27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Humans are a race of dominance; a race of power over; a race of violence. As far as I can see we always have been. It is so much a part of us that linguistic idioms that communicate our vindictiveness are common place: “Eye for an Eye and a Tooth for a Tooth,” “Quid Pro Quo,” “Tit for Tat,” “Let the punishment fit the crime.” Retributive justice seems to be an almost primal need.
When the first ever World Report on Violence and Health was released, it said the death and disability caused by violence make violence one of the leading public health issues of our time. Violence is among the leading causes of death for people aged 15-44 years of age, accounting for 14% of deaths among males and 7% of deaths among females. On an average day, over 1400 people are killed in acts of homicide - almost one person every minute. Roughly one person commits suicide every 40 seconds. About 35 people are killed every hour as a direct result of armed conflict. In the 20th century, an estimated 191 million people lost their lives directly or indirectly as a result of conflict.
Even religions are violent. Muslim extremist conceptualized and executed the event of Sept the 11th. In the Spanish Inquisition Christians abused, tortured, or executed more than 300,000 people (including other Christians) - 2,000 of whom were burned at the stake. Then there is violence based on ethnicity. In the holocaust, or the Ha-Shoa, Hitler and the Third Reich killed 9 to 18 million people. In Darfur an internalized genocide has killed more than 400,000 people in graphically gory ways. War, of course, kills too. In the 20th century alone over 35 billion people lost their lives as a direct result of war.
Our human lust for power and as a result violence is so strong we’ve had to event new words to categorize violence of the powerful. Democide is death by government. From government endorsed famine to regime initiated massacres, democide has outpaced even war in deaths in the 20th century brining in a toll of 119 billion people.
One of my favorite authors and theologians, Walter Wink, says “Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world. It has been accorded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience to death.” We humans, like it or not, are a violent people. Wink would suggest that, whether we want to admit it or not, we don’t just like it. In our own way, we worship it.
It is not surprising then that religion has historically had segments of its varying bodies that have produced antithetical responses to power, war and violence. Most typically these segments produce some varying form of pacifism. Christian, among others, have been at the forefront of the movement. Pointing to texts such as the one today that reads, “turn the other cheek,” they oppose war and violence as a means to settle disputes. But in its extreme form pacifism can lead to dangerous, even life risking, perspectives. In its extreme form, pacifist have used text from today’s readings to actually encourage women (and sometimes men) to stay in abusive relationships, telling people who have been abused (physically and mentally) to turn the other cheek.
That brings us to today’s text. As some pacifist may suggest, in this text Jesus speaks clearly about the biblical mandate, God’s will, for conflict to be solved without abuse of power and resorting to violence. Unlike they say, it does not in anyway suggest that God wishes for Christians to be doormats, getting stepped on every time someone else wishes to excerpt his or her power or strength over them. To the contrary, these texts suggest that God does not want us to live in the violence of humanity (be it war or social injustices), and at the same time it also suggest that God also does not want us to be doormats for the world to walk all over because of some religiosity that encourages us to avoid conflict. These texts suggest that conflict does not have to be solved by excerpting power or acting out physically, nor does it have to be solved by passively avoiding conflict. These texts suggest there is another, better way. It is what Wink calls Jesus’ Third Way.
To see how it work let’s break down the texts into three directives – turn the other cheek, give your cloak too, and go the extra mile. Jesus was never one to back down from confronting injustices and from defending the oppressed. So, it is likely that he did not mean “turn the other cheek” to be taken at face value (pardon the pun). What else could he have meant?
Walter Wink has a very interesting and very helpful perspective here. First, he considers the words of the often misquoted and misused “turn the other cheek.” The important part of this verse is frequently left out when it is quoted: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek.” This use of the word “right” points to the probability that there is something more here than meets the eye (again, pardon the pun).
Now, if Jesus’ purpose was to advise his disciples to be passive when it comes to resisting violence, the qualification of “right” is not really needed. What then could he be trying to communicate? What would the significance of the right cheek be?
Consider this, if you are right handed (as most of those listening to Jesus would be) and are standing face to face with another person how would you strike them on the right cheek? There is only one reasonable solution to this puzzle. You would have to strike them with the back of your hand. In Jesus’ times, this delivered a clear message. It was a message of place and power. Masters struck slaves backhanded. Husband struck wives backhanded. Parents struck children backhand.
It delivers a very clear message about who has the power. Contrary to this, if you are fighting someone of equal power, you would do so with a closed fist. So, what is Jesus’ teaching on how to handle this aggression from a place of power? He says to level the playing field – nonviolently. “Turn the other also.” Why? Once again, if you are right handed and someone has offered you their left cheek to strike, how would you do it? Could you strike them with backhandedly? No. It's not possible. It would have to be with a closed fist, effectively leveling the power structure.
Wink also looks at, “and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” What good is there in giving more than is asked of you? Well, in thinking about this, it is important to ask why would someone be suing for clothes rather than money or some other substantial asset? Placing the text in its day and age, the Old Testament provides some answers. Exodus, Deuteronomy and Amos all contain examples of people suing for another’s clothing. It always happens when the person being sued is poor.
Once again it is a question of power. What is Jesus’ response? Is it to be a doormat and allow the person bringing the suit against you to not only have their way but also take extra? No. He proposes that they not only give their outer clothing but also all of there inner clothing, which in that day and age would leave them stark naked. What could possibly be the purpose in this?
Once again Jesus has suggested to creatively and nonviolently shift the power structure. Imagine the rich man standing there with the poor person’s clothing carelessly draped over his arm, all of it, while the poor person stands there (willingly at this point) naked. The embarrassment of the rich man is almost palpable, but it doesn’t end there. In Jewish traditions, public nudity is extremely taboo. The interesting point here is that the shame is not on the person who is naked but rather on the one viewing it. Again Jesus has shown an alternative, a third way, to both non-violently solve the conflict and claim the biblical identity of all people being created equally in the image of God.
The final teaching says “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Once again we need to consider this text from within its contexts. The people hearing this would undoubtedly be very aware of the Roman Empire’s limitation of forced labor for its armies. You see, each soldier carried a pack that could weigh as much as eighty-five pounds. The powers that be wanted to allow the soldiers to enlist whatever help was needed but at the same time limit the anger occupied nations have toward the Empire. So, soldiers could “enlist” civilians to carry their packs, but only for one mile.
Now, not adhering to this law entailed severe penalties. If a civilian refuse, they incur the penalty. If a soldier made them go more than one mile, the soldier incurs the penalty. That is the first and obvious reason to offer to carry the pack a second mile – severe penalties for breaking the law. Immediately the power has shifted. Wink suggests that the scene would quite hysterical - a soldier asking, possibly even begging, for his pack back from a civilian. The civilian has taken the initiative away from the soldier.
In terms of contemporary theology, this way of thinking is probably considered pragmatic pacifism. It is the non-violent perspective recognized and practiced by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Cesar Chaves, Hildegard and others like them. It is Jesus’ Third Way - a way of not backing down, of not resorting to violence, a way that seeks to creatively level the playing field so that no one person ever is greater than or holds a power over another.
The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads “…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”
We are to work creatively for solutions that level the playing field. Jesus’ Third Way emphasizes the humanity and dignity of all people. It exposes the injustice in the system and breaks the cycles of oppression and humiliation. In short, Jesus abhors both passivity and violence and gives us a way in which evil can be confronted but not emulated. Let us pray that someday, we as a race, learn this lesson of Jesus’ Third Way so that we might stop the violence and begin to restore heaven on earth.