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Written by Jim Jordal   
Friday, 28 August 2009

JESUS PUSHES THE DOMINATION SYSTEM

By Jim Jordal

Many Christians formed their first impressions of Jesus in Sunday school. More often than not Jesus was characterized as a kindly, loving, Casper Milquetoast-like wandering minstrel who told stories and performed occasional miracles. He loved the people and interacted with them in every facet of their lives. But as far as involvement in the outer world of politics and economics, He was usually presented as a distinct non-entity. But that syrupy view overlooks the occasions when Jesus became a true revolutionary as He pushed—non-violently, yet very effectively—against the Roman/Jewish temple domination system of His day.

Most of us remember the "Second Mile" account in Matthew 5:38-41 where Jesus seemingly offers His followers a non-violent method of cooperation with power as He says: "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" (Matt. 5:38-41 (WEB). Pretty peaceful advice, huh?

But was Jesus being pacifistic in His suggestion of compliance, or was He threatening the existing Roman/Jewish temple domination system in an outwardly peaceful but actually very powerful manner? Classic domination systems like the one ruling at that time stratify people into social-economic-political status groupings based upon racial and religious differences coupled with personal displays of power, authority and wealth. So we might conclude that Jesus—rather than being cowardly or compliant--actually pushed against the system at its very heart—the public roles played out in daily interactions between dominators and those dominated as they met and interacted with each other in the street, courtroom, or marketplace.

In the first instance Jesus tells His followers to respond to a slap on the right cheek by offering the other cheek for continued abuse. Think about it: How can a right-handed strike man strike someone else on the right cheek unless it is an insulting, demeaning backhanded slap? So what Jesus really said was that if you are the victim of such insulting behavior from a member of the dominating class, make your aggressor accept you as an equal by offering the other cheek so that he might strike you in a "man-to-man" way on your left cheek. In this situation the status of each person changes dramatically.

In the second example Jesus says that "if anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also." Since most common people wore only two garments, offering the tormentor the second (if accepted) would result in the defendant standing naked in court before his accusers. The practice was that only males appeared in court, and under Jewish laws of purity nakedness was considered to result in more loss of status for the viewer than for the naked person, who was of inferior position anyway. So the "tables are turned, with the very honor, not of the defendant, but of the accuser placed at risk in this situation.

And in the final example, Jesus says that if you are compelled to go one mile with someone, peacefully offer instead to go two miles. What the account does not say is that it was within the Roman soldier’s power to impress locals to help carry their heavy packs as they passed through villages. The law allowed only one mile to be assessed, so two miles doubled the physical burden. But the real issue lay in the fact that once a lower-status person offered to carry the burden further it placed the soldier in a position where he might have to ask the carrier to return his pack, a distinct reversal of status and power.

So, did Jesus resist the domination system that oppressed His people at that time? Not in open rebellion or violent revolution, but certainly in a non-violent but nonetheless effective manner. Not much like the Jesus we learned about in Sunday school, is it?

Should you wish to study this trend of thought in a deeper manner, you might refer to theologian Walter Wink’s trilogy dealing with biblical principalities and powers. In particular, the last book entitled Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination.