Monday, February 24, 2014
Text: Matthew 5: 38-48
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.
Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount by blessing the peacemakers and offering a vision of what this world will be like if we ever grasp God’s concept of peace. And then he got down to brass tacks. How can we make peace in a volatile world? For the original audience who heard Jesus speak, peacemaking was not only about living in peaceful personal relationships with our neighbors but also and more ambitiously about transforming a whole domination system within a warring culture. The peace of the Roman Empire—Pax Romana—was maintained by subjugating people through force and fear. In contrast, the peace of God’s empire is achieved through love, which 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?
We might assume that being passive is the path to pure pacifism. Yet avoiding violence is not the same as making peace. Becoming a doormat actually enables oppression. When Jesus tells the people to love their enemy, let’s remember that their enemy is occupying their land and terrorizing their communities. Jesus is not talking to people about little squabbles with friends. 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 Matthew 5: 39-41 out of its original context, we’ve missed the world-altering point of Jesus’s sermon.
Theologian Walter Wink[i] believes Jesus’s first hearers would have understood the words of verses 39-41 to be a risky tactic of creative nonviolence against a violent and oppressive political regime.
In today’s 4:00 Bible study and in a sermon I preached three years ago, we examined these three stunningly creative examples of a subversive strategy that might startle oppressors into realizing and repenting their complicity in a system of injustice. Wink calls this a “third” way of responding to the domination system—a response that’s neither passive nor aggressive. Turning the other cheek (Mt. 5:39) in the original context, is a way of shaming a violent superior. Giving a creditor the only garment you have left (Mt. 5:40) and then striding out of a courtroom in naked protest is what Wink labels as “guerilla theater” that shames the oppressor and exposes an injustice. Going the second mile might confuse Roman soldiers into breaking a rule and questioning an unjust system. When confronted with injustice, a powerless person has no hope of winning by fighting and no desire to continue being mistreated. So Jesus suggests creative nonviolence that resists any cooperation with injustice. And this approach might—just might—jolt the oppressor into repentance.
I have time to explain, via Walter Wink, just one example of creative nonviolence, which is found in verse 41.[ii] Then I’ll offer a contemporary example.
Mt. 5: 41 reads: “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Going the second mile, as I mentioned earlier, is often understood to be a maxim about being especially helpful. But even if we know nothing about the historical context, the fact that someone FORCES you to go one mile should prevent us from thinking Jesus is recommending an extra measure of helpfulness. Someone FORCING you to go a mile is not a neighbor asking you to run to the grocery store for her, and going the second miles is not you offering to stop by the dry cleaners for her while you’re out.
Here’s the political context: In Jesus’s day, Roman soldiers often compelled conquered villages on the streets to carry their 60-85 lb. packs. In Jesus’ day, 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, 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, “Oh, no. P-L-E-A-S-E let me carry it another mile. I insist!” What’s this Jew up to? the soldier must wonder. Usually we have to force compliance. Is he tricking me so that later he can file a complaint? Is he insulting my strength? Picture the Roman soldier now pleading with the peasant for his pack. Surely Jesus’s audience laughed at the thought (Wink 106-108). Humor and satire have always been resources of the oppressed to expose injustice, to shock the oppressor into seeing the powerless in a new light. Jesus was perhaps reminding his people of their tradition’s meager means.
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 recommending that his listeners genially help enemy soldiers by going an extra mile. Instead, he’s illustrating an ingenious third option that helps the powerless assert their dignity in a situation that can’t be immediately changed. And even though Jesus taught this way in public using suggestive language that didn’t sound overtly subversive, his listeners surely were learning creative ways of pushing oppressive practices “to the point of absurdity” (Wink 110) in hopes of recovering their dignity and exposing injustice. 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.
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, neighbor, self, even love of the neighbor who is the enemy but who can be liberated from being the oppressor. And Jesus’s tactics that aim at peace are peaceful. 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.
Does Jesus’s first century equivalent of a TED Talk hold relevance for us today? It’s well-known that Gandhi’s and King’s creative nonviolent strategies were inspired by the Sermon on the Mount. And many other oppressed peoples have succeeded in ending injustice without responding violently but instead creatively—not with guns but with marches and boycotts and art and music and sit ins and . . . well, let me describe one creative nonviolent action in which I participated in a very minor role not long ago.
Last January, two lesbian couples in Mobile—including our own Jan and Sondra—bravely participated in the WE DO Campaign, a creative nonviolent action for marriage equality. In the fall of 2012, I was contacted by a fellow UCC minister, the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Executive Director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. Could I help her locate local same-sex couples who might march to our court house to seek a marriage license in front of television cameras and newspaper reporters to support marriage equality? I was intrigued. George and I soon agreed to host the main planning meeting in our home.
Jasmine shared her organization’s ingenious tactics—dramatic but peaceful and respectful tactics—to demand justice for LGBT people. Thirteen Southern cities would be part of this campaign in the early part of 2013. Local and national media would be alerted and in the process the general public might recognize the obvious injustice of denying loving couples equality before the law. Jasmine assured me that good training would be given all participating, legal council would be with us every step of the way, and pastoral care (which I would help provide) would be available to those participating. I was impressed that Jasmine, a daughter of the South, understood the cultural context here, and that she, a fellow pastor, had a pastor’s heart for those who would be taking on personal risk to participate. The entire WE DO team demonstrated care both for the Mobilians who would risk public disapproval if they participated and for the staff of our city’s records office, who were notified well in advance of the demonstration and told exactly what to expect. We participants in the demonstration were reminded that the staff would be simply carrying out the laws that are on the books and to treat them kindly. Jasmine was gentle with each person with whom she interacted.
I loved that the action was creative and compassionate for all concerned. Yet our statements and stances were unequivocal. Jan and Sondra and the other couple were eloquent and loving. The event was joyous! Of course their applications for marriage licenses were denied—but Jan and Sondra, who were actually asking that their marriage license from the state of Massachusetts be filed in Mobile, actually were able to do just that, which may become a chink in the legal armor blocking same sex marriages here.
The WE DO Campaign is just one of many courageous and creative strategies that are radically altering public opinion and changing laws in support of gay and lesbian citizens. The rapidity with which this social issue is being rethought just may have something to do with the creative nonviolence that is characterizing this movement.
There’s something appealingly pragmatic about Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Peacemaking is hard and risky, and the road is long. But it’s something we can learn to do. Which makes the kingdom of God seem to me less like pie in the sky in the sweet by and by—and more like a difficult dream that we are moving toward.
God of Peace,
In your Kingdom Upside Down
You’ll undo Stand Your Ground.
We’d heard before an eye for eye—
But soon there’d be no eyes to cry.
If the Zimmermans and Michael Dunns
Give up their anger and their guns . . .
If folks like me relinquish greed
And learn to live with what we need . . .
If folks like me creatively
Do justice work nonviolently
And live that Sermon on the Mount
So everybody’s life will count . . .
we’ll prize your peace all the dearer.
we’ll bring your realm a little nearer. AMEN
[i][i] Wink, Walter. The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
[ii] See chapter 5 in The Powers That Be for Wink’s interpretation of what it means to “turn the other cheek” and “give your cloak as well.”