Women and the Cheek Defiance of Jesus

Self-Affirming, Nonviolent Resistance and the Cheek Defiance of Jesus for Women. 

ampersandBY HERB MONTGOMERY

If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. —Matthew 5:39

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been confronted by yet another reminder of Christianity’s failure to participate in Jesus’ mission of liberation. Christians cannot participate in the liberation work of our Christ while we continue to empower oppression.

What brought this reality most painfully to my attention recently was the failure of my faith tradition to recognize and reject the evils of sexism and veiled misogyny.

The most appropriate place I know to turn this week is Jesus. For Jesus and the stories about Jesus have much to say to women being subjugated by men.

In his own culture, Jesus taught Jewish women how to respond to the evils of sexism around them. Jesus saw these women being made to believe they were “less than,” and taught them responses including seizing the moral initiative, asserting and affirming their human dignity, refusing to submit and accept an inferior position, and exposing the injustice of systems who perpetuate such evils. Because of how much we’ve domesticated the teachings of Jesus, we rarely see the full scope of his message.

In order to help you see it now, I want to recommend the extraordinary work of Walter Wink in Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. It relates to women in a very specific way.

In this volume, Wink pulls back the veil of centuries of misunderstanding about nonviolence and highlights the cultural context of Jesus’ teachings. Wink shows that Jesus taught his followers to assume moral authority and choose to take on the consequences of resistance—assume moral authority and choose .

In Matthew 5, Jesus taught:

“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:39)

As we have seen before, this phrase is often construed to mean that the slapped party submits to the person who strikes them. Nothing could be further from the original intent of the passage. The Jesus in Matthew abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil. And so he offers instead a third alternative to the oppressed of his day (cf. Luke 4.18).

“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 days’ penance (The Dead Sea Scrolls, I QS 7).” (Wink, ibid.)

The scenario Jesus is describing in Matthew 5 is not a fistfight. It is a slap meant as an insult, and the intention is not to injure, but to humiliate: it was a back-handed slap given with the right hand and landing on the recipient’s right cheek. As Wink explains, men used this kind of slap against women to remind them to get back in their place. He goes on to say:

One normally did not strike a peer thus, and if one did, the fine was exorbitant (4 zuz was the fine for a blow to a peer with a fist, 400 zuz for backhanding him; but to an underling, no penalty whatsoever (Mishnah, Mishnah, Baba Qamma 8:1-6).” (Wink, ibid.)

In that time, a backhanded slap was the normal way of admonishing inferiors, and women were considered admonish-able and women were considered underlings. Husbands would backhand wives who  got out of line.” So Jesus is describing unequal relations within that society. He’s also describing interactions, such as public stoning, where retaliation would be suicidal. The obvious option for many women in Jesus’ day to this relational culture was “cowering submission.”

Wink continues:

“Why then does [Jesus] 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.’” (Wink, ibid.)

Remember: to strike someone with a closed fist on the left cheek was how men in that era struck their peers. A man striking a woman on the left cheek would be forced to recognize the woman as his peer, equal, and equivalent.

I encourage you this week to actually pick up a copy of Wink’s excellent volume and read it for yourself. When you understand the context in which Jesus told his followers to engage in what I call “cheek defiance,” it becomes clear that he was empowering them to

  • Seize the moral initiative
  • Find a creative alternative to violence
  • Assert [their] 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 [their] ground
  • Make the Powers make decisions for which they are not prepared
  • Recognize [their] own power
  • Force the oppressor to see [them] in a new light
  • Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective (Wink, pp. 186-187)

This option would also require women to make serious choices and do so freely for themselves. Each of us must decide whether we are:

  • Willing to suffer rather than to retaliate
  • Willing to undergo the penalty for breaking unjust laws [or policies]; and
  • Die to fear of the old order and its rules.
  • Seek the oppressors’ transformation

Wink closes with this profound statement.

“Nonviolence is not the final objective. Nonviolence is a lifestyle. The final objective is humanity. It is life.”

As a friend of mine recently wrote, “Healing the world is hard work.” If you think it’s going to be easy then just reread how in Matthew 10 Jesus prepares his twelve to be misunderstood, feared, accused, and ultimately extirpated by the present status quo.

After teaching cheek defiance in Matthew 5, Jesus addresses two more scenarios: the poor interacting with the rich (public nudity) and Jewish relations with Roman soldiers (civil disobedience). But the very first example Jesus gave is one where women could be empowered to affirm their worth and dignity, to affirm themselves and stand up to patriarchy and its abuses.

In Jesus’ new world, there are no more hierarchies. We are all siblings, offspring of the same Heart at the center of the Universe. We are going to have to learn how to sit together around the same shared table, as equals, once again. But first we must make a choice. Do we really want a world that is a shared table, or will we keep striving to subordinate others or submit to others’ dominance.

Understand this: When we value peace more than we value other people, the result is oppression. Peace (or unity) is not the fruit of submission. It is the presence of equity.

Jesus’ ultimate goal was “peace on earth,” yet he also spoke of being willing to stand up to the uplifted “sword” of our oppressors in creative ways that exposed the domination systems and awakened even those who empowered and drove those systems to also choose an alternative way. Yes, some of us may end up on a cross for shutting down the temples of our day as a result of following Jesus, but we are people of the resurrection and not only of the cross. The hope of the empty tomb is that subordination will yield to equity, condemnation will give way to compassion, fear to hope, and hate to love. But this change will never happen by itself. Each one of us, both men and women, must choose this new world.

I want to be clear. As a man, I am not telling women how they should respond to sexism or patriarchy in the world or in the church. Women within Christianity must be free to self-determine how they respond. I’m concerned by what I’ve witnessed: men telling women to simply “submit.” And I’m offering the alternative I believe Christ offered: the way of self-affirming, empowered, nonviolent resistance.

I’ll close this week with the words of Mahatma Gandhi:

“Nonviolence is not to be used ever as a shield of the coward. It is the weapon of the brave.”

HeartGroup Application

This week, discuss with your HeartGroup ways you can apply Jesus’ methods of nonviolent resistance to participate in Christ’s work of liberation from oppression. (cf. Luke 4.18)

  1. Take time with your HeartGroup to name the forms of oppression each of you see around you.
  2. Make time to sit and think of what Jesus’ nonviolent resistance might look like if practiced in each of those oppressive contexts today.
  3. Make a decision: Will you only sit and talk about oppression and resistance, or will you choose to embrace the options you’ll have just come up with?

If you are struggling with this week’s reading, reread Matthew 10. This is the chapter I turn to when I’m afraid, and I recommend it to you in hopes that it will empower you as well.

I recently received an email from a medical doctor friend of mine who works around the globe to make a difference in the lives of the less privileged. He said to me:

“There are always dark nights of the soul and Gethsemanes. But stand strong. From what I’ve experienced in the last 11 years, monetary resources are no problem for God. It’s human resources that are hard to come by. The harvest is ripe but the workers are few. The financial support will come, just keep going. The message you are bringing of non-violence, of the real Jesus, of love for the [marginalized] (the “least of these”), is prophetic and needed in our time. But most prophets in the Bible got pretty rough treatment most of the time…and of course, like I just mentioned, Jesus had a pretty hard time of it too…

“Everyone is always so worried about whether things are safe or not. Newsflash: following Jesus is not safe! What you’re doing is not “safe.” It’s dangerous. But that is also a part of following the Lamb… You may question: was it worth it to stand up for the few and lose the many who could’ve heard the message? But you have to put your money where your mouth is, Herb. And in the end, you’ll have no regrets. Keep going. Don’t quit.”

As we each choose to participate in the hard work of aligning our stories with the Jesus story itself, may the prayer of our hearts be, “I want Jesus to walk with me.” He promised he would be with us till the end of the present age and until the dawning of the new world. As some Adventist women are saying this week, “You can’t hold back the dawn.”

Till the only world that remains is a world free from oppression, a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly. I’ll see you next week.

Blessed Are Those Who Are Poor . . .

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

128Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)

It’s good to be back home! I truly loved my time in Brazil. It is a very beautiful place, and the hearts of its people are the most beautiful.

I encountered two polar contrasts during my trip: the severe poverty of so many, and the equally shocking, extreme, generous nature of their sharing with one another. I saw that sharing even among the poorest.

As many are aware, when colonialism “ended” in many of the developing countries, another form of oppression took its place: economic oppression. The Empires that had settled in many of these areas passed on their debts to these fledgling countries as they gained their independence. Starting off deeply indebted to those who had previously ruled them, these nations gained independence, but not freedom. Many of these countries then turned to the World Bank, the IMF, and other power brokers of the new global economy for help. The international banks, the IMF, took the form of loans with terms and conditions that would leave more than half of each country’s resources going to debt repayment rather than internal development.

Brazil, for example, owes $1,420,331,037,715 to so called “first world countries” today. Every year, Brazil’s debt incurs $138,250,530,000 in interest. That’s $4384 per second. This debt amounts to 56.08% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), which is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services Brazil produces in its borders in a year.

So most of Brazil’s income repays debt that it wasn’t even responsible for incurring in the first place, and doesn’t maintain the infrastructure for taking care of its 202,768,562 citizens.

Imagine what your world would look like if your municipalities were, overnight, depleted of their resources to pay for water, sewer, trash pickup, road maintenance, emergency personnel, and law enforcement.

Manaus, the place I visited first, has virtually no middle class now. The very few wealthy and affluent live alongside masses upon masses of the severely poor.

I noticed this on Friday when I arrived. But that was just the start of my adventure.

Shortly after I arrived in Brazil, I was informed that my meetings in Manaus and Novo Airão had both been cancelled at the last minute. I learned that one of the “saints,” after seeing that I would be speaking in their church, googled my name and found out I was a friend to the LGBTIQ community. Discovering my love—and I quote—“for the gays,” rumors also began to circulate that I drank, smoked, ate pork, did drugs, had multiple wives, and did not believe in the Holy Spirit. (You can’t make this stuff up.) Those of you who’re not familiar with the teetotaling, kosher nature the Adventist church, please know that just saying that someone drinks, smokes, and eats pork is enough to marginalize an Adventist. Every other rumor was gratuitous. My meetings had been scheduled to begin that first weekend, but they would at best be delayed, and at worst be permanently cancelled.

So I woke up early the next morning and attended the church where I’d been scheduled to speak. Sunday, I spent becoming familiar with the city, and then Monday afternoon, I had an appointment with the Conference President.

The president and I were not the only ones present at this meeting. Accompanying me was my host and an interpreter. It turned into a short meeting, and the president did not discuss why our meetings had been delayed. We did discuss a church policy concerning guest speakers from other countries, and so I had the opportunity to remind everyone present that I was only in the country by their prior invitation. The meetings had been approved a year previously, and we had cooperated with every stipulation they had made in that time.

After the meeting—Im still not sure what made the difference—the administration approved our meetings for the second time. They would now begin on Wednesday evening. Faced with four lost days, I started editing my presentations. I’d already edited them severely for translation, and now I had to cut the series in half. As a result of the delays, however, the Manaus series was poorly attended until the last presentation, when the house was packed.

I chose Luke 4:18-19 as my focus for the week. In these texts, we discover Jesus, the liberator of the oppressed, embracer of the outcast, and proponent of a shared table. Those who did attend repeatedly told us how thankful they were for the meetings, and they shared the different paradigm shifts they had each experienced through encountering Jesus’ teaching in a refreshing new light.

The next series was about 120 miles northwest of Manaus, in Novo Airão. Buy bus that is about a four hours distance.  This area was much more economically stressed than Manaus.

For this group, my choice to present Jesus as a first century poor Jewish teacher (Luke 2.24 cf. Leviticus 12.8) who came with good news for his fellow poor resonated deeply. We focused on Jesus’ words in the Synagogue in Luke 4 (emphasis added):

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for those with prison-blindness,

to set the oppressed free.”

Never have I encountered first-hand just how important it is to couch Jesus’ ministry in the context of his liberation of the poor. The Novo Airão group showed me how much.

As we reflected on Luke 4, we explored four themes together.

1.  How Jesus taught the poor to survive. Jesus gave the poor a way to transcend “worry” and “fear” by combining what they did have and choosing to embrace, share with, and take care of one another. (See Luke 12:13-34; Matthew 5:25-34)

2.  How Jesus empowered the poor and oppressed to move beyond survival. Jesus taught the poor how to affirm themselves by nonviolently confronting oppressors and by staying rooted in enemy-love and enemy-transformation. John Dear, who has done a tremendous amount of work in nonviolence over the years, states: “Nonviolence is active love that seeks justice and peace for the whole human race, beginning with the poor and oppressed. It is the all-encompassing love that embraces every human being on the planet, refuses to kill anyone, and works for social justice for everyone.” (See Luke 4:16-29; Matthew 5:38-42)

3.  How Jesus rejected hierarchical structures in the community of his followers. Jesus promoted equity, justice, and compassion for all. This insight resonated with the audience the most as many felt as if they were living lives at the bottom of political, economic, and religious structures. (See Matthew 20:25-28; Matthew 23:8-12)

4.  How Jesus replaced systems of oppression and exclusion with a shared table. As each one of us, along with our differences, encounter one another at Jesus’ shared table, we become enabled to integrate all the many diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole, producing a safer and more compassionate world for us all. (Luke 6:20-26; Luke 15:1, 25-32)

We ended this series with the ending of Jesus narrative. Jesus was crucified by the powers and systems that his teachings threatened, and God said “NO” to that execution in the resurrection on Sunday morning. Jürgen Moltmann defines the resurrection as a Divine protest to the domination systems of our world. The early church also perceived the resurrection as a decisive clue that a new world, like a mustard seed placed in the ground and like leaven in dough, had begun with Jesus. (See Acts 13:32-33) In overwhelming clarity, we encountered, together, a Jesus who proclaimed that the Heart of the Universe was standing with those who, as a result of the way the present world is set up, are hurting, suffering, going hungry, falling asleep many nights in tears, oppressed, marginalized and subordinated.  These are the majority of those who live in Novo Airão. And those who were present found renewed hope as decisions were made to embrace and to follow this Jesus.

On the last night of this second series, one of the more affluent members who attended shared with me this message in broken english:

“I had never looked at things this way before. Thank you so much for coming. I feel as if I cannot continue on the same way I had. If I am to embrace Jesus’ shared table, things in my life where I’m participating in ‘pyramids of oppression’ and ‘circles of exclusion’ must change.”

Over all, I view my trip to Brazil as a tremendous success for Jesus’ new world. The response of the people to the stories and teachings of Jesus was breathtaking, especially in Novo Airão, and I believe the Novo Airão church took significant strides toward Jesus’ new world of compassion and safety for everyone.

To those of you who were praying for this series here at home, thank you. Over the next two weeks the Novo Airão church will be conducting a local school building project: please keep praying for them.

And to each of you who has supported Renewed Heart Ministries, I can’t thank you enough. You made it possible for me to go to Brazil and share with the people I met.

I take Jesus’ words to his disciples, “Freely you have received, freely give” very seriously. Renewed Heart Ministries is a not-for-profit ministry, and we never charge seminar fees for local work. We also make all of our resources available on the web so the people who need to hear this message can access it freely.

This means we are directly dependent on our monthly supporters as well as those who make one-time contributions: you help us to keep lifting up Jesus and his teachings in a hurting world. Jesus’ teachings have placed us on a path that leads to life rather than death, compassion rather than condemnation, and love rather than hate. Like Jesus, we believe our call is not “to condemn the world.” Instead we do this work that the world, through Jesus and his teachings, “might be healed” (John 3:17).

I witnessed the healing nature of Jesus’ teachings firsthand during my visit to Brazil. Jesus’ words to the poor and oppressed, his uplifting of women in a patriarchal society, his embrace of the outcast and excluded, and even his self-affirming nonviolence resonated so deeply with those who participated in these two series of meetings that I, too, walked away having to agree with the Samaritans of Jesus’ day: “This man [Jesus] really is the Savior of the world.” (John 4:42)IMG_0519

Thank you for helping me to see and share that Savior. Till the only world that remains is world where love reigns, let’s keep lifting Jesus up.
And to each of you who support the ministry of RHM as we reach our around the globe, thank you.

I love each of you dearly. I’ll see you next week.