Jesus’ Non-Violent Resistance
To love the way Jesus did is strangely difficult for human beings. One of my personal mantras is, “Do not let other people’s behaviour determine your own.” It’s a good rule to live by, and it is often challenging. We are reactive beings. Our emotions take over and we respond to our environment. It is hard not to be angry when anger is coming at you. It hard not to be hateful when hatred is coming at you. It is hard not be fearful when fear is coming at you.
It is not easy to know if our world is presently more or less violent than in the past, or to know whether modern means of communications and greater mobility have made us more aware of violence, or, on the other hand, increasingly accustomed to it. The world has grown more violent in recent years.
In any case, we know that violence of different kinds and levels causes great suffering: wars in different countries and continents; terrorism, organized crime and unforeseen acts of violence; the abuses suffered by migrants and victims of human trafficking; and the devastation of the environment. Where does this lead? Can violence achieve any goal of lasting value? Or does it merely lead to retaliation and a cycle of deadly conflicts that benefit only a few “warlords”? How did we get to this.? Where did we go wrong.?
Violence is not the cure for our broken world. Countering violence with violence leads at best to forced migrations and enormous suffering, because vast amounts of resources are diverted to military ends and away from the everyday needs of young people, families experiencing hardship, the elderly, the infirm and the great majority of people in our world. At worst, it can lead to the death, physical and spiritual, of many people, if not of all.
Jesus himself lived in violent times. Yet he taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart, for: “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (Mk 7:21). But Christ’s message in this regard offers a radically positive approach. He taught his disciples to love their enemies (cf. Mt 5:44) and to turn the other cheek “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also.
In this particular passage, Jesus is telling the disciples how to live in a way that is consistent with building the kin(g)dom of God here on earth. Jesus knew how hard it was for them, and how hard it is for us, to love the way he loves.
Jesus was a member of a race that was oppressed by the power of an Empire that had been established through violence, an Empire that maintained its power through violence and injustice perpetuated upon the poor and oppressed. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also.
All too often, the various translations of the gospel texts have failed to communicate what is clearly written in the Greek. The words of Jesus have been lifted out of context and are interpreted as endorsing toleration of abuse. There are also too many examples in the history of Christendom in which the powerful have used a command like “do not resist evildoers” as a rationale for submission to injustice.
For example, the ‘Authorised Version’ King James Bible was written with part of its intention to prevent insurrection. Indeed, King James, who authorised this translation, that has served the vast majority of armies for generations, was so disturbed by what was written in New Testament Greek that he insisted that the words be translated in such a way that those whom he wished to oppress would hear exactly what he wanted them to hear and submit. The Presbyterians were giving King James trouble in the north, and the King wanted them to submit, to turn the other cheek, and so he ordered changes from the original Greek word. So, the King James version, reads: “That you resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
New Testament Theologian Walter Wink began his research by wondering about this phrase. When he went back to the Greek text, he found that the original meaning was quite different. Rather than encouraging passivity, Jesus was saying, “Don’t be a doormat. Resist violence, but not with retaliatory violence.” (Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination.)
Most of us have been taught that the act of turning the other cheek is the meek act of a pacifist, but if we lived in the first century under the occupation of the Roman Empire, we would understand this as an act of resistance. Jesus’ followers would have had first hand experience of being cuffed by the backhand of their oppressors. “The typical options in the face of this violence were submission or violent retaliation, which likely would have been suicidal. Looking at the context:
1.”If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
Why the right cheek? We are dealing with a right handed world. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. Even to gesture with the left hand at Qumran carried the penalty of ten days’ penance.
2. The only way one could naturally strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand.
3. We are dealing here with insult, not a fistfight. The intention is clearly not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place…
4. A backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors.
5. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal.
The only normal response would be cowering submission.
There are among his hearers people who were subjected to these very indignities, forced to stifle outrage at their dehumanizing treatment by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and as a result of imperial occupation.
Why then does he counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek?
Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate.
The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.”
Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, how would he hit the other cheek now turned to him? He cannot backhand it with his right hand. If he hits with a fist, he makes the other his equal, acknowledging him as a peer.
The point of the back of the hand is to reinforce institutionalized inequality.
As Gandhi taught, “The first principle of nonviolent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.”
Jesus goes on to offer other creative techniques of non-violent resistance designed to create trouble for the Roman oppressors. The way of creative non-violent resistance may be the road less travelled, but it is most certainly a road that has led to victory. He advocates a brand new way of life. Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace was the message of Pope Francis on the 50th World Day of Peace in 2017.
Jesus’ insistence upon non-violent resistance in the face of evil was not just something he taught or proclaimed; it was something Jesus lived. Even on the dark night when armed soldiers came for him, when he knew that to be taken would inevitably lead to his execution, Jesus refused to take up arms to defend himself. When, one of his followers drew a sword to defend him, Jesus insisted that his ally put down his weapon, insisting: “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.”
Contrary to what some may believe, Jesus’ death was not the act of a lamb going meekly to the slaughter, but rather the act of one who embodied his own teachings.
We have a proud history of peacekeeping. What does a 21st century peacekeeper look like? What will it cost us to be keepers of the peace? Are we prepared to embody for all the world the role of non-violent resistance? Or are we going to leave that work to children? What can we do to help? What must we do to help?
I don’t have any easy answers.
How do we as followers of Jesus reclaim this command to love our enemies and treat others as we wish to be treated? How do we remind ourselves in those moments when we are confronted with judgmental attitudes or fear-filled hatred that we are supposed to respond in love, with love. How do remind ourselves to take a deep breath and say, “Enough. I will not participate in your fear, anger, and hatred”? Call me naïve, but I honestly think that if everyone who called themselves “Christian” followed the instructions Jesus laid out in this passage, there would be no room for White Supremacy, systemic racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and all the other phobias and isms that create kyriarchy in our world. We would have no choice but to recognise Christ in all our neighbours and respond accordingly.
We cannot turn back the clock. The question remains: How do we do this? Let’s all challenge ourselves to respond with love, mercy, and forgiveness no matter what comes at us. Our behaviour does not need to be determined by the behaviour of those around us. We can, indeed, treat others as we wish to be treated. Creating nonviolent alternatives is a spiritual practice and a way of being at the service of the transformation of ourselves, our communities and our world.
I wish peace to every man, woman and child, and I pray that the image and likeness of God in each person will enable us to acknowledge one another as sacred gifts endowed with immense dignity. Especially in situations of conflict, let us respect this, our “deepest dignity”, and make active nonviolence our way of life.
Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. Fortress Press.
Mahatma Gandhi: A Biography B.R. Nanda
Funk, R. W.; Hoover, R. W. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. The Macmillan Press, 1993.
Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress, 2006.