Jesus and Nonviolent Resistance (Mental Fight)

 

Love your Enemies

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1. 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 an evildoer.

2. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

3. And if anyone wants to sue you and take you coat, give your cloak as well.

4. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.  

5. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. [Matt v: 38-48]

Commentary by Marcus J. Borg

There is a habitual conventual way of reading this chapter of sayings as commending passive acceptance of wrongdoing: don’t resist somebody who beats you; go the extra mile; don’t insist on your own rights. Colloquially, be a doormat – let people walk all over you. Moreover, it has most commonly been understood to refer to personal relationships, not to the political realm. Most Christians have not thought of this passage as prohibiting participation in war or capital punishment. Official violence is okay. But all of this is a misunderstanding of the passage whose effect is to domesticate it politically. The powers that be are pleased with the doormat reading.

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“resistance, yes; violence, no”

The first statement begins by citing the law of retribution, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ A principle found three times in the Jewish Bible, it sounds barbaric to modern ears, but actually put limits on retaliation: one may not take more than an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This is followed by a contrasting saying of Jesus that is often mistranslated, as it is in the NRSV, the version quoted above. ‘But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.’ But the Greek verb translated ‘resist’ most often means ‘resist with violence.’ Thus, rather than counselling nonresistance to an evildoer, which would imply doing nothing in the face of evil, the verse really says, ‘Do not resist an evildoer with violence.’ As the following statements of the text make clear: resistance, yes; violence, no.

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equalise and neutralise acts of domination

The next three statements provide specific examples of nonviolent resistance. The second statement says: ‘But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’ The specification of the right cheek and the awareness that people in that world used their right hand to strike somebody provide the key for understanding the saying. How can a person be hit on the right cheek by a right-handed person? Only by a backhanded slap (act it out and see for yourself). In that world, a slap with the back of a hand was the way a superior struck a subordinate. The saying thus presupposes a situation of domination: a peasant being backhanded by a steward or official, a prisoner being backhanded by a jailer, and so forth. When that happens, turn the other cheek. What would be the effect of that? The beating could continue only if the superior used an overhand blow – which is the way an equal struck another equal. Of course, he might do so. But the would be momentarily discombobulated, and the subordinate would be asserting his equality even if the beating did continue.

The third statement, ‘If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well,’ imagines a setting in which a person is being sued for his outer garment because of nonpayment of debt (and only a very poor person would have only a coat to offer as collateral). In that world, peasants commonly wore only two garments, a long tunic and an outer garment that could also serve as a blanket. The effect of giving up the inner garment as well as the outer would, of course, be nakedness. The act would not only startle the creditor, but would also shame him, for nakedness shamed the person who beheld the nakedness. Moreover, it would be a symbolic statement: look what this system is doing to us, stripping us naked.

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‘Take this!’: the unexpected velocity of satire

The fourth statement, about going the ‘second mile,’ refers to a known practice of imperial soldiers. Soldiers were allowed to compel peasants to carry their considerable gear for one mile, but no more. The reason for the restriction was that soldiers had been abusing the option by forcing peasants to carry their gear all day (or even longer). The result was not only popular resentment, but peasants ending up a day’s journey (or more) from home. And so the restriction was introduced, and soldiers faced penalties for violating it, some of them severe. In this setting, what are you to do when an imperial soldier requires you to carry his gear for a mile? Do it – and then keep going. The situation is almost comical – imagine an imperial soldier wrestling a peasant to get his gear back while the peasant says, ‘No, no, it’s fine. Let me carry it another mile.’

We should not think of these sayings however as ‘rules’, as what one should do every time these cases happen. It is difficult to imagine Jesus intended ‘turn the other cheek’ as a rule to be followed every time one was beaten, for it would not take long for the person inflicting the beating to realise, ‘Oh, it’s the old turn-the-other-cheek trick.’ Rather, they are meant as creative examples of nonviolent resistance whose purpose is to spark the imagination to create more.

The fifth statement begins with a more general statement: ‘Love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ In the context of the preceding statements, it means loving enemies while at the same time also nonviolently resisting them.

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violence isn’t the way to challenge the system; violence is the system

Jesus’s advocacy of nonviolent resistance was a way different from the other main responses to the domination system. He rejected the path of compliance, whether the way of elite collaboration or peasant resignation. Indeed, he criticised the former and sought to empower the latter. But he also rejected the path of violent resistance and took his stand among those who practiced nonviolent resistance.

Did he reject violent resistance because he saw the futility of it – that it would simply result in another slaughter of peasants by the military power of empire? He was certainly aware of what had happened in Sepphoris and Galilee when Rome suppressed the revolts of 4 BCE. Or did he reject violence for more than strategic and prudential reasons?

The ending of the fifth statement suggests that his position was not simply prudential, but grounded in his perception of God’s character. The reason for loving you enemies? ‘So that you may be children of your Father in heaven,’ who ‘makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’ That is the way God is. Love of enemies and nonviolent resistance are grounded in God’s character and passion. God’s character is nonviolent; therefore be nonviolent. God’s passion is justice, therefore be passionate about justice. Resist injustice. And do so nonviolently.

From: Marcus J. Borg  Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary

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