on all the evil people in the world, I would have to argue that he can’t throw out justice in order to keep from having to do a hard thing like stop one of those acts, even if it might require violence. Both love and justice are crucial to being like God.
When Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for them, it’s not a command to give them free reign of the world, allowing them to take whatever they like, whether money or power or lives. That ignores the nature and character of God in order to “love” a murderer. Is that how we love people? By enabling them to do horrible acts? If you truly loved me, would you allow me to make a mockery of creation and life by killing a number of innocent people? Do we allow our children to beat up other kids, because we are against stopping them? We know God disciplines those he loves, as is the nature of love (Hebrews 12). Not only can love and justice exist together, but the very nature of love involves justice and discipline and correction. Love sometimes does hard things — and if forced to choose between the lives of innocent people and an evil man who is seeking to kill those people, love within the character of God does not allow us to pull a Saul, standing by and watching as those innocent people are murdered. That is not love.
So I emphasize that we should love evil oppressors. We should love the murderer. But not with a twisted and ungodly love that allows him to do as he wishes to others. We must love with a love that is tied up in the whole character of God.