by Ellen Sims
text: Matthew 5:38-48
(This sermon was preached in a more interactive way so I’ve modified it for a reading audience.)
Today we’re reading an oft-quoted but little understood Gospel text that should be studied in context: in the context of the Hebrew Bible text it cites, of first century Roman military occupation, of first century judicial and economic systems, of its location within the Sermon on the Mount, and of its recent misuse by none other than the president of the United States.
Last April then-candidate Trump was asked in a radio interview if he had a favorite Bible verse or Bible story that shaped his thinking or character.
He responded, “Well, I think many. I mean, when we get into the Bible, I think many, so many. And some people, look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that. That’s not a particularly nice thing. But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, when you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us, and how they scoff at us and laugh at us. And they laugh at our face, and they’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our money, they’re taking the health of our country. And we have to be firm and have to be very strong. And we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”
Donald Trump apparently doesn’t know that a phrase from a Hebrew Bible verse he and others have taken out of context was upended by Jesus. And he apparently does not know that the “eye for an eye” phrase from the Torah was actually intended as a merciful LIMIT to the punishment one could exact in order to make it commensurate with the injury.
However, Jesus went further to stress mercy and nonviolence. He said, “You’ve heard it said, ‘an eye for eye’ . . . but I say. . . .” And the next few verses illustrate the basics of Jesus’s ingenious creative nonviolence strategy that can be used by the disempowered against oppressors, a key feature of Jesus’s ethic of peace.
Jesus reminded his listeners that they’d heard it said (in the Torah) that if someone puts out your eye, then you are justified in doing the same to them. But then he kicks the ethics up a notch:
“But I say to you, Do not resist.” (Note that here “resist” means don’t resist violently.) “Do NOT respond with violence to an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
On the surface, this sounds as if Christians are to become wimpy doormats, punching bags who allow the bullies to run over us and our families and all the other little guys.
Walter Wink (in The Powers That Be)* understands Jesus’s strategy of turning the other cheek to be a proactive but peaceful stance for justice. He describes it as Jesus’s “third way” of enacting justice that is neither a violent nor passive response to violence, neither fight nor flight.
In Jesus’s culture, if a bully “strikes” someone on the right cheek, the blow would be delivered as a degrading backhanded slap, which was only used against an inferior, a slave perhaps. Jesus imagines that a person of lower status, who would have no real recourse to justice, could at least save his or her dignity by standing up to the bully and, in literally turning the other cheek in defiance of the bully, could maintain their dignity while taunting the aggressor(and maybe causing him to lose his dignity. Since in that culture it was considered uncouth to use one’s left hand, that would mean if the inferior turned his left cheek to the aggressor, almost taunting the aggressor to strike again, the aggressor would not be able to land a blow on the left cheek using the right hand for a backhanded slap reserved for underlings. So the aggressor has a choice here: walk awkwardly away from the inferior who has just dared him to strike again—or lose his dignity another way by hitting the inferior with a punch (not a backhanded slap) to the left that would in effect concede they are equals. Only equals fought with fists in such a way. Of course, the inferior risked receiving another blow—more powerful this time–but even if the adversary decided to hit him a second time or walk away, the inferior would have humiliated the more powerful person and exposed an injustice while regaining some of his own dignity. For those who know no justice, such a demonstration would have been a victory. And the beginning of justice is to at least expose injustice.
We often think of only two possible responses for those who have been unjustly treated: fight back or submit. Jesus was showing a “third way” which is both pragmatic and peaceful for people caught in an unjust system: creative nonviolence.
Jesus next describes another instance of injustice in verse 40 where a very poor man is being sued for the coat off his back: “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” Picture the court room in which a very poor person has been sued by a creditor. How heartless would someone have to be to use the law to take away the debtor’s only possession: the clothes he or she is wearing?
Jesus is saying if a rich person were to take you to court to take from you the clothes off your back, then you might consider this drastic measure: let your creditor have your last garment, too. Meet and exceed his merciless demand by taking off both your outer garment and your undergarment and walking out of that courtroom naked. Wink calls this an example of guerrilla theater used by the disempowered to humiliate the oppressors and expose injustice. In this case, the poor person’s naked body would be exposed, but the creditor’s cruelty would be exposed all the more.
Jesus’s strategy of creative nonviolence concludes with an example that most people think of as a simple adage about helping out another in a way that exceeds what is expected: “and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
Here’s the political context. In Jesus’s day, Roman soldiers often compelled civilians to carry their 60-85 pound packs along roads marked at each mile point. A slightly enlightened military code prevented soldiers from forcing subjects to carry their baggage past the mile marker. This, many believe, is the situation Jesus had in mind in recommending that a civilian living occupied territory, when FORCED to go with the soldier for one mile, should carry the pack one extra mile, which was forbidden by law. If soldiers violated military rules, the centurion in charge could punish them. Do you see the dilemma this seemingly cooperative offer sets up for the soldier? What would happen if, at the next mile marker, the soldier reaches for his pack and the civilian says unctuously, “Oh, please. I insist. I’d be honored to carry it another mile.” The Roman soldier must wonder what the Jewish man intends when he usually has to force compliance. “Is he tricking me so that later he can file a complaint? Is he insulting my strength?” the soldier might worry? Imagine a Roman soldier now pleading with a Jew to give him back his pack. Surely Jesus’s audience laughed at the thought. And humor is often part of The Third Way.
How should an oppressed people respond to this regular requirement to cooperate with the military occupying their country? Jesus doesn’t recommend revolt. And besides, the soldier is but a cog in the empire’s machine. Nor does Jesus recommend aiding the oppressor—even if it sounds that he’s saying to genially help an enemy soldier by going an extra mile. Instead, he’s illustrating an ingenious third option that helps the powerless assert their dignity and rightly name an injustice when an empire was using doublespeak (like pax romana) in a situation that can’t be immediately changed. And even though Jesus taught this way using suggestive language that didn’t sound overtly subversive, his listeners surely understood the creative ways by which they might recover their dignity and expose injustice by pushing oppressive practices to the point of absurdity.
Admittedly, these stunts probably would have worked only once. Jesus is not recommending his followers use these same tactics over and over because the element of surprise is key to destabilizing the more powerful opponent. But methods LIKE these could be used. And it’s okay to embarrass an oppressor if there’s a chance for his or her own redemption.
How can we make peace in a volatile world? For the original audience who heard Jesus’s talk, peacemaking was not only about living in peaceful relationships with our neighbors but also and more ambitiously about transforming a whole domination system within a warring culture. The faux peace of the Roman Empire—pax romana—was maintained by keeping subjugated people in fear. In contrast, the peace of God’s empire—achieved only through love—includes loving one’s enemy.
But remember that Jesus was mainly talking to the disempowered, dispossessed, and oppressed. It’s clear how the guys holding the swords become peacemakers. They put down their swords, right? How do the ones being held at sword point—the folks Jesus addressed—how do THEY become peacemakers?
Being passive is not necessarily the path to pacifism. Avoiding violence is not the same as making peace. Becoming a doormat actually enables oppression. When Jesus tells the people to love their enemy, we must remember that their enemy is occupying their land and terrorizing their communities. Jesus is not instructing his listeners in being nice to their neighbors. Turning the other cheek did not mean then, as it means now, that if you say something mean to me, I’ll bite my tongue. Giving someone the coat off your back was not then, as it is now, a description of a generous person. Going the extra mile was not then, as it is now, a cliché about being extra helpful. Having taken Matt. 5: 39-41 out of its original context, we’ve missed the world-altering point of Jesus. Theologian Walter Wink believes Jesus’s first hearers would have understood the words of these verses to be a risky tactic of creative nonviolence against a violent and oppressive political regime.
Turning the other cheek, in the original context, is a way of shaming a violent superior. Giving a creditor the “shirt off your back” and then striding out of a courtroom naked protest shames the oppressor and exposes an injustice. Going the second mile could trick Roman soldiers into breaking a rule. When confronted with injustice, a powerless person has no hope of winning by “fighting”—and no desire to simply continue being mistreated. So Jesus introduces the idea of creative nonviolence that resists any cooperation with injustice. And this approach might—just might—jolt the oppressor into repentance.
Of course, Jesus is aiming not simply to outwit an enemy but transform the enemy into a friend and to bring God’s kingdom a little closer. His method holds open the possibility of the enemy becoming just. Love your enemy, he says in verse 43. Pray for your enemy, he adds in 44. Why? Because (vs. 45) God loves your enemy as much as God loves you. God loves the one who slapped you, who took your land, who conscripted your labor—as much as God loves you. Jesus’s nonviolence is not merely tactical but theological. His teachings are rooted in love—of God, of neighbor, of self, of even the neighbor who is the enemy but who can be liberated from being the oppressor—and his tactics are aimed at peace. Don’t return evil with evil. Don’t let violence turn you into the next oppressor. The cycle of violence will be perpetuated—in the Middle East and on streets in the U.S. of A.–if we enter it. Jesus refuses to go there. He refuses to be passive or violent.
I saw recently a picture of protesters in Turkey with this caption:
No yelling, no screaming, no fighting. A more efficient form of protesting: Thousands of people standing in complete silence, protesting in squares and public spaces in Turkey. Baffling the police by creating a calm curiosity instead of tension and aggression. Nonviolence is the force that will change the world.
Sounds as if Jesus’s Third Way—practiced by Gandhi in India, King in America, Mandella in South Africa—continues to be a way toward peace with justice.
*Wink, Walter. The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. Doubleday, 1998.