A Cheeky Response
First Presbyterian Church
April 29, 2012
As you know, we once were told, ‘An eye for an eye’ and ‘A tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t react violently against the one who is evil; when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well. If someone is determined to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go along an extra mile.
When the Jesus Seminar searched through the Jesus tradition to determine what deeds and words might be part of the voice print of the original historical Jesus, they decided that witty aphorisms and parables were more likely to belong to Jesus than long speeches. What was remembered from Jesus was more likely to be little nuggets of wisdom rather than long theological discourses.
These three “case studies” (turn the cheek, give your coat, go the second mile) are found in Matthew with a parallel in Luke. The theory is that they go back to an earlier source, scholars call Q, the first letter of the German word Quelle, which means source. That is material is common to Matthew and Luke not found in Mark.
These three “case studies” turn the cheek, give your coat, and go the second mile, seem to belong to Jesus. They were all voted “red” as in “Yep, sounds like Jesus.” They are non-literal, comic, surprising, and transformative for those with ears to hear.
It is also likely to be true that the primary audience for Jesus would have been peasants. These would be people who would know first-hand the indignities of being in debt, of losing land and livelihood, of being occupied by a foreign army, humiliated by superiors, and having nothing more than the shirts on their backs.
It is likely that Christianity was not at its beginning a movement of the rich and famous. It was of the poor and infamous. In the second century a man named Celsus criticized Christianity. He ridiculed it because of the company it kept. We know of Celsus’ writings because early Church father, Origin wrote a treatise called Against Celsus. He quotes Celsus remarks about the early Christian movement. Celsus is speaking sarcastically from the first person as if he were a Christian inviting people to join:
Let no one educated, no one wise, no one sensible draw near. For these abilities are thought by us to be evils. But as for anyone ignorant, anyone stupid, anyone uneducated, anyone who is a child, let him come boldly. By the fact that they themselves admit that these people are worthy of their God, they show that they want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, and only slaves, women, and little children.
Later he says:
In private houses also we see wool-workers, cobblers, laundry-workers, and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels, who would not dare to say anything at all in front of their elders and more intelligent masters. But whenever they get hold of children in private and some stupid women with them, they let out some astounding statements as, for example, that they must not pay attention to their father's and school-teachers, but must obey them; they say that these talk nonsense and have no understanding, and that in reality they neither know nor are able to say anything good, but are taken up with mere empty chatter.
What Celsus noticed is that these early Christians upset the social order. Slaves, women, and children are worthy of the Christian god. That is not a good thing from the point of view of Celsus. The Jesus’ movement earliest appeal was to those who had been left out and marginalized by the dominant social order.
We should remember that the founding narrative of Christianity is that its hero, Jesus, was executed and tortured as a common criminal by established, legitimate authority. In elevating this person to son of god like Caesar, the earliest communicators of the Jesus’ message were making radical statements about life, life’s meaning, the meaning of justice and peace, and whose side they thought God was really on.
“Let no one educated, no one wise, no one sensible draw near,” said Celsus.
From the point of view of the slaves, women, children, and day-laborers who did draw near, the educated, wise and sensible of Celsus’ class were part of the problem. It was that class who were backhanding them on the cheek, taking their coats in payment of debt, and conscripting them to carry their military packs.
These three case studies of Jesus that were preserved could have been just a snippet, headlines of longer teachings and conversations that Jesus would have had with people about dignity and resistance. One could imagine all kinds of arguments, a lot of back and forth with Jesus and others about what to do and how to respond to the oppression and humiliation. One can imagine the arguments would have been heated and passionate:
“What do we do with these Romans? What do we do about these landowners? What do we do about these priests and accountants who side with them over us? Do we have an armed revolution? Do we just take it and let them abuse us, starve us, and kill us?”
These are serious questions. I can imagine that Jesus was in the thick of it. The choice as we know was armed revolution in 66 CE that was crushed by the Romans. It resulted in the destruction of the temple and the burning of Jerusalem. This is the context of Mark’s Gospel.
Historical Jesus scholar, Dominic Crossan, thinks that Mark’s gospel account of the execution of Jesus is a parable not about Jesus’ own time and life, but about the destruction of Jerusalem in 66-70. The choice of the people to release Barabbas the revolutionary rather than Jesus was the choice the Jews made to choose armed revolt rather than non-violent revolt. It was a choice that the author of Mark’s gospel thought was a bad idea.
It is after this failure of the Jewish War from 66-70 that the gospels are written. It is as though the gospels are written looking back and through the revolt and war of 66-70 to Jesus 40 years on the other side and saying, “What if we had listened to him? What was he saying again?”
What was Jesus saying? Was he saying, “Armed revolt! Take up the righteous cause of God!”
Or was he saying, “Be passive. Just take it. Your reward is in heaven. God will take care of all of it.”
Or was he saying something else?
These three case studies provide the clue. Jesus offered a third way. These case studies, these three sayings are remembered not by any means as his complete teaching but the briefest of outlines for a program of resistance to oppression that is non-violent with the emphasis on non-violent and resistance.
According to Dominic Crossan, the kingdom of God is participatory. We can’t do it without God. God won’t do it without us. It isn’t a violent intervention by supernatural power. It is non-violent and takes over like leaven in bread and a mustard weed in a field. It transforms all, including enemy, to friend. The evil is the violence. You are simply not going to get peace through violent means. Peace comes through justice not through victory. The way to peace is not violence. Peace is the way.
Jesus is speaking to people who are humiliated. His first lesson to them is:
You are a human being.
You are the light of the world.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are a child of God.
Do not participate or cooperate in your own humiliation.
Jesus is not to be interpreted as saying, “Allow yourself to be a punching bag. If your spouse hits you just go back and submit. Turn the other cheek.” That is a misreading. That is what happens when bullies get control of the Bible. The Bible does not belong to the bullies.
Notice the detail. “When someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other.” The setting here is a backhanded slap from the superior’s right hand to the right side of the face. What do you do when that happens to you? When a slave-owner, a person in authority, a father, or a husband does that, what do you do? Do you hit back? That would result in death, a severe beating, or imprisonment? Do you cower? That is what the superior wants. The bully wants you to be humiliated.
No, says Jesus. You neither hit back nor cower. You stand there and turn the other cheek. You are making a communication that you are a human being. It is an act of defiance. You might get whipped for it. But you are showing yourself and the other that you are a human being. The invitation is for the other to recognize you as a human being as well. It is not an aggressive act. It is assertive.
If someone takes you to court and takes one of your garments, give them your other garment. To survive people had two garments. The outer garment served as a blanket at night. The law was that in payment for a debt you could take a person’s garment but you had to give it back to them at night. It is a setting of humiliation in which people lost everything to burdensome debts. The owners have nothing left to take from you except your coat. What do you do?
The first principle is that you do not participate or cooperate in your own humiliation. You make a public spectacle. You not only give them your coat, but you take off your undergarment too. You stand before them naked. Rather than receive this injustice passively and cower with humiliation, you stand up and act. Your nakedness shames the oppressor.
This has become a technique in modern non-violent movements. This is from ABC News:
Nigerian villagers who have long clashed with oil companies doing business in their backyards are trying a creative protest tactic. They've dropped their guns, and some have even threatened to drop their clothes.
Hundreds of unarmed women from local tribes in the oil-rich but desperately poor Niger Delta region brought production to a halt recently at pipeline facilities owned by ChevronTexaco by merely occupying the sites. Several dozen village women are still holed-up today.
To make their point, the women threatened to disrobe — a strong local shaming symbol — and managed to strike a deal with ChevronTexaco that will bring jobs and funding for schools, hospitals and other services into their struggling community.
Check out The Righteous Mothers and their song “Old Fat Naked Women for Peace” as they sing about this non-violent resistance tactic.
The inspiration for Ghandi and King for non-violent resistance came from Jesus. Jesus was not about passivity. He was about transformation.
The third test case is if “someone conscripts you for a mile, go a second mile.”
This isn’t just someone. This is a Roman soldier. Soldiers were allowed to grab civilians and force them to carry their gear. In a similar vein, in the gospel of Mark, the story is that Simon of Cyrene was conscripted to carry Jesus’ cross.
The law was that Roman soldiers could only force someone to carry their pack for one mile. Jesus says, “So when this happens to you, don’t give the pack back. Offer to continue to carry it. Force the soldier to break the law and see what happens!” Imagine the soldier and the peasant fighting over the pack. Rather than be humiliated, you take the upper hand.
Some of the principles of non-violent resistance are found in the gospels and in these case studies of Jesus. Thanks to Walter Wink, author of The Powers That Be for interpreting these sayings in the light of non-violent resistance. These principles are in general:
- You are a human being with dignity and so is your opponent.
- Do not cooperate with your own oppression or humiliation.
- Do not return violence with violence.
- Find creative ways to assert to transform relationships from “power over to power with”.
It is the third way.
The way of transformative peace.