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 neighbour 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.
I remember my days in the army when, as a White South African male, I had to do conscripted military service. South Africa at that time was an overtly Christian country so at the weekly prayer parades the Army Chaplain would read to us from the Bible. I was a serious Christian at the time. As deadly serious as any seventeen year old can be, so I tried to listen for the word of God for me at every reading. I don’t recall any encounters with God on the parade ground and that is possibly because I don’t remember the Chaplain once reading from the Gospels. I remember lots of readings from the Psalms, but never a reading about Jesus.
In later years I fell foul of the army when I became a religious objector who had discovered that I could not in good conscience be part of an army that was being used to violently suppress the voices and aspirations of fellow South Africans in the Black townships. It was the words of Jesus that brought me to that decision, and particularly the words of this Sunday’s gospel. I was helped to really understand the way of non-violence by studying the teachings of Martin Luther King Jnr., Ghandi, and South Africa’s own Desmond Tutu. (Nelson Mandela was still in prison and his teachings inaccessible in South Africa) These men showed in their lives the power of peaceful protest that I believe came very close to the way Jesus had lived and taught.
It was however a less public figure, Walter Wink, with his Third way, that gave me the real insight to Jesus’ brilliantly subversive non-violent teaching. The Third Way is the alternative to Resisting or Running away, the so-called fight or flight options which we believe are the only choices.
Like most churchgoing people I had been taught to understand the teachings of Jesus on turning the other cheek and going the second mile as a kind of milk-toast passive path that cowered in the face of violence. It portrayed Jesus as , “Gentle Jesus meek and mild” who really would be much use to anyone in a struggle against powerful oppression. In the South Africa of the day, as in most First World military complexes this kind of Jesus suited the war machine well. No follower of the lamb-carrying, blond guy with the effeminate features, was going to argue with the drill sergeant!
Walter Wink however, turned that on its head for me:
It is essential to notice the “BUTs” in Jesus’ words where he says,”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…”
The word for “resist” is anthistemi and is linked to military warfare where two armies would clash on the battlefield, “resisting” with bronze, blood and bone. Don’t do that with evildoers, BUT if someone wants to humiliate you by putting you below them, then resist. Resist in a creatively alternative Third Way.
As Wink has pointed out above turning the other cheek wasn’t passive at all. Neither was giving your undergarment when sued for your cloak. There was a strong prohibition against nakedness in Jewish society not only for the person found naked but also for the person who caused the nakedness. So to offer your last piece of clothing to a creditor, was to suddenly put them at risk of being shamed in public. Imagine the scene where the creditor suddenly has to beg the person being sued NOT to give them the undergarment too!
So too with “going the second mile”. Roman occupation troops were allowed to press locals into carrying their pack but only for one mile. To be caught abusing this privilege was punishable my military law. Again, can we imagine the arrogant Roman soldier begging for his pack from the poor Hebrew who wants to carry it further and thus get the soldier in trouble?
There is a comprehensive article on these arguments here.
All of Jesus’ teaching is to empower his hearers who are most often the marginalised, the poor and the powerless. Jesus does not want revolution which will simply invert the power structures with oppressed becoming oppressors. Jesus wants the restoration of human dignity for all. That is the real power of the Gospel.
But the power Jesus uses is not to mirror the oppositional power that is being used to cause the hurt and humiliation, it is rather, skilful alternative and transforming power that forces a review and reconsideration of the whole structure of human power and abuse of power.
Small wonder we all wanted to silence him. He was too skilfully subversive for status quo people who really don’t want to change and certainly don’t want to share our power and privilege!
I also understand why Army Chaplains, responsible for motivating troops and sanctifying violence would find it difficult to read from the Gospels about Jesus.
It takes cheek to follow Jesus.