Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: Nonviolent resistance

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July 14, 2012 by jmar198013

[5.38-42: On nonviolent resistance] “You’ve heard the instruction, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ Well, I say not to settle the score by repaying evil for evil. Instead, if someone backhands you, offer them your other cheek. If someone decides to sue you for the shirt off your back, strip off all your other clothes right there in the courtroom and give those to them, too. When some soldier drafts you to carry his pack for a mile, carry it for two miles. Go ahead and give to those beggars, and don’t send any borrowers away empty-handed.”

For all my insistence thus far in this series that Jesus does not contradict Torah in the Sermon on the Mount, it would seem that we have now come to a place where he does. For surely his insistence that we not return evil for evil runs counter to the law of equal retribution. Yet, Moses’ command about just retribution is not without context. The context for Moses’ word, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is an integrated reading of Torah. Think of Cain’s descendant Lamech who bragged to his wives, “I have killed a man for striking me, a boy for insulting me.” Think of the tradition of blood vengeance that event began. The rule “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” meant, by contrast, that you could not kill someone for wounding you. Nor could you seek retribution against someone who had harmed you by, say, killing their brother in response. The purpose of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” is not only proportionality; it is Moses’ attempt to stave off endless cycles of violence and counter-violence by naming a stopping point. No society can long survive unmitigated vengeance. Moses’ command was meant to place a limit on retaliation. That Jesus would call his church to nonretaliation does not thereby abrogate or disrespect the Torah. They share the same end.

It is telling that Jesus’ words in Matt. 5.38-42 address situations of social inequality. The one backhanded is in a position of social inferiority–slaves, women, and children were struck this way. The second scenario addresses an insolvent debtor sued by a creditor. The third, a Jewish person pressed into service by the occupying Roman army. Those Jesus addresses by means of these normative descriptions are victims of physical, economic, and imperial violence that were specifically targeted at shaming them, humiliating them, and “keeping them in their place.” The responses to which Jesus calls them–cheek-turning, garment-giving, second-miling–are not invitations to become human doormats. These are acts of bold redirection (and resistance) that assert the fundamental equality of the persecutor and the persecuted. It is the aggressors Jesus names as “beggars and borrowers” at the close of this section. For those who must assert themselves at the others and so lash out to “keep them at their place” are obviously encumbered people. One hopes to create space in the doing of these things whereby the aggressor can come to understand this fact. To crack open a door that leads to repentance and reconciliation. Realistically, one is not guaranteed success, but as Stanley Hauerwas is wont to remind the church, our task first task is not to be effective, but to be faithful. The Cross is the church’s template here; how effective a means of restoring balance and order did the crucifixion seem between the day it happened and the Resurrection? In light of the continued chaos and violence of our world, how effective does it seem now?

Fundamentally, would have the church understand that being the church means being a people that does not secure its existence, its rights, or its liberty by means of violence. The world behaves that way, and has know way of understanding that it is the world if the church mirrors its violence. Being the church means being a nonviolent people. This claim is not self-authenticating; it is rooted in the very character of God as that character is revealed to the church in Jesus. When Paul says that we are reconciled to God by Christ’s death (Rom. 5.10), it communicates that God does not establish justice and restore order by violently lashing out at his enemies. If the church is to have a share in God’s character, it means that we will not violently oppose those who are hostile to us, either. Elsewhere, Paul affirms that God was reconciling all things to himself through Christ (2 Cor. 5.17-21; Col. 1.19-20), and that the Cross is God demonstrating his love for us (Rom. 5.8). This means that the Cross represents God’s stance toward a hostile world–and it is one of nonviolent resistance. We come to know (and glorify) God through Jesus’ refusal to use violence in the name of justice. The church’s task is likewise to demonstrate God’s character to a hostile world. The church’s nonviolence is central to letting the world see our good deeds so that they will honor God.

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5 thoughts on “Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: Nonviolent resistance

  1. I’m bookmarking this one. I remember the first time I was taught that perspective of “turning the other cheek”. I think it was Youngblood’s class. Before, I saw it as a general idea that really just applied to personal relationships. It was ironic then that not seeing the bold action in turning one’s cheek I didn’t take on the “human doormat” interpretation, but instead refit it to my purposes because of how I wanted to read scriptures. I wanted the Bible to vindicate my desire to be able to carry out my own visions of justice.

    • jmar198013 says:

      Right. This is why I stress–and like you, I learned this from Dr. Youngblood–the continuing validity of Torah and how essential it is to interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a fashion that complements the Torah, rather than denigrates it. And of course, I didn’t, and Dr. Youngblood didn’t, just arbitrarily decide to read the text that way. We simply took Jesus at face value when he declared that he came not to destroy but to fulfill the Torah and prophets. That being said, we also have to be very careful about how we read Torah, and I’d argue that being trained to read Moses by Jesus makes us better readers of Moses. In this instance, we are forced by Jesus’ mutual claims that a) he is not abrogating Torah, and b) his people must not return evil for evil, to admit that Moses must not have been sanctioning vengeance. Moses’ main concern seems to have been eradicating vigilantism. Jesus’ teachings encompass that as well, but also speak to the temptation his audience faced to go all Barabbas on the empire and all those in collusion with it. I think it’s actually quite strange that churches have come to see the words of Jesus in Matt. 5.38-42 as primarily addressing conflicts in interpersonal relationships. The instructions he lays out are obviously not of that order–they are words to oppressed people. Corollary to that is the tendency to offer that Jesus’ words apply ONLY to interpersonal relationships, but some other ethic applies when you act as a soldier, a government official, or “the man of the house.” Jesus never made any such distinction. I have been told, “If you won’t kill someone to protect your family, then you are just a terrible person, you obviously don’t love them very well.” My only response, then, is that for them the Cross must prove that God is the worst parent ever.

      • I agree. Now, you don’t have to respond to this, because it opens up another can of worms for another time, but knowing that the death penalty was under the Torah, and that eye-for-an-eye was consistent with this law, because it was not about vengeance, how do we reconcile the Torah with the new law in terms of accepting capital punishment under the New Law (assuming our motives are not vengeance, but order of civil law)? I wonder about this one myself.

      • jmar198013 says:

        There was a death penalty under Torah for certain offenses, but from what we can gather it was rarely, if ever, actually carried out. That’s pretty interesting actually. If you look at two of the biggies on the capital offenses, murder and adultery, you actually have to prove a lot to even establish it. The testimony of two or three witnesses, right? And we’re not talking about character witnesses or forensics experts. We’re talking about two or three people who saw you do it. You have a movement in the canon, it shapes the canon, really, away from violent retribution. You have this tradition that mitigates retaliation, moving from essentially mob rule and vigilantism, to the avenger of blood, to a fairly formal, centralized, and regulatory judiciary by the time that Torah reaches its final form. In terms of what’s going on by the time Jesus comes on the scene, with the Sanhedrin you had to have a pretty solid quorum for them to hand down a death sentence (obviously they may not have always strictly adhered to their own traditions). The one time in his life Jesus encounters a death-penalty type of situation (the woman caught in adultery) he basically uses himself as a shield to stop it. Name me one execution in the New Testament that was portrayed as just and good. You can’t, and that tells us something about the authors’ prejudices. Likewise, the early church wanted nothing to do with it. That was a time when Romans had public executions, real spectacles. But the early Christian moralist Athenagoras said, basically, “Christians don’t go out and participate in those things, because we consider that to go out and watch a man put to death is the same is doing it ourselves.” My position is, essentially, yes Jesus’ words are valid interpretations of the canonical (at that point Moses and the prophets) tradition, but it was also a living tradition, it evolved and morphed over time of necessity. Christians, at least orthodox ones, are people who make the claim that Jesus is God. That claim means that we accept his interpretation of Torah as valid, and that interpretation seems to rule out us accepting violence no matter who is doing it. I mean, we accept it in terms of we accept, say, Romans 13, Caesar doesn’t bear the sword in vain. But saying that Caesar is apt to go ham on those who resist him is like saying a cow eats cabbage. It’s just what is, doesn’t mean we condone it, certainly not that we co-sanction it with Caesar.

  2. […] discussion of Romans 12.14-21 is how much it depends on the Sermon on the Mount, particularly Matt. 5.38-42 and 5.43-48. Paul’s word, “Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil […]

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