Sunday, February 23, 2014

Upping the Ante: A Meditation on Matthew 5:38-48

Jesus teaches us to love our enemies.   Jesus doesn’t say that there are no enemies.  He is not naïve.  He knows that conflict and opposition, oppression and resistance, are real.  What he does say is that our enemies are human, just like us, and need to be treated as such. God loves them just as much as he loves us.  Jesus teaches us to recognize our common humanity and to act in ways that preserve the possibility for reconciliation between enemies.  In short, we are to respond to the reality of evil by loving as God loves – without discrimination. 

Practically speaking, what this means is that we are to resist evil nonviolently.   This core teaching of Jesus is more familiar to us in its negative form: “Do not resist an evildoer.”[1]   Does this mean that we are to do nothing in the face of evil?  Often, it has been interpreted as a counsel to passive submission to evil, embracing suffering without complaint.  In fact, “turning the other cheek” and “going the extra mile” have become short-hand for a kind of noble acceptance of suffering (or servile, depending upon your perspective).  At best, such endurance is viewed as taking the moral high road; at worst, such endurance is nothing more than the internalization of a sense of inferiority.  

The problem is that such passivity completely misses the point of Jesus’ teaching.  Both the context of this passage, and its attestation in other and earlier sources of Christian tradition, indicate a much different interpretation.   Immediately following the admonition, “Do not resist an evildoer,” Jesus goes on to give several concrete examples of creative ways to resist evil (more on that in a moment).  So, either Jesus is flatly contradicting himself, or else “Do not resist” must mean something other than passive acquiescence to evil.

The verb translated as “resist” is antistênai.  In Greek, antistênai frequently is used as a military term.  It connotes counterviolence in response to hostilities initiated by someone else, as in withstanding a violent assault by drawing up battle ranks against the enemy.  In Jesus’ time, the question of how best to resist Roman occupation of Israel was a live question.  In this context, Jesus is taking violent resistance or rebellion off the table as a legitimate response; not resistance per se.[2] The command is “Do not violently resist an evildoer.”

This reading is borne out in comparison to other sources of early Christian tradition that preserve this core teaching of Jesus.[3]  Parallels can be found in Romans chapter 12, which preserves several allusions to Jesus’ teaching from “the Sermon on the Mount,” including “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” and “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”[4]   This saying is also preserved in I Thessalonians 5:15 and I Peter 3:9.  There is even an early Hebrew translation of the Gospel of Matthew that reads, “Do not repay evil for evil” instead of “Do not resist an evildoer.” 

What all these texts evidence is a common source in Jesus’ authentic teaching the basically says, “Do not mirror evil.”  Jesus does not advocate nonresistance to evil, what we generally now refer to as “Pacifism.”  Instead of passivity, Jesus advocates resistance to evil that refuses to mirror evil; specifically, by engaging in creative, nonviolent responses to evil.   

Jesus provides several examples of creative, nonviolent responses to evil in Matthew’s account of the “Sermon on the Mount”:  “turn the other cheek,” “give the undergarment,” “go the second mile,” and “give to all who beg.”  Let’s briefly examine each of these in turn.

 “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  Why the right cheek?  In the ancient world, right-handedness was normative and the left hand was used only for unclean tasks.  What is being imagined here is a back-handed blow on the right check using the right hand.  This would be the means whereby a superior would strike inferiors in order to discipline and insult them.  This is the way a male householder would strike his wife, children, and slaves. 

By offering the left cheek as well, one is asserting one’s dignity by forcing the aggressor to either escalate the violence (say, having the person flogged), or tacitly acknowledge the person as his equal by hitting his left cheek with his right hand, or simply do nothing.  In any case, the aggressor no longer has the initiative and is forced to acknowledge his inability to humiliate the other person.  The illegitimacy of structural violence that benefits one group at the expense of others is exposed for what it is.

This is not an act of submission but rather an assertion of dignity and an expression of courage.  It is what Bishop Cate Waynick refers to as “upping the ante.”  It is akin to the freedom riders who desegregated trains and buses in the South, or African-Americans who sat at “whites only” lunch counters.  They, too, offered the other cheek, exposing the mendacity of their enemies while asserting their freedom at the same time.  What is notable here is that their actions liberated a whole generation of black men and women from the crippling fear of racist violence that had kept them in subjugation to Jim Crow law, while preserving the possibility of eventual racial reconciliation.  

“If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your undergarment as well.”  Under Jewish law, the poorest of the poor were offered some small measure of protection in that, if they were sued to collect repayment of debts owed and only had their coat as collateral for a loan, the coat had to be returned to them at night so that they had some way to keep warm.   It was a measure against economic exploitation.

Jesus lived at a time when Galilean peasants were being exploited through heavy taxation and indebtedness so that their ancestral lands could be expropriated to build large estates for the rich.   Being sued in court was an ever-present fear that was often realized in fact.  Jesus is telling his hearers not only to offer their coat, but their undergarment as collateral: In other words, to strip naked in the courtroom to publicly shame their creditors. 

Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, but the shame of it fell on the witnesses rather than the naked person.  Jesus is encouraging a kind of burlesque strip tease to metaphorically express the way in which the rich were stripping the poor of everything they owned.   Imagine the response this would have evoked!   The creditor would be revealed as a rapacious and greedy brute, stripped of the veneer of legitimacy provided by his clever and venal manipulation of the legal and economic systems.  It would, perhaps, allow the creditor to see himself as he really is for the first time.  

It is in this context, by the way, that Jesus advocates giving to those who beg.  Such generosity was a way of redistributing wealth to support those who were reduced to penury by means of systematic economic exploitation and injustice.   Such giving is not charity, but rather an act of compensatory justice.  Again, stripping naked in court was a way to demonstrate the indignity of poverty as a legally enforced system of economic privilege and disenfranchisement. 

When I was in seminary, I participated in a similarly clever unmasking of the illusions of heterosexual privilege.  A group of us planted a large sign in the middle of the courtyard outside the University of Chicago Divinity School that read “homosexual acts in progress.”  We then engaged in such provocative behavior as reading, playing chess, strumming a guitar, and shining shoes.  It was a playful way to undermine the caricature of gay and lesbian people as sexually debauched, providing an opportunity for passers-by to examine their own stereotypes of gay people and the ways in which our society privileges heterosexuality as normative.   Rather than mirroring the evil of that system, we offered back an image of equal dignity. 

Jesus, had a sense of humor, and was not above recommending a little light-hearted ridicule.  If the emperor is naked, we need not pretend otherwise.

Finally, “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”  Here, Jesus is directly referencing the Roman army’s practice of forced or impressed labor.  Although Roman law stipulated that a soldier could only force someone to carry his pack (probably weighing about 70 pounds) no more than one mile, it was a law that was frequently ignored.   Forced labor of this and other kinds was sometimes compelled to the point of death.

Here again, Jesus is upping the ante in a way that takes the initiative away from the enemy.  Volunteering to go a second mile forces the soldier to wonder, “Is this some kind of set-up?  Is this guy trying to get me in trouble?  Can I get away with this, or will my commander decide to punish me this time?”  The power of choice now resides with the victim of forced labor.  One can imagine an almost comical situation, with the soldier and victim arguing over who is going to carry the pack.

Bishop Cate Waynick tells the story of a parishioner in the Diocese of Indianapolis, an accountant, who was frequently pressured by clients to engage in less than scrupulous bookkeeping practices.  In thinking about how he might offer to “go the second mile” for his clients, he decided to respond to such pressure by simply saying, “I’d be happy to do this for you.  Just put your request in writing and sign your name.”   He has yet to find a client who, upon reflection, thinks that “going the second mile” is such a great idea.  This wise accountant figured out how to up the ante.[5]

These are just examples.  They are not literal commands to imitate, but rather catalysts to imaginative experimentation.  Jesus does not command us to be doormats.  He challenges us to find creative ways to up the ante.  Beyond “fight” or “flight” there is Jesus’ third way, the way of nonviolent resistance.  Walter Wink characterizes the elements of this third way as follows:

·      Seize the moral initiative
·      Find a creative alternative to violence
·      Assert your humanity and dignity as a person
·      Meet force with ridicule or humor
·      Break the cycle of humiliation
·      Refuse to submit to or accept the inferior position
·      Expose the injustice of the system
·      Take control of the power dynamic
·      Shame the oppressor into repentance
·      Stand your ground
·      Make oppressors make decisions for which they are not prepared
·      Recognize your own power
·      Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate
·      Force oppressors to see you – and themselves – in a new light
·      Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective
·      Be willing to undergo the penalty of breaking unjust laws
·      Die to fear of the unjust order and its laws
·      Seek the oppressors’ transformation[6]

These are principles informing action inspired by Jesus’ teaching and example.  They offer practical guidelines for resisting evil without mirroring it.  They provide a way for us to love our enemies even when we must oppose them.  This is what it means to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect:  not morally without error, but rather refusing to limit the scope of love.  It requires courage, discipline and creativity.  We will fail.  We will suffer.  And we will discover a power working within us that is greater than we could have asked for or imagined.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 5:39a. 
[2] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 185.
[3] Wink, p. 185-186.
[4] Romans 12:17, 21.
[6] Wink, p. 186-187.

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