I. THE PROBLEM
[See a summary of this post.]
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Is it ever appropriate for Christians to resist authority? Many of us feel there is much in the behavior of our national leaders that cries out for criticism and resistance. Are Christians permitted to do that? Does “turn the other cheek” mean we should be doormats?
“Doormat” was not Jesus’ style, nor the style of his followers in New Testament times. He and they were compassionate, and they were non-violent, but they were not doormat quality. In fact, “turn the other cheek,” thoughtfully understood, actually encourages subversive, even dangerously subversive behavior.
II. FOUR KEY POINTS:
I have four arguments.
- First, when Jesus uttered those words his topic was the avoidance of violence; so we should expect the instruction that follows to deal with ways to avoid violence, which is a different focus than instruction about submission.
- Second, Jesus and his disciples did not behave in subservient or unjustly cooperative ways toward secular or religious authorities.
- Third, the phrase “do not resist” is a poor English choice for the Greek wording Matthew used.
- Fourth, the physical event of being struck on the right cheek presents an interesting problem.
the subject at hand was violent retaliation. “It was said, an eye for an eye.” That’s violence for violence. But Jesus would apparently have agreed with Gandhi, “An eye for an eye, and we all go blind.” So he says, “BUT I say unto you”, and then encourages a non-violent response. What we do not often notice, however, is that the non-violent response he suggests is not a passive response, and could in fact lead to more abuse.
Jesus himself was not submissive to the unjust or irrational use of authority. He set a very different example. He often publicly pointed out injustice or hypocrisy, and frequently irritated or even enraged “the powers that be.” It is not possible to imagine the real Jesus of history coaching other people in door-mat-ness. That was just not his way of thinking or operating.
the phrase “do not resist” sends a message very different from what the underlying Greek conveys. I dislike fussing about Greek words and translation problems, since the translations we have are extremely reliable. But there are a few places, and this is one, where we understand better if we translate better. This really should be rendered more like “do not retaliate violently,” or “do not get violent against”. Jesus was a resistant kind of person. He did not practice nor counsel non-resistance. He did, however, counsel non-violence.
imagine being struck on your right cheek. You probably get hit by the striker’s right hand, which means you get backhanded. Backhanding does not happen in a fair face-off. Backhanding is an insult, punishment, or just plain abuse. Back then it represented a clear situation of oppression or dominance. So you could 1) fight back (not smart), or 2) meekly take it, maybe with “Yes, Sir”.
An alternative “third way”:
Now Jesus suggests a third approach. Offer the other cheek. You are not fighting back, but neither are you meekly taking it. You are asking for more. You may get it or you may not, but either way you’ve made a point or two. You are not exactly what they think you are, and you know it; you are a person, and deserve more equal treatment and respect as a person; you are aware of the truth behind the fraud. You are amplifying awareness of, and insulting, their bullying behavior and the system that allows it.
SO if my take is accurate:
1. Jesus insists on integrity and justice, and the pursuit of those values often precipitates conflict with powers and customs, and often requires deliberate resistance.
2. But Jesus also insists on non-violence.
The point is, we can often (always?) be both a) non-violent and b) resistant, cheeky, or openly subversive. We can be non-violent and still act and speak in ways that resist and undermine falsehood and unjust power. And that, I believe, is a good part of what Jesus is after in this short teaching. Christians clearly have a role to play in exposing and resisting evil.
Walter Wink treats most of these issues in his excellent little book, Jesus and Nonviolence, Fortress Press, 2003. It’s a very easy read, but a substantial survey of the issues both historically and theologically – quite an achievement in such a small space. I highly recommend it.
Other posts on non-violence:
Algeria and India – A Comparison of Violent and Non-Violent Resistance.
MLK Jr. On Ends vs Means
Was Jesus Violent? The Temple Money-Changers Incident
Jesus and Evil People – Strong Resistance with Non-Violence (A summary version of today’s post.)