The Active Nonviolence of Jesus: Cheek Defiance (3 of 12)

PART 3 OF 12

Cheek Defiance


“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles . . . I tell you, love your enemies . . .”—Matthew 5.39,43Part 3

As we begin to move into Jesus actual peace teaching, this is another place in this series where I want to emphasize that Jesus did not teach his followers to be “passive-ists” but rather “Pacifists.” (See part 1 for a more detailed explanation of the difference). We will be looking at more of Jesus’ teachings on the way of peace in the coming weeks, but this week, I thought we should begin with those passages that Jesus is most famous for: The sermon on the mount (or plain, if you’re reading from Luke.)

Jesus shows here that the goals of the Kingdom He came to establish cannot be accomplished by violence. Rejection of violence, however, ought not be interpreted as passivity. Far from counseling passivity, Jesus’ statements about turning the other cheek, giving the cloak, and going the second mile, as we see in this passage above, actually teach an assertive and confrontational nonviolence that provides an opponent with an opportunity for transformation. With suggestions such as these the oppressed person has the potential to seize the initiative, shame the offender, and strip him of the power to dehumanize.

Jesus said, “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”. The only natural way for a blow to land on the right cheek was with the back of the hand. Such a blow would be a show of insult by a superior to an inferior. Let me explain. Normally one would not strike an equal in this humiliating way, and doing so carried an exorbitant fine. Try to picture the scene in your head. Since the left hand was only used for unclean tasks in that culture, hitting the right cheek with the left hand would not occur. Hitting with a closed right fist though, would involved hitting someone on the left cheek. But this would produce another problem. A blow from a closed right fist acknowledged the one struck as an equal. Thus a supposed superior – master over slave, husband over wife, parent over a child, Roman over Jew, man over woman – would specifically not want to strike an inferior with a fist. To be struck on the right cheek required the one striking to strike you not with closed fist, but with an open backhanded slap. The backhand blow to the right cheek had the specific purpose of humiliation, and a blow in retaliation would invite retribution. Thus turning the other, or left cheek, showed that the supposed inferior refused to be humiliated. And with the left cheek now bared, the striker would be left with two options – a left-handed blow or a blow with a right fist. Since neither option was acceptable to the supposed superior, he lost the power to dehumanize the other.

What we are seeing here is that Jesus, not only taught the theory of non-violence, but then He gave us real examples of how to apply the theory. And this doesn’t even begin to look at how He then modeled this theory throughout His entire life and ultimately His death as well. Let’s look at Jesus next example.

A court of law constitutes the setting for Jesus’ injunction about giving the cloak or undergarment along with the outer coat. The law allowed a creditor to take the coat (or outer garment) as a promise of future payment from a poor person without means to pay a debt (Exod. 22:25-27; Deut. 24:10-13, 17). Only the poorest person would have only an article of clothing to surrender as security. Since the coat was likely the debtor’s sole remaining article of clothing, the wealthy creditor had to return it each evening for the owner to sleep in. Further, in that society the shame of nakedness fell more on those viewing it and those causing it than on the naked person. (Remember Noah’s son Ham?) Remember, most people only had two articles of clothing and they didn’t wear underwear in those days. Thus striping off the undergarment in the public setting of the court along with the required outer garment would have the effect of turning the tables on the wealthy creditor; it would put the poor person in charge of the moment while exposing the exploitative system and shaming the wealthy and powerful person who takes the last object of value from a very poor person. Yes, Jesus is actually here endorsing public nudity! This is a radical act of protest, but non-violent protest! Whether we like it or not, Jesus here is recommending streaking with a cause as a viable option rather than returning violence with just more violence.

Going the second mile had great power to embarrass the soldier who compelled the first mile. Roman law allowed soldiers to command at will the forced labor of carrying burdens for one mile, but limited the service to one mile. The limitation provided some protection for the occupied people. But if one followed Jesus’ words and cheerfully carried a burden beyond the required first mile, it put the solder in the awkward position of not complying with the limit posed by his superior. As a result, the solder could end up in the embarrassing position of begging the civilian to put down the burden lest the soldier be disciplined. You have to image the follower of Jesus saying, “No, no, I’ll cover for you. If you get in trouble I’ll vouch for you that I volunteered!” Then you have to image what kind of discussion would take place between the soldier (remember this was a Roman soldier deeply despised by the Jewish people. Try and get your head around what Jesus is actually teaching here.) and the Jesus follower for that entire second mile.

In these cases, Jesus’ instructions are NOT commands of passive nonresistance. The phrase “resist not an evildoer” could be problematic if Jesus did not then demonstrate in these stories exactly what He meant. The actual Greek word here for “resist” is anthistemi. It indicates resistance by returning violence for violence, over coming evil with evil, rather than overcoming evil with good. Anthistemi is a violent resistance much like how America would “resist” or rather exercise violent resistance toward anyone who tried to breach her borders and take over her territory. In the days of the American Revolution, a common symbol of this type of resistance was illustrated with a flag with a coiled up rattlesnake with the words above it, “Don’t tread on me!” The rattlesnake is a fitting illustration for these Americans rebelling against Britain. Step on us and we will strike! But never should it represent the kingdom Jesus came to establish. Never should it be taken to represent the Father. And never should it represent those who claim to follow this Jesus. (The imagery of the snake is used in the Bible, but it’s not used to represent God. The serpent is someone else. See Genesis 3.15. Jesus chose rather to represent the Father and the Kingdom with the mascot of a lamb.)

But was Jesus teaching that in rejecting violent responses that we should then simply do nothing? Absolutely NOT! Jesus was teaching nonviolent ways for oppressed people to take the initiative, to affirm their humanity, to expose and neutralize exploitative circumstances. Jesus is demonstrating non-violent ways in which people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity while at the same time reach out to redeem and restore those who, even though they are the “oppressors”, they too are victims of the systemic evil of their culture.

Now one note of balance needs to be made mention of. It is also possible to use these resistance strategies in ways that humiliate and belittle our oppressors. This is why Jesus was careful to immediately follow these teachings with the injunction to “love your enemies”. The importance of this cannot be over emphasized. The strategies provide an opportunity to reverse a situation in ways that preserve the humanity of all those involved, victim and oppressor alike, and keep open the possibility of restored relationships. Violent responses only close the possibilities of redemption and reconciliation. This is not what Christ’s Kingdom was to be about. This is why the goals of the Kingdom He came to establish cannot be accomplished by violence. Through the means that Jesus teaches here however, followers of Jesus can witness to the truths of the Kingdom as a contrast to the social order that does not recognize the rule of Jesus. In practicing these non-violent, but pacifistic (peaceful) means of confrontation, the followers of Jesus witness to new way of living, a new way of doing life. They give the gospel cry: “The Kingdom Has Come.” (see Mark 1.15, Mathew 24.14, Acts 28.30-31)

Again, this was the way followers of Jesus understood what it meant to follow Jesus for the first three hundred years. We’ll be looking at much more of Jesus’ own peace teaching over the next few weeks. (We’ll get to all those questions you guys have been sending in too.)

Keep living in love, loving like Jesus, and keep building the Kingdom.

I love you guys,