Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, February 23, 2014
On the radio last week, I heard a protestor in Ukraine saying that their situation had devolved into a civil war between the right and the left. There was no such thing as a peaceful revolution. Violence was inevitable.
I was deeply saddened to hear this. Is violence inevitable? After this sermon today, you might call me naïve. But I do think we give up too soon. There are all sorts of creative options that we do not explore before we resort to violence—whether that be in our homes, on the hockey rink, between ethnic groups or between nations. I’ve heard violence blamed on testosterone, but the Olympics are pretty much loaded with testosterone and you don’t see violence breaking out there. In fact, you see the opposite where one nation helps another when a ski is broken, a ski-pole lost.
Violence happens when we put on blinders of good and bad, right and wrong, when we see people as either with us or against, our ally or our enemy. Jesus taught us a third way that resists the flattening of issues into black or white. This third way offers a dazzling array of creative options, which Jesus calls perfection: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The Greek word used here for perfect (teleios) doesn’t actually mean perfect. It literally means complete or undivided. Jesus was talking about how to love others. He said that it is easy to love those who love you back. What is much more difficult is to love those who hurt you, who put you down, who speak ill of you. Jesus is telling us that our love must be consistent for everyone; it must be undivided—we must love and pray for those who do not love us—even our enemies, just as we love and pray for those who return our love.
Usually, Jesus leaves us hanging with such lofty commands and ideals, and we’re left, along with the disciples, trying to figure out the how. But in this case, Jesus give us some pretty specific examples on how to love those who oppress us or take advantage of us or are violent towards us. These suggestions are so specific to Jesus’ culture, that we’ve pretty much lost their significance. Let’s look at them again, with the help of Walter Wink, a socio-cultural biblical scholar.
In this passage, Jesus refers to the saying, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and suggests that, if someone strikes us on the right cheek, we should not hit back, but invite them to strike again on the left cheek. If someone sues us for our coat, we should give our cloak as well. If someone forces us to walk one mile, we should walk two. This is a curious passage, which has been understood by many to say that Christians should not fight back or resist; they should be pacifists. Some interpret this to mean that they should be doormats.
But Walter Wink takes us into the cultural context of Jesus to suggest an entirely different meaning of this passage. He says that the sentence, “do not resist an evildoer” should more accurately be translated as “do not react violently against an evildoer.” Jesus is not telling us to be a pacifist or not to resist. He is simply telling us not to respond with violence. The following three examples illustrate what Jesus is meaning.
The first example requires demonstration, and I’ve asked Nancy to help me. In Jesus’ culture, the left hand was only used for unclean purposes. If a person used the left hand for anything else, even gesturing, that use would bring shame on the one gesturing. For this reason, the left hand was never used to hit people. In this passage, Jesus says that if someone strikes you on the right cheek, you are to turn your left cheek to them also. The only way you can strike someone on the right cheek is by either using your left hand, which would not have been done—it would have brought shame to the one using their left hand—or by using the back of the right hand. When the back of the right hand was used, it was not intended to injure. It was intended to humiliate—to put an inferior in his or her place. In the Roman hierarchical system, this type of striking was used by a master over a slave, a husband over a wife, a parent over a child, a Roman over a Jew. The message in a backhanded strike was clear: “You are a nobody; get back down where you belong.”
In this culture, Walter Wink explains that only equals fought with fists. If the inferior person turns the other cheek, they are, in effect saying, “If you are going to hit me, you will hit with your right hand on my left cheek, as you would an equal.” By turning the other cheek, the oppressed person is saying that she or he refuses to submit to further humiliation. This would catch the superior person off guard, for to hit them on the left cheek would acknowledge equality. The message to Jesus’ audience was very clear. By all means resist, but do so non-violently. Do so in a creative way with an element of surprise, which might have some lasting impact. (Thank you, Nancy)
The second example Jesus gives deals with indebtedness. If someone sues a poor person and they have no land or possessions to pay, the law allowed their outer garments to be taken. However, the law maintained that the person’s cloak or inner garment must not be seized. Jesus said that they should take off their inner garment and give it as well. Guess what? That’s all the person wore. They didn’t have such things as underwear. And so, Jesus was telling them to strip to their God-given wonderment. In his culture, nakedness brought shame not to the person who was naked but to the ones viewing their nakedness. Walter Wink writes “Jesus is not asking those already defrauded of their possessions to submit to further indignity. He is enjoining them to guerrilla theatre.” This was a nonviolent response of surprise that might have had some lasting impact. It certainly would not be forgotten. It reminds me of the Doukhobors in Canada and their quite effective protests of disrobing.
The third example Jesus gave referred to the “angeria, the law that permitted a Roman soldier to force a civilian to carry his 65-85 pound pack. But the law stipulated one mile only.” At the beginning of the second mile, the soldier was required to retrieve his pack. But if the civilian insists on carrying it a second mile, the soldier would be in violation of his own military law and be subject to punishment.
Walter Wink concludes that, in this passage, Jesus was not a pacifist, nor a fighter. He presented a third option of nonviolent resistance, an option which operates on the Aikido principle by taking advantage of the opponent’s own movement and energy and cleverly turning it against him or her.
The gospel is calling us, as followers of Jesus, to consider this. When we encounter injustice—a violation of Christian values of compassion and love—how do we usually respond? Do we tend to take flight and avoid conflict? Or do we tend to aggressively fight back and possibly escalate the conflict? There is a third way which de-escalates conflict, while still resisting injustice.
Troy Chapman is a lifer. At the age of 21, he was sentenced to 60-90 years for killing someone in a bar fight. While in prison, he decided to turn his life around. He channelled his anger into social justice, becoming an advocate for fellow prisoners, but after awhile he tired of being angry all the time, always having an “enemy” to oppose. Could he still be an activist without taking sides? Could he be an advocate for prisoners while empathizing with his guards? He began reading about Gandhi and reading the Bible. He developed a spiritual, meditative practice discovered the third way.
He found God not on the prisoners’ side or on the jailers’ side, but on the third side. The first time he put this into practice was when another prisoner tried to walk him off the sidewalk. He could have fought back or simply given way—fight or flight; violence or pacifism, backing down or going on the offensive. Instead, he quickly, creatively caught the other prisoner by surprise by stepping off the sidewalk while touching the other prisoner’s elbow, looking him in the eye and asking, “How’s it going?” The other prisoner was at a loss, mumbled something and quickly moved on. This third way is one of creative resistance that deescalates violence, that moves with the opponent’s energy.
A friend of mine was on a subway in Toronto when she saw a couple of young guys start to harass a woman wearing a hijab. My friend felt that she should do something to help the woman, but was afraid to confront, was afraid to escalate the violence, was afraid for her own safety. And so, she did nothing, while the other woman sat in terror. My friend replayed this event over and over in her mind until finally she thought of a third way that may have both deescalated and resisted the violence. She could have stepped in between them and sat down on the seat beside the woman, appearing oblivious to the rising tension.
This is the third way through which Jesus has taught us to how to love our enemies—a way which is able both to challenge and de-escalate violence and oppression. It calls for all of the creative energy we have. Another way; another world is possible. Amen.