In the hardly-ever visited comments section on this-here blog, I got a very generous invitation from Mason to adopt one of his posts on his wonderful website to use for the Blog-a-thon on Nonviolent Resistance. In this post, Mason covers area that was fundamental for my understanding of NVR, especially stuff that I talked about in regards to Walter Wink previously, but never went into as much depth as he does here. And for that I'm grateful. But the end of this piece serves as an important bridge for what I want to cover in a couple days, the macro of anti-violent concerns: war. Without further adieu:
I believe the New Testament and the early Church teach a ethic of nonviolence. Not less violence, not 'just' violence, but nonviolence.
At the same time I want to make clear that I in no way think the Scriptural witness is that we ought to be passive, to be doormats. Quite the opposite, I think that starting with the teachings of Jesus we see a call to a radical, proactive, imaginative, intentional use of nonviolence to oppose the powers of this world. So pacifism (a term which I won't use often) is not what I'm getting at, much less passiveism, I think the Bible teaches us a way forward that is neither of those, but is also not violent or militant.
[I'm not claiming to have this all figured out, but I'm going to try and work through the issues as best I can.]....
Jesus lived in a place and time with an exceptional amount of violence (though the same land in the present day might give it a good run for it's money). After years of being conquered by competing empires, Israel was now in the hands of Rome, one of the most brutal and efficient empires in history. Rome claimed to bring peace and security (as all good empires claim), but in the words of the Roman writer Tacitus “they create a wasteland, and call it peace”.
To make the situation worse, people in Second Temple Israel also faced the violence of rebel zealot groups, messianic uprisings, and the sometimes violent but always present oppression of the poor (most people) by the wealthy elite.
It is to people in this sort of world that Jesus makes his call to “turn the other cheek”, “go the extra mile”, and “love your enemy”. Surely there is more material on this in the accounts of Jesus alone to fill any future posts, but I want to just touch on a couple of the most striking examples of his radical teaching primarily as seen in the Sermon on the Mount.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” Matthew 5:38-44
There is much here and I think even if this is all we had the teaching is clear, we just tend to explain it away or try to marginalize it with other passages.
But first I want to deal with an objection often made to the application of this to our lives, that it simply is not practical. Jesus says “do not resist the one who is evil”, is that not far too much to ask? Are we really supposed to just sit back and let people perpetrate injustice against us, to harm us, to harm our loved ones? Combine that with 'turn the other cheek' and it sounds like a recipe for passive doormat living which solves nothing and maybe even smacks of cowardice.
That however is not what is being said here. To begin with, the word “resist” is ἀντιστῆναι , which actually combines “anti- against” with “histemi- armed revolt/rebellion”, so 'go against in armed rebellion'. In the Septuagint ἀντιστῆναι is used 44 times for military encounters, specifically the moment that armies collide in battle.1 So a better translation would be “do not retaliate with violence against the one who is evil”, much different than “Do not resist” I think.
With this in mind let us look at the examples Jesus gives here. The backhand slapping of the cheek is something one does to an inferior, and in that culture you only hit with your right hand (for sanitation reasons), so if you 'turn the other cheek' you are doing two things. First, you are declaring that the person abusing you has not forced you into submission. Second you are putting him in a position where if he wants to strike your left cheek with his right hand, he pretty much has to hit you, which declares (culturally) that you are an equal. Both methods have the effect of standing against and shaming the one who is hitting, while not endorsing the violence of striking back.
The second scenario is brilliant. In the court system of the day, you could use clothing as collateral, and if you failed to pay your debts it could be repossessed. Quite obviously the person who must use their clothes as collateral though is very very poor. The one who takes them to court then is taking from them the only thing they own, with one exception, the undergarment.
Jesus says to give your undergarment to the person dragging you into court as well.
Logically then, the poor person has nothing, at all, not even clothes. So he is then standing naked in front of his oppressor (for in those days, as it often is now, poverty and debt was linked inextricably to political oppression and marginalization).
The twist here is that although nakedness was shameful in Judaism, it was shameful to the one who caused it. So the poor naked man, who is going to draw a lot of attention, will now be sharing the story of who caused his nakedness, bringing shame to the one taking the last of his possessions.
Again, we see a creative, but nonviolent resistance to evil and misused power, which exposes it for what it really is for all to see.
Third we see someone forced against their will to carry the heavy pack of a Roman soldier for a mile, doubly offensive since the Romans were the occupiers. Rather advising one to slide a knife in their back (a popular practice around this time) Jesus says to go a second mile.
Again, this changes the dynamic of the situation, and exposes the injustice being done. It was not legal for the Roman to make you carry the pack more than a mile, so to avoid punishment and public outcry (which was always boiling just below the surface) the soldier would be forced to ask and plead for his pack back, and perhaps along the way recognize that the other here is a person as well and not a pack animal.
All these show us three things.
Jesus was opposed to violence even in situations of oppression, abuse, or gross injustice.
Jesus was, at the same time, opposed to passivity, promoting instead a creative third way which changes the situation and shames evil actions.
Finally these are not “timeless” proposals. The way they are grounded in specific cultural situations means we can not just parrot these responses but must imaginatively find ways of following the principles taught here in our own context.
More important than all that though is the last part of the section. People will make their arguments for violence and war, but these arguments always assume that war is a valid response (which Jesus does not seem to agree with) and that the opponent is the “bad guys” who will only respond to violence.
Jesus undoes all that with the command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
I've heard many people attempt to get around that, but have yet to hear a single real explanation of how shooting, or stabbing, or bombing, or nuking, or waterboarding, or clubbing, or beating our enemies could possibly be an expression of love. And if they are not, then we should not be doing those things, no matter the cost, because that is what Jesus says we must live like, and he doesn't give an exception clause for “if they're really really bad”. Rome, the “enemy” if you were Jewish at that time, was incredibly ruthless on a great many occasions, Jesus himself had been alive during some of the most brutal repression and killing of uprisings in Galilee, and so Jesus knew exactly what he was saying when he said to love even and especially those people.
1 Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence. Pg. 11