We’ve looked at truth and justice. For the next three posts we’re going to look at everything Jesus taught about the American way.
We’ve picked three of the core values that most of us share as Americans, and we will hold them up against the teachings of Jesus to see what we find. As core values ,they often are completely unquestioned. We just believe them and sometimes we don’t even know that we believe them. They just are.
And the first one is really captured by Superman, especially when the bullets bounce off of his chest.
And that’s toughness.
Being super tough is what gets you hero status for us here in America. We worship the kind of power that makes others submit, whether they like it or not.
On the screen, power usually belongs to a good guy who just wants to be left alone until he’s pushed to the edge. But once he is pushed far enough, he always kills all the bad guys. And there’s something in us as Americans that says that’s what it means to be tough.
But what did Jesus teach?
Well, Jesus taught a kind of toughness especially for people with no power.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
I gotta say…that doesn’t sound very tough.
But as it turns out, it really is. Especially when we start with the background of the text. (And for this scholarship, I am indebted to the late great Dr. Walter Wink.)
The first thing we always need to remember when we come to a teaching in the Bible is the context it was taught in. So real quick…
Jesus taught in Roman occupied Palestine. He was a Jewish Rabbi, and his audience was other Jews. And while the Jewish people had factions at the time, one thing they all shared was the common problem of being occupied by the empire that ruled the world.
Think soldiers on every corner… Collaborators holding nominal power. And not a whole lot of hope.
So let’s look at Jesus’ teaching with all that in mind.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
This is from the Old Testament Law based on fairness and retribution. It was also based on a society where the same law applied to everybody in the same way. And that was not the case in Jesus’ time. And it’s not the case today, so we should listen up.
But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer…
Do not resist an evildoer. That sounds pretty weak to me. That sounds like doormat, cowardly, complicit Christianity. That sounds like the kind of counterfeit faith that has sent countless spouses and children back into abuse.
And it also doesn’t sound a whole lot like the Jesus we see elsewhere in the Gospels.
So what’s going on here?
Well, the Greek word translated “resist” here literally means to stand against. And what often gets overlooked is that this word is most often used in the Greek version of the Old Testament as a technical term for warfare. It describes the way ancient armies would march toward each other until their ranks met. Then they would stand against each other and fight.
So Jesus isn’t saying not to resist evil, to just be passive and let it happen and hope it doesn’t happen to you. Jesus is saying don’t resist violently. Don’t sink to its level.
“Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms.” -Walter Wink
…But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;
Now, a lot of translations render the “if” above as “whenever”. As in, whenever anyone strikes you. And the original Greek bears that out. Jesus was teaching people who could expect to get slapped, and wouldn’t be all that surprised by the blow.
And that’s why it’s such an important detail that Jesus specifies the right cheek, especially when you know that being left handed only became okay in the world less than a hundred years ago.
So how do you hit someone’s right cheek with your right hand?
The only practical way to hit someone’s right cheek with your right hand is with a backhand. And here’s where Jesus really starts to teach his own kind of toughness.
“The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place.” -Walter Wink
So by turning the other cheek, the one without power is forcing the one with power to punch him with a closed fist. It’s the slaves’ way of telling his master, “I’m a man, just like you.”
Jesus is telling them then, and us now, to never accept shame, to never cooperate with being humiliated.
Jesus is teaching how to use what little power people often have to assert their own essential worth. That’s definitely the case with the next verse.
Matthew 5:40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;
The background on this one is that back in Jesus’ day, when a creditor made a loan to someone who had nothing, he could take as collateral a poor person’s long outer robe, but it had to be returned each evening so the poor man would have something to sleep in. (See Deuteronomy 24: 10-13)
So in this one image, Jesus has conjured a story where the loan hasn’t been paid back, and the creditor is suing to keep the coat for good. And he tells this person:
Here’s what you do. As you walk into court, take off your cloak, (which would be all they’d be wearing), and put in into your oppressors’ other hand, and just go before the judge naked.
Can you imagine?
And think of the result! The poor man wouldn’t have had any hope of winning that case. The law was entirely on the creditor’s side. But the poor man refused to cooperate with being humiliated, and showed the judge and the plantiff and everyone, just how human he really was.
And this scenario Jesus imagines isn’t just tough to do. It also holds out the possibility of redemption for those who are wrong.
“The creditor is revealed to be not a legitimate moneylender but a party to the reduction of an entire social class to destitution. This unmasking is not simply punitive, since it offers the creditor a chance to see, perhaps for the first time in his life, what his practices cause, and to repent.” – Walter Wink
Matthew 5:41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
The context of this teaching really makes it shine. The people who first heard Jesus teach this would have probably been forced to carry the packs of Roman soldiers. And “the Roman army did have a relatively enlightened practice of limiting the amount of forced labor a soldier could impress on a subjected person to one mile.”
But what we usually miss when we talk about “going the extra mile” in sentimental terms, is the fact that carrying the pack a second mile was an infraction of military code.
So if the soldier got caught, it would be up to his commander what his punishment would be. If the commander was his friend, he might not be punished at all. But if he wasn’t, the soldier might get fined, or flogged, or worse.
But I don’t think Jesus was trying to get soldiers in trouble.
What he was doing was giving dignity and power back to the little guy.
Jesus was teaching people who got stepped on how to be tough in a way that might make a difference. Even if the only difference was the satisfaction of being asked by a Roman soldier, “Pretty please, may I have my stuff back?”
So what are we supposed to do with this?
With few exceptions, the people reading this are not oppressed like Jesus’ audience were. I am certainly not oppressed. So what are we supposed to do with all of this.
What We Believe
First, we need to remember that non-violence is the default method of resistance for Christians.
Followers of Jesus have been putting this teaching into practice throughout history.
From Jesus himself, to the martyrs in the book of Acts, to people like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day; and they all found out just how tough, and effective it can be to refuse to use violence.
But one thing we often don’t think about is that non-violence is more than just refusing to use violence.
The kind of tough resistance that changes things is provocative.
The men and women who sat at the lunch counters in Greensboro, NC did it for the purpose of provoking this picture.
Those protests were so effective because of “the contrast between the innocence of the protesters and the brutality of the state. All nonviolent protest depends on — the assumption that their oppressors will not change their behavior, and will thus sow their own downfall if one does not resist.” (Wink)
It’s just important for us to know that as Christians.
Especially for those of us who get to pick and choose which struggles to care about.
Especially when we are the ones who might be being provoked into seeing something evil about ourselves.
What We Do
Second, we need to make sure that we actively resist evil and sin in the world, and with each other.
Too often, I think that we don’t believe in other people enough to believe that they can do better. There have been many times when I didn’t say hard things when I should have. And part of that comes from not having enough faith in other people.
But we need to be tougher with each other.
We need to say tough things to each other, instead of sweeping bad behavior under the rug.
The essence of nonviolent resistance is resistance. We need embrace resistance in and of itself, resistance to sin in our lives and when we see it in others.
It is time to stop being polite.
Which is its own kind of tough. Keeping the conversation light, and not talking about uncomfortable things is almost as much of a core value for us as toughness.
But Jesus doesn’t say “When you see someone striking someone on the cheek quietly sneak out of the room and politely avoid them when you see them on Sunday.” And he doesn’t say “When it comes up about that man being struck on the cheek, quickly change the conversation to your recent travels.”
As Christians, we are called to resist evil.
To stand against it.
To let the light shine onto it.
Which means looking it right in the eyes and calling bad behaviors what they are.
Which means being the kind of tough Jesus talked about, and resisting those who are not living the life Jesus calls us to live.
Which means you won’t back down.
About the Author
David Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find him on Twitter @davidrcollins