Bible Studies
Written by Jim Jordal   
Saturday, 26 April 2008


"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, don't resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. If anyone sues you to take away your coat, let him have your cloak also. Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.

Matthew 5:38-41 (WEB)

It is indisputable that Jesus performed His earthly ministry in the presence of perhaps the most pernicious and powerful domination system in world history--the Roman Empire. And Jesus’ own countrymen--Pharisees and their temple cohorts--cooperated with Rome by using their formal religious influence as an extension of Roman power and authority, thus making Jesus’ position even more difficult. .

Probably millions of sermons and certainly thousands of books have sought to explain how it was that Jesus managed to maintain a following and a message amid such oppressive power. As many of His followers hoped, Jesus could have mounted armed but futile resistance against Rome. Or He could have taken flight from Rome by disappearing into the wilderness or modifying His message to the point where it no longer threatened Roman power. Instead of fighting or fleeing, however, He devised a non-violent "Third Way" to push back against the system by confronting it where it was most weak—in its ethical, moral, and spiritual attributes. At this point an example will perhaps illustrate effective use of the Third Way.

The story has it that South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu once walked toward a narrow spot on the path where two people could not pass side by side. At the other end of the narrow place stood a large, belligerent white man who challenged Tutu with the taunt: "I don’t step aside for gorillas." At that, Tutu replied, "Ah, yes. But I do," as he stepped aside to let the bully pass. That’s an example of the Third Way, which does not aggressively challenge the system, but indirectly and non-violently pushes back with the intent of forcing the system to face up to its oppressions and injustices. So who "won" this encounter?

In the verses mentioned above Jesus gave three examples of how to push back against the domination system without actually threatening it directly. In the first, "whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also," Jesus does not advocate passive, craven cowardice, but a "turning of the tables" so to speak. A right-handed person could not strike you on the right cheek unless it was in the form of a backhanded slap, a well-known form of debasement and ridicule. So you offer him the other cheek, meaning that now he has to strike you in a man-to-man manner that recognizes your legitimacy as a human being, not an object to be used.

Similarly, Jesus’ statement that "if anyone sues you to take away your coat, let him have your cloak also" meant that another way to push back against unjust legal actions performed by the system was to also take off your inner garment and offer it to your legal tormenter. Since most men wore only two garments, you would then be left standing naked in the court while your accuser endured the opprobrium of having taken all you have. (Don’t worry, there were only men in the court, and under Jewish law the shame of nakedness fell more on the viewer than on the naked person).

Jesus’ final example of "Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two" refers to the Roman practice whereby marching soldiers could dragoon passers-by into carrying their packs for one mile. Under this system the "draftee" was definitely in a subservient position. So Jesus said that when this happens you should offer to carry for two miles, thereby forcing the Roman minion to wonder what sort of trouble was brewing now that people almost eagerly offered to carry packs more than the required two miles. Actually, if you took this a bit further, the soldier might actually have to ask for the return of his pack, placing him now in the subservient position.

These well-known verses have often been used to support what I would call a slavish, passive, cowering, cowardly behavior toward aggression that somehow sticks in the craw of red-blooded people. The first words of Jesus in this passage, "don’t resist him who is evil" do not contradict the remainder of His message. What He was saying is that His followers should not resort to violence against evil, but should instead resist in a non-violent manner those evil, oppressive systems they faced, as well as their manifestations in society." Remember, Jesus was anything but a coward. Was it a spineless wimp who threw the money-changers out of the temple? Was it a weak, spineless victim who uncomplainingly endured the agony of the cross?

That love for others should be interpreted as totally passive surrender in the face of injustice and oppression constitutes a disservice to both Christians and Christianity. We yield in the short term, but stand in the gap against evil, believing that final victory is ours.

Note: I’m indebted for some applications used above to theologian Walter Wink who in his powerful work Engaging the Powers describes how Jesus and His followers developed these and many other effective strategies against the domination systems of His day, and counsels how Christians today can do the same.

Last Updated ( Saturday, 26 April 2008 )