“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 one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Jesus in Matthew 5:38–41)
Jesus’s words about nonviolence are often dismissed as impractical idealism. I mean to say: How is “Turn the other cheek” different from being a doormat? It even sounds complicit –cowardly!- in the face of injustice. “Resist not evil” seems to suggest passive submission and “Going the second mile” is now a platitude that means little more than “Be more helpful”! Rather than a strategy for opposing evil, it sounds like nodding wimpish agreement to the playground bully.
This is one conversation of Jesus that requires radical restatement. Jesus never acted or taught in the way I have just described! The whole context of the cross of Christ is a confrontation with evil which constitutes an absolute and implacable hatred of oppression.
Simply put, the Greek word antistenai does not mean “Resist not evil.” The translators (who were paid by King James 1st ) were translating nonviolent resistance into docility. The Greek word means “Resist violently, revolt or rebel, or engage in an insurrection.” Jesus did not tell the beleaguered listeners to shrug and put up with it; rather, he warned against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of their opposition.
Antistenai means “Do not retaliate against violence with violence.” Both Jesus and Barabbas sought to oppose Roman oppression: they only differed in their methodology.
There are only three possible responses to evil: (1) rebellion, (2) submission, and (3) militant nonviolence. Fight or flight or…something else.
There had been previous insurrections. Twenty years before Jesus spoke these words, over two thousand rebels had been crucified in an uprising against Imperial Rome. Some also would live to experience the horrors of the war against Rome that ensued in 66–70 AD. So if military victory could not be achieved, then the Jews must settle for submission, gritting their teeth and obeying resentfully. Right?
Jesus offered that “something else”.
Now do you see why King James’ servants translated antistenai as “resist not”? Is it likely that a 17th Century sovereign would allow the suggestion of civil disobedience? So according to this take, Jesus appears to say that submission to monarchical absolutism is the will of God. Most subsequent translations follow that line, (tugging their forelocks as they do so, no doubt).
Read it this way: “Don’t react violently against someone who is evil.”
And Jesus gives three quick word-pictures to underline this, his real point: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Why the right cheek? How does one person strike another on the right cheek anyway? Try it. A blow by the right fist hits the left cheek of your opponent! To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean jobs (Don’t ask). According to the Dead Sea Scrolls, even a gesture with the left hand at Qumran earned you ten days penance. The only way one could strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand.
So we’re talking insult here, not fisticuffs. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate. One normally did not strike a peer in this way, and if one did the fine was exorbitant (four zuz was the fine for a blow to a peer with a fist, 400 zuz for backhanding him; but to an inferior, no penalty at all!). A backhand slap was the normal way of rebuking underlings. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. It’s what you did to people lower down on the food chain.
Now, in these kind of circumstances, retaliation would be suicidal. The “right” response would be cowering submission. It is important to ask here just who Jesus was talking to. Invariably, they are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labour. No! Jesus is speaking to the victims, the underlings themselves, the very people who have been subjected to such indignities. They have grown up with a simple mentality: “Just look at your feet and take it lying down. These people are your betters!” So we’re talking class prejudice, caste snobbery, gender inequality, legalised slavery, racial Über-mensch ideology…. All of that and more.
“How dare you even feel outraged? Just who do you think you are?”
But Jesus stops this whole degrading process in its tracks. By turning the other cheek he takes from the bully the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, “Again, please. That didn’t work. You can’t belittle me because I am a human being just like you. You cannot demean me.” This is the momentous discovery that people can only hurt you by your permission. This is the secret weapon of Jesus, re- discovered by Gandhi and Martin Luther King and a very few others.
So what does the bully do next? Obviously (anatomically), he cannot now hit the other cheek. But if he hits with a fist, he is making himself an equal, and acknowledging the other as a peer. The whole point of the back of the hand is to reinforce the institutionalized inequality that Jesus is challenging.
The second example Jesus gives is a legal one. Someone is being sued for his outer garment. In that cultural context, only the very poor would have nothing but an outer garment to give as collateral for a loan. Jewish law strictly required its return every evening at sunset, for that was all the poor had in which to sleep. The situation to which Jesus alludes is one with which his hearers would have been too familiar: the debtor has lost it all, the debt cannot be repaid, and his creditor has hauled him into court to wring out repayment.
Jesus’ parables are full of debtors struggling to salvage their lives, and, indeed, poverty and debt formed the most serious social problem in first-century Palestine. His hearers are the poor (“if anyone would sue you”) who are being crushed by a system that subjects them to humiliation by stripping them of their lands, their goods, finally even their outer clothing.
But why say “Give up your inner clothing too”? That means stripping off and leaving court naked! There stands the creditor, red with embarrassment, your outer garment in one hand, your underwear in the other. You have turned the tables on him. You couldn’t win the trial since the law was entirely in his favour. But you have refused to be humiliated. At the same time you have registered a protest against a system that creates such humiliation. You have said, in effect, “You want my robe? Here, take everything!”
And what happens next? Remember that nakedness was taboo in Judaism. There was shame involved, not on the naked one but on the person viewing or causing one’s nakedness (Genesis 9:20–27). Your creditor is now involved in your destitution. As you walk away from the court, your neighbours ask what happened. You explain. They join a procession which is publicly unmasking an act of social bullying. The creditor is revealed to be not a “respectable” moneylender but a party in the reduction of an entire social class to destitution.
And even this is not payback or revenge: it offers an opportunity for the creditor to see things differently, and perhaps to repent.
It’s a powerfully absurd joke.
People in powerful positions “stand on their dignity”. By refusing to be awed by this power, the powerless are enabled to take the initiative, even where societal change is not possible. Jesus is not offering an impossibly idealistic strategy: he is empowering the oppressed. He provides a hint of how to take on the entire system in a way that unmasks its essential cruelty and to mock its pretensions to justice.
The third example, the one about going the second mile, is drawn from the enlightened practice of limiting the amount of forced labour that Roman soldiers could levy on subject peoples. A soldier could force a civilian to carry his pack one mile only; to force the civilian to go further carried with it penalties under military law. In this way Rome tried to limit the reaction of the occupied people. Nevertheless, this law was a harsh reminder to the Jews that they were –after all- still a subject people.
So, to this proud people, Jesus did not suggest the Barabbas route. You don’t draw your sword on this enemy. But why walk the second mile? Is this not the opposite extreme: aiding and abetting the enemy? No. The question here, again, is how the oppressed can recover the initiative, how they can assert their dignity as human beings in an impossible situation. The rules are Caesar’s but not how you respond to them!
Imagine then the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack. You say, “Oh no, let me carry it another mile.” Normally he has to force obedience but you do it cheerfully and will not stop! Is this a provocation? Are you insulting his strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to make you go farther then you should? Are you planning to file a complaint? To create trouble?
Do you see how provocative your action is?
At first you were a slave, being bullied into further humiliation. Now you have taken the initiative. You have taken back the power of choice. The soldier is thrown off-balance by being deprived of the predictability of your response. Imagine the hilarious situation of a Roman soldier pleading with a Jew, “Ah, come on, please give me back my pack! You’ll get me into trouble!”
This is hilarious. It is really really funny to thus make fun of your oppressors.
Is it revenge or retaliation in an underhand way?
But can people engaged in oppressive acts repent unless made uncomfortable with their actions? Sure, there’s the danger of using nonviolence as a tactic of revenge and humiliation, but there is also, at the opposite extreme, an equal danger of sentimentality that confuses the uncompromising love of Jesus with being nice.
Loving confrontation can free both the oppressed from docility and the oppressor from sin.
To those with power, Jesus’ advice to the powerless may seem paltry. But to those whose lifelong pattern has been to cringe before bullies, to those who have internalized their role as inferiors, this small step is momentous.
- Turning the Other Cheek (ubicrux.com)
- Would Jesus support war? (timshallard.wordpress.com)
- Jesus is Cruciform, Not Octagonal (A Response to Mark Driscoll) (jonchadwickchambers.com)
- Who Is My Enemy? (matthufer.wordpress.com)
- Turning the Other Cheek (scottfranko.com)
- What Would Jesus Really Do? Fight Evil? Or Turn the Other Cheek? (pjmedia.com)
- Viewing Things Differently (theroanokestar.com)