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.