In this essay, Gregg Ten Elshof argues that the apparent tension between the teachings of Confucius and Jesus concerning response to injury are merely apparent. The teachings are, rather, complementary in that reflection on each has the potential to deepen one’s understanding and appreciation of the other. Mr. Ten Elshof is Professor of Philosophy at Biola University.
Someone asked, “What do you think of the saying, ‘Requite injury with kindness [de]’?” The Master replied, “With what, then, would one requite kindness? Requite injury with uprightness, and kindness with kindness.”—Analects 14.341
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.—Matt. 5: 43-45
What does virtue require in the face of injury and opposition? How ought I to be postured toward my enemy? How should I respond? And how would I feel about my enemy if I were a person of admirable character? The great religious leaders and moralists in recorded history have been virtually unanimous in their rejection of a respond-in-kind approach to injury and opposition.2 So suppose I have resolved not to respond in kind (or at least to endeavor so not to respond). Still, I might wonder, how should I be? Are there specific affects, postures and behaviors characteristic of the moral hero in the context of injury and opposition? If so, which? It is the point of these reflections to compare the explicit teachings of two great moralists, Jesus and Confucius, on this question.
Unsurprisingly, neither Jesus nor Confucius endorses a respond-in-kind approach. Jesus contrasts his view explicitly with such an approach. Apparently, in Jesus’ day, the Old Testament Law according to which one is to love one’s neighbor (see, for example, Lev. 19:18) had been expanded inappropriately to enjoin also hatred of one’s enemy. Jesus addresses the situation and describes the ideal rather as one in which the enemy is prayed for, loved, and blessed.
In the Analects, the teaching on response to injury is not contrasted explicitly with the respond-in-kind approach. Instead, the teaching is contrasted with a phrase that occurs in the Laozi (Chapter 63) according to which one should respond to injury with kindness. The foil here is not the respond-in-kind approach but rather a version of Laozian wisdom according to which one’s response to others should be indiscriminate – the same for friend and foe alike (see also Laozi Chapter 79). Nevertheless, it is clear that Confucius would have no truck with the respond-in-kind approach. Had he wished to endorse it, here would have been the place. It would have contrasted nicely with the Laozian teaching under attack. Instead, the Analects contrast a nondiscriminatory approach with one that is context-sensitive and properly discriminatory. The sixth-century author of the Subcommentary to the Meaning of the Analects, Huang Kan, comments on the passage as follows: “The reason that one does not repay injury with kindness is that, were one to do so, then everyone in the world would begin behaving in an injurious fashion, expecting to be rewarded with kindness.”3 The main point of this teaching in the Analects is that the response of the sage is always a proper fit for the circumstances to which he is responding.
Confucius and Jesus agree, then, in their refusal to endorse a respond-in-kind approach to injury and opposition. But what of their positive suggestions? How are these teachings related? Are they in conflict? Equivalent? Complementary? What? On the surface, it looks like there is a conflict. In fact, one might think that Jesus’ teaching is equivalent to the Laozian wisdom the Confucian teaching is intended to contravene. Jesus enjoins his followers to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. But surely these were not responses Jesus thought uniquely appropriate for an encounter with opposition. That is, he surely thought that we should love and pray for our friends and brothers as well. So one might think that this is a teaching according to which there should be no difference in one’s approach to friends and enemies. In fact, for a model of appropriate response, Jesus points to the Heavenly Father ’s equal treatment of the righteous and the wicked –he sends his rain on both as a blessing. Moreover, he criticizes the one who loves and greets only his brother, suggesting that his followers ought to meet opposition with equivalent treatment (Matt. 5:46-47).
All of this suggests that, despite a common refusal to endorse a respond-in-kind approach, there is a fairly apparent conflict between the teachings of Jesus and Confucius on the matter of responding to injury and opposition. Confucius suggests that one’s response to injury ought to differ significantly from one’s response to kindness while Jesus endorses something like Laozian nondiscrimination in response to friend and foe. If so then, having resolved not to respond in kind to opposition and injury, I have a genuine choice to make between Christian wisdom and Confucian wisdom when I find myself with an enemy or an oppressor.
But this is all too fast. And it is a major point of these reflections to show why. Here, as on countless other questions of human significance – though surely not all– one need not choose between opposing views; between Jesus and Confucius; between “East” and “West,” as they say. In fact, quick reasoning of the sort exemplified above is largely responsible for an exaggerated view of the dichotomy between the great thinkers of East and West. A more nuanced examination of the relevant teachings may well open the door to a deeper understanding of each.
To begin, Jesus never endorses a nondiscriminatory approach to others. Nowhere does he teach that one’s response to everyone – friend, foe, brother, sister, father, stranger, student, teacher – should be the same. Rather, in the teachings of Jesus one finds varying instructions for the complex array of interpersonal relations – instructions sensitive to the dynamics unique to the kind of relationship being addressed. Children are to respect and honor parents but not vice versa (at least not in the same sense). The student is to be in subjection to the Master, and so forth. So there is no prima facie reason to think that Jesus would have settled on a single complete set of dispositions as equally appropriate in the context of friend and foe.
Consider the difference between the following two instructions:
J1: Love, bless and pray for those who injure and oppose you (enemies) as well as for friends.
J2: Let your response to those who injure and oppose you (enemies) be indistinguishable from your response to your friends.
One needs only to introduce the distinction between J1 and J2 to see that it is J1 (and not J2) that is actually taught by Jesus. The teaching is that my response to enemies should have this much in common with my response to friends; it should include love, blessing, and prayer. But, of course, this is consistent with there being significant differences in my attitudes, affections, and overall posture toward friend and foe. I may admire, seek to imitate, congratulate, and bestow praise upon my friend. On the other hand, I may pity, seek to differentiate myself from, exhort, and defend against my oppressor – all the while praying for, blessing, and loving him.
What’s more, Jesus did not respond indiscriminately to friend and foe. Consider the difference between his treatment of his disciples and friends and his treatment of the religious leaders of the day who opposed and sought to injure him. His response to opposition is shot through with biting sarcasm (sometimes with the result that they were publicly humiliated), sharp accusation, and purposeful obscurity. Still, one might think, he loved them, prayed for them, and genuinely desired and sought after their good. His posture toward his disciples and friends is tangibly different. He is gentle, patient to explain, forgiving of errors and sympathetic. Even the most cursory survey of the life he lived in the presence of others belies the suggestion that he endorsed a view according to which one should be indiscriminate in responding to friend and foe. What he does teach is that response to friend and foe alike should arise out of a condition of love, prayer for, and genuine desire for the good of the other.
Now consider again the teaching of Confucius. Once again, the teaching is set in contrast to a view (based on an interpretation of the Laozi) according to which one’s response should derive solely from the condition of one’s own person. On this view, the response of the sage will not depend in any way on conditions external to the sage himself. In particular, the sage’s response will not depend upon whether the person to whom one is responding is a friend or foe – the context one of injury or blessing. The sage will behave and feel identically toward all. His response will be one of kindness.
The Confucian Master disagrees. In human interactions – as everywhere –order is a result of wise and proper discrimination. The rough idea is that there is an order in the context of human relationships which fits various types of behavior with appropriate responses (or ranges of appropriate response). To have settled on a single response for all behaviors is to have denied the existence of this order and to have invited chaos. The sage determines the type of relationship in play and is skilled in the exercise of the rituals and behaviors properly associated with his position in that particular relationship. The response of the sage, then, will depend both upon his internal conditioning and training and upon the relational specifics of the particular context of response.
Now consider the difference between these two instructions:
C1: Respond differently to injury and kindness. Requite the former with uprightness and the later with kindness.
C2: Let there be nothing at all in common between your response to injury and your response to kindness.
Once again, one needs only to introduce the distinction between C1 and C2 to see that it is C1 (and not C2) that is actually taught in the Analects. This is a teaching endorsing flexibility. Indeed, two lines prior to the quoted section (14.34), the Master is quoted as saying “I hate inflexibility” (14.32). But to insist upon flexibility is not to insist that there be nothing in common between one’s response to injury and one’s response to kindness.
In fact, the prescribed response to injury (to remain upright and true) is clearly not a response fitted uniquely for the context of opposition. Arguably, the Sage of Confucian thought is upright and true always – in response to friend and foe alike. The flexibility of Confucian thought suggests that the uprightness of the sage’s heart will manifest itself differently in different situations. Paradoxically, the flexibility of uprightness extends even to the point of endorsing a dishonest defense of one’s father when he is accused rightly of a crime.4 To think otherwise is to have fallen prey to the inflexibility associated with the legalistic treatment of ritual against which the Analects is firmly and persistently set.
Read in the context of the Master’s polemic against legalism and his emphasison the flexibility of the sagely virtue, then, C1 (the teaching of Analects 14.34) might be expanded properly as follows: In your interactions with others, be upright and true –always. But be also flexible and properly discriminate. Being upright in the face of kindness (de) requires that you respond in kind. Not so when injured. Here a different response will issue from the wise and upright heart.
Let us now revisit the question of the relationship between these teachings of Jesus and Confucius. Are they in conflict? Equivalent? Complementary? What? Clearly, there is tension between J2 and C2, between J1 and C2, and between J2 and C1. But these conflicts need not bother us since J2 and C2 misrepresent our two moralists. More to the present point, there is no tension whatever between J1 and C1 – the propositions which represent the actual teachings of these two moralists. Both suggest that there will be significant similarities between the sage’s response to friend and foe. Neither entails that there will be no difference in response to friend and foe. There is no discernible tension in these two teachings once they have been distinguished properly from potential misinterpretations.
But neither are they equivalent. This again is no surprise since the two teachers are addressing different errors. Jesus, responding to the prevalence of a respond-in-kind approach to enemies, emphasizes the degree to which a proper response to friend and foe are similar. Confucius, responding to Laozian nondiscrimination, emphasizes the importance of flexibility in our response to others.
If the two teachings are neither in conflict nor equivalent, then the way is clear to consider the possibility that they complement one another. How exactly? Certainly in any number of ways. Here I wish to offer but one. It seems to me that there is a clear sense in which the teaching of Jesus is more radical and demanding than is the teaching of Confucius. In the face of injury and opposition, Confucian wisdom would have one remain true and upright. On a minimalist read, this could mean nothing more than to keep one’s composure, not to respond in kind, and to leave one’s enemy to wallow in his own wretched existence. Perhaps the most efficient way to live in accordance with this instruction is to take active steps to put the enemy out of one’s mind altogether. The way of Jesus, however, requires positive and active effort for the sake of my enemy’s good. Certainly it is a greater psychological feat to genuinely seek the good of my enemy than to put him out of my mind altogether. Of course, it is possible that Confucius shares this more demanding conception of what it means to remain true in the context of opposition. But, if so, he does not say so. So one might think of the teaching of Jesus as filling out in a particular direction – giving specific and detailed content to – the Confucian suggestion that one remain upright in the context of opposition. To thus remain upright is to seek actively the good of one’s oppressor.
But is this genuine complementarity? Are these teachings complementing one another? Or is the teaching of Confucius rendered superfluous by the teaching of Jesus properly understood? If what I have said is correct, then there is nothing in the content of the Confucian teaching (that one ought to be properly discriminating in one’s approach to human relationships) that is not implicit already in the life and teaching of Jesus. But there is content in this teaching of Jesus which cannot be extracted properly from the teachings of Confucius – that standing upright in the context of opposition will entail the following specific responses: loving, blessing, and praying for your enemy. So far, so non-complementary. The content of the Confucian teaching is superfluous.
But the complexities of human learning allow sometimes for pedagogical complementarity where, strictly speaking, there is redundancy of content. Often a less complete teaching with a particular direction of emphasis can aid in the correction of a misunderstanding of the more complete teaching on the same subject. Such is the case, I believe, with these two teachings about response to injury. For the Confucian who thinks that standing upright with regard to your enemy can be achieved by positively ignoring him, Jesus holds out the possibility of something far more radical and redeeming. His is the more complete teaching in that it gives specific content to the concept of being upright in the context of opposition. However, for someone under the mistaken impression that Jesus is endorsing a one-size-fits-all response to kindness and adversity, the Confucian teaching invites reflection on the nuanced differences between the requirements of virtue in these very different socio-political environments.
To conclude, virtue requires of me that, in the context of injury and opposition, I be the kind of person who can (with sincerity of heart) love, pray for, and bless my enemy. This is the radically demanding and supernaturally redeeming call of Jesus. There is a ready-to-hand misunderstanding of Jesus, however, according to which I should be postured identically toward everyone – friend and foe alike. Reflection on the teachings of Confucius, with their emphasis on flexibility and proper discrimination, has the potential to forestall this potential misunderstanding. If this is right, then (from the Orthodox Christian perspective) the Analects can take its place with the vast body of non-revelatory texts which complement and aid in our understanding of the divinely inspired Word. None are indispensable in the way that the inspired texts are. But neither are they insignificant. Even if not inspired, they inspire deeper understanding and appreciation of the texts that are.5
Cite this article
- Edward Slingerland, ed., The Essential Analects (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2006).
- A few examples: In Digha Nikaya i.3 “Brethren, if outsiders should speak against me, oragainst the Doctrine, or against the Order, you should not on that account either bear malice,or suffer resentment, or feel ill will. If you, on that account, should feel angry and hurt, thatwould stand in the way of your own self-conquest.” In Vitaragastava 14.5, “My Lord! Othershave fallen back in showing compassion to their benefactors as you have shown compassioneven to your malefactors. All this is unparalleled.” In Tao Te Ching 63, “Do good to him whohas done you an injury.” In Dhammapada 223, “Conquer anger by love. Conquer evil bygood. Conquer the stingy by giving. Conquer the liar by truth.” For a more exhaustive list ofexamples, see the World Scripture Project at http://origin.org/ucs/ws/ws.cfm.
- See, for example, Analects 13.8.
- Many thanks to Tom Crisp and an anonymous CSR referee for helpful commentary on anearlier draft of these reflections.