From Peace Is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence
Many of those who have committed their lives to ending injustice simply dismiss Jesus’s teachings about nonviolence out of hand as impractical idealism. And with good reason. “Turn the other cheek” suggests the passive, Christian doormat quality that has made so many Christians cowardly and complicit in the face of injustice. “Resist not evil” seems to break the back of all opposition to evil and to counsel submission. “Going the second mile” has become a platitude meaning nothing more than “extend yourself,” and rather than fostering structural change, encourages collaboration with the oppressor.
Jesus obviously never behaved in any of these ways. Whatever the source of the misunderstanding, it is clearly neither in Jesus not in his teaching, which, when given a fair hearing in its original social context, is arguably one of the most revolutionary political statements ever uttered:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (Matthew 5:38-41)
When the court translators working in the hire of King James chose to translate antistenai as “Resist not evil,” they were doing something more than rendering Greek into English. They were translating nonviolent resistance into docility. Jesus did not tell his oppressed hearers not to resist evil. That would have been absurd. His entire ministry is utterly at odds with such a preposterous idea. The Greek word is made up of two parts: anti, a word still used in English for “against,” and histemi, a verb that in its noun form (statis) means violent rebellion, armed revolt, sharp dissension.
A proper translation of Jesus’s teaching would then be, “Don’t strike back at evil (or, one who has done you evil) in kind.” Do not retaliate against violence with violence.” The Scholars Version is brilliant: “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.” Jesus was no less committed to opposing evil than the anti-Roman resistance fighters. The only difference was over the means to be used: how one should fight evil.
There are three general responses to evil: (1) passivity, (2) violent opposition, and (3) the third way of militant nonviolence articulated by Jesus. Human evolution has conditioned us for only the first two of these responses: flight or fight.
Neither of these alternatives has anything to do with what Jesus is proposing. It is important that we be utterly clear about this point before going on: Jesus abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil. His is a third alternative not even touched by these options. Antistenai cannot be construed to mean submission.
Jesus clarifies his meaning by three examples. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Why the right cheek? How does one strike another on the right cheek anyway? Try it. A blow by the right fist in that right-handed world would land on the left cheek of the opponent. To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. Even to gesture with the left hand at Qumran carried the penalty of exclusion and ten day’s penance, (The Dead Sea Scrolls). The only way one could strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the right hand. What we are dealing with here is unmistakably an insult, not a fistfight. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her “place.” One normally did not strike a peer thus, and if one did, the fine was exorbitant. A backhand slap was the normal way of admonishing inferiors. Masters back-handed slaves; husband, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission.
It is important to ask who Jesus’s audience is. In every case, Jesus’s listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor, but their victims.
Why then does he counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.”
The second example Jesus gives is set in a court of law. Someone is being sued for his outer garment. Who would do that and under what circumstances? The Old Testament provides the clues.
When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to fetch his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you. And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge; when the sun goes down, you shall restore to him the pledge that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. You shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. (Deuteronomy 24:10-13, 17)
Only the poorest of the poor would have nothing but an outer garment to give as collateral for a loan. Jewish law strictly required its return every evening at sunset, for that was all the poor had in which to sleep. The situation to which Jesus alludes is one with which all his hearers would have been all too familiar: the poor debtor has sunk even deeper into poverty, the debt cannot be repaid, and his creditor has hauled him into court to try to seize his property by legal means.
Indebtedness was the most serious social problem in first-century Palestine. Jesus’s parables are full of debtors struggling to salvage their lives. The situation was not, however, a natural calamity that had overtaken the incompetent. It was the direct consequence of Roman imperial policy. Emperors taxed the wealthy ruthlessly to fund their ward. Naturally, the rich sought non-liquid investments to secure their wealth. Land was best, but there was a problem: it was not bought and sold on the open market as today but was ancestrally owned and passed down over generations. Little land was ever for sale, in Palestine at least. Exorbitant interest, however, could be used to drive landowners into even deeper debt until they were forced to sell their land. By the time of Jesus we see this process already far advanced: large estates (latifundia) owned by absentee landlords, managed by stewards, and worked by servants, sharecroppers, and day laborers. It is no accident that the first act of the Jewish revolutionaries in 66 C.E. was to burn the Temple treasury, where the record of debts was kept.
It is in this context that Jesus speaks. His hearers are the poor (“if any one would sue you“). They share a rankling hatred for a system that subjects them to humiliation by stripping them of their lands, their goods, and finally even their outer garments.
Why then does Jesus counsel them to give over their inner garment as well? This would mean stripping off all their clothing and marching out of court stark naked! Put yourself in the debtor’s place, and imagine the chuckles this saying must have evoked. There stands the creditor, beet-red with embarrassment, your outer garment in one hand, your underwear in the other. You have suddenly turned the tables on him. You had no hope of winning the trial; the law was entirely in his favor. But you have refused to be humiliated, and at the same time you have registered a stunning protest against a system that spawns such debt. You have said in effect, “You want my robe? Here, take everything! Now you’ve got all I have except my body. Is that what you’ll take next?”
Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell not on the naked party, but on the person viewing or causing one’s nakedness, (Genesis 9:20-27). By stripping you have brought the creditor under the same prohibition that led to the curse of Canaan. As you parade into the street, your friends and neighbors, startled, aghast, inquire what happened. You explain. They join your growing procession, which now resembles a victory parade. The entire system by which debtors are oppressed has been publicly unmasked. The creditor is revealed to be not a “respectable” money lender but a party in the reduction of an entire social class to landlessness and destitution. This unmasking is not simply punitive, however; it offers the creditor a chance to see, perhaps for the first time in his life, what his practices cause, and to repent. Far from collaborating in injustice, the poor man has used the law, aikido-like, to make an exploitative law a laughing stock.
Jesus’s third example, the one about going the second mile, is drawn from the very enlightened practice of limiting the amount of forced labor that Roman soldiers could levy on subject peoples. Jews would have seldom encountered legionnaires except in time of war or insurrection. It would have been auxiliaries who were headquartered in Judea, paid at half the rate of legionnaires and rather a scruffy bunch. In Galilee, Herod Antipas maintained an army patterned after Rome’s; presumably it also had the right to impose labor. Mile markers were placed regularly beside the highway. A soldier could impress a civilian to carry his pack one mile only; to force the civilian to go farther carried with it severe penalties under military law. In this way Rome attempted to limit the anger of the occupied people and still keep its armies on the move. Nevertheless, this levy was a bitter reminder to the Jews that they were a subject people even in the Promised Land.
To this proud but subjugated people Jesus does not counsel revolt. One does not “befriend” the soldier, draw him aside, and drive a knife into his ribs. Jesus was keenly aware of the futility of armed revolt against Roman imperial might and minced no words about it, though it must have cost him support from the revolutionary factions.
But why walk the second mile? Is this not to rebound to the opposite extreme: aiding and abetting the enemy? Not at all. The question here, as in the two previous instances, is how the oppressed can recover the initiative, how they can assert their human dignity in a situation that cannot for the time being be changed. The rules are Caesar’s, but not how one responds to the rules – that is God’s, and Caesar has no power over that.
Imagine then the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack (sixty-five to eighty-five pounds in full gear), and you say, “Oh, no, let me carry it another mile.” Why would you do that? What are you up to? Normally, he has to coerce your kinsmen to carry his pack, and now you do it cheerfully and will not stop! Is this a provocation? Are you insulting his strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to make you go farther than you should? Are you planning to file a complaint? Create trouble?
From a situation of servile impressments, you have once more seized the initiative. You have taken back the power of choice.
These three examples amplify what Jesus means in his thesis statement: “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.” Instead of the two options ingrained in us by millions of years of unreflective, brute response to biological threats from the environment – flight or fight – Jesus offers a third way. This new way marks a historic mutation in human development: the revolt against the principle of natural selection. With Jesus a way emerges by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored:
Jesus’s Third Way
- Seize the moral initiative
- 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
- Refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position
- Expose the injustice of the system
- Take control of the power dynamic
- Shame the oppressor into repentance
- Stand your ground
- Force the Powers to make decisions for which they are not prepared
- Recognize your own power
- Be willing to suffer rather than to retaliate
- Cause the oppressor to see you in a new light
- Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective
- Be willing to undergo the penalty for breaking unjust laws
- Die to fear of the old order and its rules