This section of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 is fraught with tension. Throughout the centuries, people have interpreted these verses as a way to recommend passive acceptance of injustice. Used to keep victims in a victim role. These verses have instructed a victim to love or forgive their abuser. It would be harmful to lift up these verses as a virtue when counseling someone who has been assaulted. Who am I to dictate the terms of forgiving or loving a perpetrator. How can I tell someone who is a target of hatred or racism….that they are supposed to love the person who oppresses or hates them?
These passages are often misinterpreted. We need to understand the culture of 1st century Judaism and what these teachings would have meant in that context. NT scholar Walter Wink, suggests that these verses are creative non-violent strategies of resisting & protesting oppression. In “The Powers That Be” & “Engaging the Powers”, Wink argues that Jesus rejected common ways of responding to injustice: violence or passive acceptance. Jesus advocated a “Third Way:” non-violent resistance.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
Specifically – the right cheek…why does that matter? Role-play. If someone were to strike you on your right cheek, what hand would they have to use? Their left. But striking with your left would be taboo in Semitic society: left hand was used ONLY for unclean tasks. The only way you could strike someone on the right cheek would be with the back of your right hand. The intention is to humiliate, to put a servant in their ‘place’, not necessarily to injure. About asserting status & power from a position of superiority. The expected response would be to cower in submission & humiliation. Why does Jesus counsel already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Is Jesus inviting subservience; to accept abuse.
But turning your head robs the striker of the power to humiliate. It creates confusion. Logistically, what can he do? He can no longer backhand with his right hand. He cannot use the taboo left hand. If he hits with his right fist, it shows he regards a subordinate as an equal. The privileged person has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. The response is not about passivity or cowardice; it is an act of resistance & defiance.
If anyone takes you to court & sues for your outer garment, give your under garment as well.
If someone was trying to obtain a loan, they would use animals or land as collateral for the loan but the poorest of the poor, according to Dt 24:10-13, could use their outer garment as collateral. However, if the coat was used for collateral, it had to be returned by nightfall. An overcoat by day, but necessary as a blanket at night. The creditor could come get it each morning, harassing him to pay.
Jesus is talking to the people who are being dragged into court he says, “You are not going to win your case. So take the law and obey it to a point of absurdity. When your creditor sues you for your outer garment, give your undergarment as well. And when you give your undergarment, it leaves you standing naked in court.” The shame of nakedness fell not on the person who was naked, but on the person who caused their nakedness. Imagine: ”That creditor has every last stitch of my clothing.”
“If one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two.”
Packs weighed 65 – 85 pounds. These soldiers had to move quickly to get to where trouble had broken out. Under Military law a soldier could force a civilian to carry the pack, but only one mile, because abuse was rampant. You know things are bad when even Rome applies limits. There were mile markers on every Roman road. If a civilian carried the pack more than one mile, the soldier had committed an infraction of military code, and the code was strictly enforced. So Jesus is saying, “The next time the soldier forces you to carry his pack, carry it beyond the mile marker, keep going.” Walking a mile with a heavy pack and walking back forces you away from your own job & pay for that day. When someone willingly goes beyond the legal mile, the soldier automatically commits an infraction of military law and could be punished.
It seems as if Jesus were asking is listeners to be a doormat, to give up all concern for justice. Submit, surrender, give up. But in reality, Jesus is calling on people to be non-violent, not non-resistant. When Jesus says, “Do not resist one who is evil,” he meant, do not resist violently. Don’t let your opponent dictate your terms. If I have a hoe and my opponent has a gun, I will have to get a gun in order to fight on equal terms. That leads to an unending spiral of violence. The OT law placed a limit on violence that could be inflicted. Jesus is trying to interrupt the cycle of revenge. Jesus says, ”Do not return evil for evil.” Ghandi: An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Do not resist violence with violence. Violence cannot heal violence. Jesus teaches a 3rd way of nonviolent resistance.
Rev. James Lawson was one of the architects of the sit-in Movement in 1960 Nashville, He tells a “turn-the-other-cheek” story in the face of injustice. He was a Divinity student at Vanderbilt, and was training young black activists who chose join the movement and sit at “white-only” lunch counters, not respond to the hostility, beatings, and arrests that would inevitably come. During one altercation, Lawson was monitoring the streets to help de-escalate any conflict that might arise. Someone shouted a racial slur & spit in his face. Lawson kept calm. He asked the man if he happened to have a handkerchief he could borrow. The man, taken by surprise pulled one from his pocket. Lawson then noticed a motorcycle nearby, and asked if it was his. The conversation led to bikes, mechanics, & horsepower. By the end of the conversation, the man asked if there was anything the activists needed.
Talk about disarming your opponenet. Rev. Lawson saw a third way, a different outcome. His unexpected response caught the man off guard, to the point that the man could witness Lawson’s humanity, releasing him from the prison of his prejudice. Dr. MLK spoke about the need to teach about nonviolence: (“The Power of Nonviolence: A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of MLK, Jr.”, edited by James M Washington)
We had to make it clear that nonviolent resistance is not a method of cowardice. It does resist. It is not a method of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency. The nonviolent resister is just as opposed to the evil that he is standing against as the violent resister but he resists without violence. This method is non-aggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually.
The resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat his opponent but to win his friendship & understanding. The goal of non-violence is reconciliation & redemption to form Beloved community.
So then we get to that troublesome verse: “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Anyone achieve that yet? Perfect is translated from the Greek word Telos meaning, aiming for an intended goal, an end, a completion – like an arrow from an archer’s bow. We are like an arrow, released from an Archer God, attempting to reach a target of Beloved Community. We’re not there yet, but we are a bow in motion, getting closer. Jesus is inviting us to keep aiming & persist in the goal God has for us.
Can we live in this creative third way – to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us? Not perfectly. On some days, maybe not at all. But being a disciple doesn’t require perfection, but a persistence of aim toward bringing about the Beloved Community. Think about Bible stories of those who persisted: The widow who persisted with the judge. The Syrophoenician woman. The woman looking for her lost coins. Mary listening at the feet of Jesus. The woman with a flow of blood who dared to touch him. The woman who washed his feet with her tears & her hair in the midst of criticism. Mary & Martha confronting Jesus at the tomb of their brother Lazarus.
What examples of persistence come to your mind. If you are a woman, you could join the “persisterhood”. Senator Elizabeth Warren, reading the words of another persister, Coretta Scott King, only to be silenced,
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.“
Protesters, marchers, and resisters, who persist in calling out injustice & discrimination. Judges who persist in upholding the essential tenets of democracy. To persist in bringing about the Beloved Community for all people in the face of continued resistance.
This approach doesn’t forget or minimize the presence of violence and oppression in the world. We have to remember that God is not limited by our brokenness, and that God uses our nonviolent resistance & persistence to shine a light to expose truth. And the truth shall set you free.
Jesus’ Third Way
Find a creative alternative to violence Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person
Meet force with ridicule or humor
Break the cycle of humiliation
Expose the injustice of the system
Take control of the power dynamic
Shame the oppressor into repentance
Stand your ground
Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate
Force the oppressor to see you in a new light
Die to fear of the old order and its rules
Seek the oppressor’s transformation
Make the Powers make decisions for which they are not prepared
Refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position
Recognize your own power
Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective
Be willing to undergo the penalty of breaking unjust laws
O Healer of all brokenness, help us repent of vengefulness & send your mercy as the sun and rain. Giver of all gentleness, lead us away from selfishness that we may walk with all who dwell in pain. Creator, grant us vision to see beyond division, seeing even enemies as beloved too. May we with bold decision bring forgiveness to fruition; and by your gift of grace our selves renew, that we, our own hearts mending, to others your love lending, embrace your kingdom coming into view. ©2017 by Andrew King
by Steve Garnaas-Holmes
God, fill me with light, that I may resist evil not with anger but with light.
Keep me mindful that I am your salt, not needing to prove my saltiness,
but only to be myself, even in the face of evil.
Give me light even to love my enemy, salt to turn the other cheek.
Help me resist evil and injustice as one who is poor in spirit, gentle,
mourning, and hungering for justice.
Help me show mercy as you show mercy.
Purify my heart of all but love, that I may be purely loving as you.
Give me strength and perseverance to be a peacemaker despite persecution.
When an evildoer strikes me give me grace with meekness and purity of heart to turn the other cheek, and so with love to stand in their way.
For nothing but the cross will undo evil. Help me to bear it, for the sake of the world. Amen.
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.