Jesus seems to present us with conflicting views on how to resist evil. The first view is found in His Sermon on the mount. He says,
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you not to resist an evil person.
But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.
If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.
And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.
Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. (Matt 5:38–42)
He is telling us not to harbor any vindictiveness or engage in any form of revenge for evil done against us. This was a significant change from the teaching of the Old Testament when the advice was, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” He wants us to eliminate the evil in our hearts and to respond with love not causing any further spread of evil.
A Christian must practice forgiveness. We must rid ourselves of all negative thoughts harbored against our neighbor. We are to seek an inner peace, one free of any evil thoughts, a peace that leads us to a unity with Christ. To be united with God we cannot harbor any vindictiveness or hatred of any form.
Jesus desires a peace free of evil that is different than what we normally think of as elimination of any conflict. The peace He desires is one that brings us closer to Him. One free of evil. We are to reject any peace that does not do this. Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matt 10:34). This kind of peace is not one that compromises any of His teachings. We cannot accept peace with Satan, atheists, apostates or malicious heretics. We can’t have friendships with thieves, murderers, rapists nor perverts, or anyone who consciously breaks the law of God. We need to understand the difference between the need for forgiveness of sins committed against us and the need to correct evil we see external to us,
From His statements many erroneously conclude that Jesus was telling us to avoid resisting any evil. Today there is a common misunderstanding that a Christian should forgive everything to avoid conflict, but ignore forgiveness of offensive he incurs personally. We tend to passively accept behaviors in society that are clearly sinful in terms of the Gospels. This includes widespread use of hate speech and foul language, violence, tolerance of liberal sexual norms, and discrimination. There is even a tendency to ignore governmental actions and regulations that are intended to suppress evil on our society. Laws are even being proposed to legitimize evil acts under idea of personal freedom. Archbishop Averky says, “such people completely ignore the whole series of places in Scripture where it clearly speaks of the necessity to take decisive measures for suppression of evil.”
Are we to act to stop evil we see in others? Think about the action Jesus took when he found the commercial activity and the moneychangers operating in the sacred Temple grounds. He used a whip to chase them out and overturned their tables. This was pretty violent. This raises the question about how we are supposed to act when we see evil in our world. Archbishop Averky says, “Every type of such evil should be immediately thwarted with the most decisive measures, even including the sacrifice of oneself in an unequal struggle.” But when and how?
If gentle admonitions fail to correct the bad situation what do we do? This is where the role of legitimate authorities comes in. We must be careful in intervening ourselves because we may not have the needed skills and powers of Spirit that Christ has. Scripture also tells us to respect authority. In such cases we need to honor and call on those assigned to keep civil order, our policemen and women, our armed forces and other authorities involved in our system of justice. Paul tells us, Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.(Rom 13:1) Today the authority of those charged with keeping civil order is widely challenged. We shouldn’t be overly influenced by the few bad actors we see in the media. View then as part of God’s plan.
Further, we should not harbor a criminal. It is a matter of loving our neighbor. To protect one who does evil only allows evil to be perpetuated in the future. There must be consequences for actions against God and civil order. We must turn those who commit crime over to the authorities. This protects others. It’s a matter of love.
When we see a person in despair, however, we must take a modified view. If there is a person starving who steals some bread it is time for compassion and help. Remember how David stole the sacred bread from the temple due to hunger (1 Samuel 21)? In this case we do as the Lord says, and give him more than he asks, if he demands your outer garment give him your shirt also.
When our Lord tells us to resist evil think first that His words are being directed toward our personal feelings of vindictiveness and any desire for revenge. He does not forbid the struggle against evil in general. But the best way to eliminate evil is to,eliminate it in ourselves. If everyone were to do this we would have a peaceful loving world. To engage in a broader exterior struggle requires that we have a pure heart, one free from personal bias or any hostile feeling toward the person. That we are united with Him and able to do His will as directed by the Holy Spirit. We cannot risk acting out of a need for revenge or any kind of personal gain. St John of Kronstadt: Do not confuse man, the image of God with the evil that is in him, but love the man and pity him. Our battle against evil cannot in any way be vindictive. The right to vengeance belongs only to God. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath: for it is written, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” says the Lord (Rom 12:19). Remember that God is the Master and when we are properly prepared He may call on one of us to act.
Our primary focus must be on our personal efforts to uproot the evil in ourselves. To be capable of participating in this larger general battle against evil we need to have God’s grace working in us. All action must be undertaken only to bring others closer to a union with God. It must be His will to act. Our main effort should be to purify our own soul so we can become like Christ. We must expose the self-asserting pride in us, embrace and Gospel love, guard our heart from all evil thoughts, forgive others for any offenses against us, repent. All this is nurtured by our Orthodox way of life: Daily prayer, fasting, worship, participation in the sacraments, reading Scripture daily, helping others, and spiritual fellowship.
Reference: The Struggle for Virtue, chapter 8, Archbishop Averky
Ten Points for living an Orthodox Life