ow do you oppose someone who wants to put you down? Conventional wisdom tells us there are two ways to respond. The first is to chuck it right back at ya!. If someone insults you, insult them back. If someone hits you, hits them back. The second is to become passive – to choose not to respond, in the hopes that the oppressor will go away, pick on someone else.
Walter Wink, a Professor of Biblical Interpretation speaks very clearly about this passage in Matthew and he talks about ‘a third way’ suggesting that this passage has too often been misunderstood and used as a tool of oppression. It has been read as a movement towards submissiveness, turn the other cheek, allow someone to do violence to you, if someone asks you for something, go far and beyond their request or demand, if you do not push back against evil, your example will be an inspiration to all.
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Jesus seems to be saying follow conventional wisdom and surrender. Wink is suggesting that in actual fact, the third way that Jesus is suggesting is the way of non- violent resistance. The misunderstanding is how we use the word resist.
When the court translators working for King James chose to translate the Greek word antistenai as “Resist not evil,” they were doing something more than turning Greek into English. They were translating non-violent resistance into being docile, so as not to create revolution for the King. The Greek word means much more than simply to “stand against” or “resist.” It means to resort to violence. A more accurate translation of Jesus’ teaching could be, “Do not retaliate against violence with violence.” To do so is to create a cycle of increased tension that can spiral out of control.
The third way is a way to avoid those spirals of increased violence. Jesus gives three examples. First – the backhand slap on the cheek, which was a very symbolic gesture of humiliation. It was designed to put you in your place. The instruction was don’t slap them back, stand your ground, and turn your face in such a way that they cannot backhand you again. Culturally, you could only use your right hand to hit someone, to use your left hand was to shame yourself. Turning your cheek then, was to take the humiliation and turn it around. You cannot hit me again without shaming yourself.
The second example was that of being sued for your coat. If someone wants you to take you for all you are worth, give them your underwear too. In that culture, it was not the person who was naked who was shamed, but it was those who look upon the nakedness who are the ones put to shame. That makes a definite shift, the creditor is now being put in the position of being shamed by the nakedness of the debtor. The third example of going the extra mile, was a military one, a Roman soldier could force a person to carry their weapon and backpack, but only for a distance. They would be in trouble if they forced a person to do more, that was a military law. So if you were asked to do a mile, do two and it is the soldier who is in hot water not you.
Walter Wink suggests Jesus is teaching these people how to take the terms of engagement away from their oppressors, and within the situation of that old order, find a new way of being.’ They are not to be victims any longer, this is a lesson in empowering, not manipulation, empowering, an act of defiance in the face of injustice. I spoke about this a couple of weeks ago when I talked about Gandhi and the Salt March. His way of defying oppression was not violence, but the symbolic and simple act of making salt, defied a law that was meant to control people.
This is not merely as a technique to outwit the enemy, but opens the way for the possibility of the enemy to become just as well. Jesus is not calling on people to be non-resistant. He is calling on them to resist, resist in a way that is not harmful to another person. Jesus resisted evil with every fibre of His being, as we should too.
As I began full time ministry I started to work at Youth for Christ and worked with some amazing teenagers and volunteers. There was one volunteer I remember because there was something different about him, first of all he had scars and burn marks under his chin, there was obviously a story there.
After being there for a few months he offered to share his story. As a 14yr old boy, he was hanging out at his friends house one evening, when another guy from school came over. There was a horrific attack that left Tyler tied up, his throat cut, with a burning gas soaked blanket over him.
Under the blanket this 14-year-old didn’t know if his attacker was still in the house. It took incredible courage but, bleeding and burning, he got up and went to a neighbours house where he got help. The other boy in the house had been murdered. Tyler has extensive burns over his body, and had to have reconstruction on his trachea and throat, and many years of surgeries and rehab. He resisted an evildoer not by retaliation or revenge, but by going on to be the youngest Fire Fighter in Manitoba, he speaks about his faith and his experience. Five years ago he went to the prison and visited with his attacker and told him that he had forgiven him.
He is now an assistant fire chief in Calgary. Apart from this story being an incredible story of resilience, determination, and forgiveness, it shows that in our ‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth world’, there are other ways in which to defy injustice. Gandhi said, if we took an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth literally we would all be blind and gummy.
This whole attitude and ethos is one that continues to have implications for our world at this time. Egypt now stands alongside many others in history as a demonstration of the importance of non-violence as a tool for radical social change, and Egypt has made changes.
However, you don’t have to be left for dead, publicly humiliated, or stripped of everything you own, or even to have overthrown a dictator, to have this principle be relevant to you. Metaphorically speaking we get smacked on the cheek all the time, humiliated by the bureaucratic systems that surround us, by unbalanced relationships, by others wanting to put us down and keep us down.
I think what Jesus is saying is that we do not have to allow our dignity to be robbed, he was teaching us that in the new order, there is not a system of hierarchy, of those in power and those who need to submit. The sun shines on both and the rain falls on both. As a child of God you are to be treated as equally as any other, you are not an inferior. So we can go away from hearing these words of Jesus empowered to imagine how our lives would be if we chose to adopt this ethos. What revolution would go on in and around our life should we believe this enough to stand our ground and turn the other cheek.