“He who says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”
Most of us simply dismiss Jesus’ politic of nonviolent resistance as either impractical idealism or an outdated, extinct appendage to the Gospel. Pacifism just doesn’t work in our world of chemical weapons, Delhi bus rapes, Boston bombs and Newtown shootings. To even discuss it draws the angst and ire of the most devout evangelical. Sooner rather than later, in every conversation about peace and nonviolence, someone will most assuredly ask the question, ‘What would you do if a criminal or insane person threatened to hurt or kill your mom, sister or daughter?’ As if the question alone provides the coup de grace for anyone naïve enough to believe Jesus really meant what he said. Or, more timely, what should we do when a regime uses chemical weapons to kill innocent men, women and children? While serious doubt can be raised about the validity of the first question, the second is a shameful reality right here and right now. Thankfully we who inhabit this fallen world do not have to rely on hypothetical answers to guide us. We have as answer witness to the life, ministry and death of Jesus, the par excellence of nonviolent resistance who as God made flesh confronted injustice, violence and evil by dismissing the underlying assumption that the only two options are to ‘kill or be killed’. This limited reserve of reaction reveals our own physical and spiritual poverty. Mahatma Gandhi even said that if the only two choices are to kill or stand idly by while the weak are exterminated by the strong, then of course, we must kill. And to that end I acquiesce.
But thankfully, Jesus gives us a third way; a different path beyond quietism or redemptive violence. It is the radical way of the omnipotent, which, when the hypothetical became a reality, practiced nonviolent resistance as a just means of opposing the enemy in a way that opened up the possibility of the enemy, even an enemy brandishing chemical weapons, to become just himself. Do you remember the scene in John’s gospel when the life of a defenseless woman was about to be taken? With stones in hand and a terrified woman at their feet, Jesus interrupts the plans of the self-righteous by interceding on her behalf. He didn’t sit idly by or meet the Pharisees viciousness with force. Rather, he placed himself between the woman and her attackers and bore the brunt of their accusations on her behalf. He met the Pharisees lethal force with an altogether different form of power, a power manifested in suffering love on behalf of the oppressed which when practiced, elevates the dignity of the downtrodden. Christ’s third way of dealing with evil is therefore not some form of negative pacifism that we in the policing West can dismiss as superfluous in our attempts to meet evil with evil, it is active love and truth in the face of evil on behalf of the subjugated.
Consider Jesus’ most famous polemic on nonviolence in his political manifesto, the Sermon on the Mount. Written as the platform for Jesus’ call to radical discipleship, the sermon commands his would be followers to confront evil in a third, revolutionary way.
“Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, walk with him two miles…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”
What is Jesus up to when he asks us to ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘go the second mile’ and ‘give up your cloak as well’? In the first instance, Jesus speaks of being struck on the right cheek and turning again the other. In the Jewish world where the left hand was only used for unclean tasks, to hit the right cheek with the right hand required a backhanded blow, meant not to harm but to humiliate. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents their children; Romans, Jews. A backhanded blow brandished contemptuous superiority over the weaker party, akin to kicking a stray dog. Jesus refuses to allow both himself and his followers to accept such treatment. Instead, he offers a creative way of resisting unchecked power. As Walter Wink explains, “by turning the left cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again. The left cheek offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish through his brutality the equality of his underling.”For Jesus and for us, turning the other cheek establishes equality; it is nonviolent resistance resulting in status equalization. In the first century world of honor and shame, this brutal superior who relies on violence to maintain his status, is now the one publicly humiliated.
Jesus’ second scene of assertive nonviolence is staged in a court of law. A creditor has taken a poor man to court for an unpaid debt. Only the lowest of the low were subject to this form of duress. The Mosaic Law stipulates that a creditor could take as collateral for a loan a poor person’s outer robe, but it must be returned each evening so the man can have something in which to sleep. Instead of accepting this form of economic inequality, Jesus commands his followers to oppose the entire system of prejudice by counseling the poor to give to their wealthy creditor all their clothing, willfully standing before the law and the community completely naked! Can you picture the scene, a poor man, forced to give up his coat, removes all his tattered clothes standing completely naked as public witness to an unjust system. And, since nakedness was strictly taboo in Judaism, the shame of such a public display fell not on the naked party, but on those viewing or causing the nakedness.This very public, shocking display by the beleaguered debtor ironically restores his dignity while simultaneously rebuking the greed and power of the creditor. Again, Jesus’ third way of confronting oppression turns the tables on those in power, which should cause us who live in the first world to seriously ponder the weight of our economic, social and political decisions toward the vast majority of the underprivileged world.
Finally, Jesus’ third example of ‘Going the second mile’ is drawn from the common practice of impressment levied by Roman soldiers on subjected colonial populations who were forced by law to carry a soldiers pack one mile upon request. Jesus offers yet again a third way of confronting power and injustice. Instead of dropping the bundle the moment one reaches the mile marker, Jesus slyly urges the Jewish peasant to continue hauling the pack a second mile. In this way, the subjugated colonial assumes power over his imperial overlord since requiring an individual to carry one’s pack a second mile was a severe infraction of military code, met with strict punishment. Our peasant takes back the power of choice. As Walter Wink so poignantly illustrates, “Imagine a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew to give back his pack! The humor of this scene may have escaped us, but it could scarcely have been lost on Jesus’ hearers, who must have been delighted at the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors.” It’s no wonder Jesus is so loved by the marginalized. It’s no wonder the powerful killed him.
In a world where smart bombs are smarter than our politicians and diplomats, it is altogether fitting to rediscover Jesus’ polemic on disarmament. Our world is replete with evil, the powerful consistently abuse the weak. The hypothetical is reality. Nonviolent resistance is not a platitude discussed from the safety of ivory towers; it is the foundational ethic of Christ, who in disarming Peter disarmed us all. As our nation ponders military action against injustice, we Christians must remember the posture God took when dealing with His enemies. We must look again upon the crucified God and ask ourselves anew: What kind of God does the crucifixion reveal? “Can this God who is most frequently represented as a defenseless baby in a manger and as a defenseless man on a cross by a tyrant” who meets evil with evil? Are we called to follow this God, or the God of our civil religion? Jesus gives us real, tangible ways of dealing with evil, injustice and violence without resorting to evil, injustice and violence. But there are times when even this posture will not safeguard our lives, and so we look again to the one who was raised up on our behalf, who once again did not sit idly by, but stepped between us and a righteous God whose hands were raised against our evil, and, in Christ’s greatest act of nonviolent resistance, took upon himself the sin and shame of mankind by suffering on behalf of his enemies. If we who claim to be his disciples believe that the life, ministry, words and death of Jesus are more than mere pithy clichés for an ancient world, we must have the courage and creativity to go and be like Him. After all, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
I John 2: 6