Thursday, February 08, 2007

Non-Violent Resistance in the Teachings of Jesus

Before I actually get to the substance of this post, I'd like to start with a brief personal note. As some of you know, I am going back to school. It is now officially official. I haven't checked my email in over 24 hours, because I spent all day yesterday in new student orientation. Today, at 11 am EST, I have my first class. I am officially an MAR (Masters of Arts in Religion) student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I've signed up for 15 credit hours this semester, which is a pretty heavy load, but nothing I can't handle, I don't think. Most of my classes, at least at the outset, don't seem worth mentioning. Perhaps I'll be pleasantly surprised by them, but at the moment I'm just taking them because they are required - the seminary equivalent of basic requirements, 100 level classes. But there is one class that looks exceedingly promising: Resistance and Reconciliation.

Having just signed up for that course, and having just joined the Christian Peace Bloggers Blog-Ring, I thought I might jot down here, before I leave for campus, a few observations of non-violent resistance in the teachings of Jesus.

That Jesus taught non-violence is not exactly new, though by their behavior some Christian could learn a refresher course in it. As my dad wrote in one of his songs, shortly after explaining how as a PK growing up he had to go to church 4 or 5 times a week:

But I must have been sleeping in
When Jesus taught us to kill

But it takes many Christian by surprise when they realize that the non-violence that Jesus taught was neither passive nor meek. In fact, it was radical and revolutionary, such a strong form of resistance that it got him killed by the authorities. If Jesus had been safe, and if his non-violent teachings had been as domesticated as the must have seemed when they were used by whites to teach slaves not to rebel, or when they are used today to support a growing empire, it is highly improbable that anyone would have been threatened by him at all, much less threatened enough to publicly execute him.

But Jesus was crucified. And, as Marcus Borg writes, we can safely assert that Jesus was crucified because of the sins of the world, even if it is not literally true that he was crucified for the sins of the world, as a kind of substitutionary atonement. Jesus was killed because of the sins of the world, because Jesus opposed the sinful powers of the world that exploited and oppressed the poor. But Jesus opposed those powers not with power, not with revolutionary violence, but with the wisdom of non-violent resistance.

In our cultural context, with Christianity as the dominant thought-world, (what I mean is that, in the West, everything responds to Christianity - it shapes our thought when we agree with it, and it shapes our thought when we disagree with it) the teachings of Jesus often become conventional, domesticated. After all, we have been reciting them to each other for almost 2000 years. But, in his own cultural context, Jesus' teachings were radical, and seen in their context they can retain their power in our own context. Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in Jesus' teachings on non-violent resistance.

Two of the most commonly quoted teachings of Jesus concern going "the extra mile" and turning "the other cheek." These have often, and rightly, been interpreted metaphorically and applied broadly to all kinds of situations. In our conventional wisdom now, going "the extra mile" means going out of your way to accommodate someone who is being difficult, in the hopes that such an extravagant gesture will shame and perhaps help shape them. If we "go the extra mile," perhaps the person that we "go the extra mile" for will be impressed with our witness, and be somehow touched, somehow moved, into becoming a more positive person.

Sometimes there is also a measure of constructive pride in going "the extra mile." Sometimes it means doing something that, strictly speaking, isn't required, motivated by the pursuit of excellence. In either event, going "the extra mile" has become conventional, part of what is expected of a Christian; part of one's Christian witness.

The same is true of turning "the other cheek." It is again interpreted metaphorically, and applied broadly. And, again, I see nothing wrong with this - you should know by now my opinion of the religious value of metaphorical interpretation. So, to "turn the other cheek" means to patiently endure an insult. It means to not allow harsh comments to get you down or make you angry.

Both of these teachings, however, in becoming conventional wisdom, have lost their subversive power. They are no longer seen as revolutionary, as dangerous. Of course, this is not true in all cultural context. Gandhi, for instance, based his method of non-violent resistance on these and other teachings of Jesus. His Satyiagraha, his "spirit power," was based on his interpretation of these and other teachings of Jesus. And, he used these as a kind of moral force to shame the British into seeing their own barbaric cruelty, and granting Independence to India.

In the same way, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others applied the methods that Gandhi learned from the teachings of Jesus to the struggle in America for Civil Rights. Non-violent resistance became again a revolutionary way to shame violent oppressors into realizing the barbaric cruelty of their position; into seeing the basic humanity of those they are exploiting. It became the most efficient path to freedom. To fight violence with violence, power with power, was to fight a losing fight. But to resist violence with peace was to undermine the moral authority of the violent and to shame the oppressor.

This is very much more like what Jesus probably had in mind, but it too fails to totally capture the potency of Jesus' teachings in their own context. We can certainly understand how these teachings might have gotten Gandhi and King killed, but that still doesn't show us exactly why they and others like them got Jesus killed. To understand that, and, as such, to understand the potential potency of these teachings, we have to better understand what they might have meant when Jesus taught them.

Marcus Borg's newest book, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, has an entire chapter devoted to resistance in the life and teachings of Jesus. In it he outlines how Jesus' teachings and activities would have been seen by the religious and political authorities of his day, who were the power structure in what he calls a Domination System. At the outset of that chapter Borg argues that "the way of Jesus was both personal and political."

It was about personal transformation. And, it was political, a path of resistance to the domination system and advocacy of an alternative vision of life together under God. His counteradvocacy, his passion for God's passion, led to his execution. The way of the cross was both personal and political.

Seen in this light, Jesus' teachings, including and especially the ones concerning turning "the other cheek" and going "the extra mile" can be seen as radical ways to help bring down the Roman occupation, as well as the native collaborators with the occupation that were mainly comprised of the religious authorities.

Matthew 5:39b has Jesus say, "But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." Of this Borg notes:

The specification of the right cheek and the awareness that people in that world used their right hand to strike somebody provide the key for understanding the saying. How can a person be hit on the right cheek by a right-handed person? Only by a backhanded slap (act it out and see for yourself). In that world, a slap with the back of the hand was the way a superior struck a subordinate. The saying thus presupposes a situation of domination: a peasant being backhanded by a steward or official, a prisoner being backhanded by a jailer, and so forth. When that happens, turn the other cheek. What would be the effect of that? The beating could continue only if the superior used an overhand blow - which is the way an equal would strike another equal. Of course, he might do so. But he would be momentarily discombobulated, and the subordinate would be asserting his equality even if the beating did continue.

Matthew 5:41 has Jesus say, "and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile." Borg says that this statement "refers to a known practice of imperial soldiers."

Soldiers were allowed to compel peasants to carry their considerable gear for one mile, but no more. The reason for this restriction was that soldiers had been abusing the option by forcing peasants to carry their gear all day (or even longer). The result was not only popular resentment, but peasants ending up a days journey (or even more) from home. And so the restriction was introduced, and soldiers faced penalties for violating it, some of them severe. In this setting, what are you to do when an imperial soldier requires you to carry his gear for a mile? Do it - and then keep going. This situation, [Walter] Wink [a scholar, and author of Engaging the Powers, The Powers That Be, and Jesus and Non-Violence] suggests, is almost comical - imagine an imperial soldier wrestling a peasant to get his gear back while the peasant says, "No, no, it's fine. Let me carry it another mile."

That we understand these metaphorically is, of course, appropriate. Any teaching that is so far removed from our historical, cultural, and social setting cannot be taken entirely literally if it is to be in any way meaningful to us. Additionally, it is hard to imagine that these teachings, even in their original setting, were to be taken as hard and fast rules to be applied to any situation without some metaphorical interpretation. Walter Wink argues, for instance, that it is very hard to imagine the literal practice of turning the other cheek to work for very long without the superiors picking up on it, and saying something like, "Oh, its the old 'turn the other cheek' trick," and adapting their behavior accordingly.

However, to properly understand these and other teachings metaphorically, we have to also understand what they might have meant when Jesus first taught them. Understanding that, we see that they are much more powerful, and much more subversive, than our conventional wisdom will allow them to be.


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Nice long initial post. I will certainly understand if your later ones are shorter to accomadate 15 hours at LPTS.

Always put your classes, first. The longer posts or more frequent can be fit in when one has the time.

Good reflections.

Tom said...

What a minute...

You mean there are blog posts that are not this lengthy? I'm not sure Sandalstraps is aware of this developement.

Jeff said...

I'll try one more time here... I think Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan do a really good job of working together to explain the reasons for the crucifixion. The exegesis offered by Borg on Matt 5:39 that you posted is echoed here by reporter Charles Sennott, in his book about indiginous Christians living in the Middle East, The Body and the Blood:

"To hit someone on the right cheek assumes that the aggressor has hit the person with the back of his right hand. In the ancient customs of the land, this was considered a deep insult; this was how the powerful struck the powerless, the way a master struck his slave, or a Roman struck a Jew. But a blow administered with an open hand on the left side of the face was a blow struck at an equal. The difference between the two types of blows was actually codified in Jerusalem's local law at the time according to some historians. A backhanded slap to the right cheek of a man's peer was grounds to sue for punitive damages. The fine for a backhanded blow to a peer was 100 times the fine for a blow with a forehand. If a backhand was delivered to an underling, however, there was no fine. So when Jesus said to offer the left cheek, by this historical interpretation he wasn't prescribing a blind, masochistic pacifism. He was telling his followers, effectively, "Confront the person offending you, forcing him to face you as an equal, but do not respond with violence in return." That, in the context of Jesus's time and The social and legal codes that existed then, was a radical act of defiance. It turned the tables, forcing the striker to accept the humanity and the equality of the one he was striking, even if he was not legally (or militarily, or politically, or economically) recognized as an equal."

Sandalstraps said...


Thanks for the advice. Given my lofty(ish) academic goals, I'd best not neglect my course work!


I am well aware that some people can write short posts - I just don't count myself among their number! Though, I'd better learn how to. One of my classes requires only 1 and 3 page papers. If you write more than that, the teachers claim, they will not read it. Learn to be concise! is their mantra. May I internalize it, at least when working on those short papers.


I appreciate your comment. There is just one thing I don't understand... What do you mean by "I'll try one more time here..."?

Are you having trouble getting your comment through? I've had some issues with word verification in the past. Are they creeping up again?

Oh, and as for Borg and Crossan working together - Borg wrote the book that I quoted while he and Crossan were working on their joint book about the last week of Jesus. There is a great deal of overlap between the two books, a fact which I think illuminates the reading of both books.

Liam said...

I enjoyed the post very much, Chris.

Also, good luck with school! I remember going back to school after 13 years. It was very exciting -- I felt like buying a 64-color set of crayons (with the sharpener in the box) and a big bottle of Elmer's glue. Enjoy it.

Heather said...

That was a lovely post. Thank you. :) Too often, we seem to forget that Jesus's message was political, just as much as it was personal.

You might also like the book "The Lost Message of Jesus" by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann. That's the first time I really heard about those passeges having a political content.

Another book I enjoyed in dealing with the political system and Jesus's reaction to it was "The Politics of Jesus" by Obery M. Hendricks, Jr.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations from me, too, Sandman! I'm sure that you'll do great, and don't let long blog posts get in the way of the academic work. One idea, of course, is to blog about your academic work! I, for one, will be excited to listen in on what you are learning.

Oh, I've also been having occasional trouble posting comments with the "new and improved" Blogger. I've had some really long comments unceremoniously zapped with no possibility of retrieval.

Sandalstraps said...

Thanks to all academic well wishers, and especially to Brian for the suggestion that I blog about my academic work. I suspect that I will do that at least some of the time. I have no doubt that if I write a particularly interesting paper, for instance, it will makes its way here.

In the meantime, I wonder what the comment problem is. Is it, perhaps, the word verification feature. That has given me fits before. Perhaps I should remove it, and just delete any comment spam that shows up.

Or, is there perhaps another problem that I need to know about?

In any event, comments are the lifeblood of this blog, and I want to eliminate anything that discourages commenting.