Jesus' Version of Stand Your Ground (Matthew 5:38-48)

Whereas the normal human response to violence is either fight or flight, Jesus offers a third way: nonviolent direct action. Theologian, Walter Wink in his book, Engaging the Powers, articulated a penetrating exposition of this passage that I want to draw upon here. Wink pointed out that the word translated “resist” (antistenai) in this context means “to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an insurrection.” Jesus is not forbidding all resistance, rather he is saying, “Do not react violently to evil, do not counter evil with evil, do not allow violence to cause you to react violently.”

What follows are three examples from his culture of nonviolent direct action. First, Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” The context here is not a brawl or fistfight where the intent is to harm or injure; rather, this is an example of one who has power and clout using it to humiliate and insult one who does not. To strike the right cheek with the right hand would require a bankhanded slap, which was the usual way for reprimanding inferiors. In the dominant/subordinate structure of the ancient world, this is the sort of humiliating put down that a master might do to a slave, or a husband might do to his wife, or a Roman might do to a Jew.

Jesus is speaking to people who are trapped in an oppressive, hierarchical system of class, race, and gender as a result of imperial occupation. Instead of cowering in submission, Jesus calls for a courageous, nonviolent response. The one stricken stands up straight turning the other cheek toward his opponent, inviting another strike. The one who turns the other cheek is challenging the oppressive behavior of the one who has power. How different is Jesus’ stand your ground instruction from current laws that actually ignite violence? Both Gandhi and King, like Jesus here, taught noncooperation with anything demeaning and humiliating.

In the second example, Jesus imagines a context in which one is being sued in a court of law, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well” (see Exod 22:25–27 and Deut 24:10–13). Only a person deeply impoverished would have nothing but a garment to give as collateral for a loan. According to Hebrew law, the garment had to be returned before sunset. Jesus describes a setting where a debtor has sunk deep into poverty and cannot repay his debts, and the creditor has summoned him to court.

Indebtedness was endemic in first century Palestine, primarily as a result of Roman imperial policy. Emperors levied a heavy tax burden on the population. Land was ancestrally owned and passed down over generations, and no peasant would voluntarily relinquish it. Exorbitant interest, however, was used to drive landowners deeper into debt; and debt, coupled with high taxation, could easily pry Galilean peasants loose from their land. As a result, in the time of Jesus large estates were owned by absentee landlords, managed by stewards, and worked by tenant farmers, day laborers, and slaves (which, by the way, was an image Jesus used in some of his stories).

In handing over one’s undergarment as well as one’s outergarment, the person taken to court would be making a dramatic protest against the system that permitted this kind of oppression. It would have served as a vivid sign of how the oppressors strip the poor of their dignity.

The third example, according to Wink, reflects a situation where forced labor was allowed, but limited, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” A Roman soldier could force a subjected person to carry his pack up to one mile. Jesus advocates going beyond the limit and carrying it two miles in protest of such oppression.

So in these examples, Jesus is creatively finding ways to empower an oppressed people to take the initiative and assert their dignity. Rather than cower in submission, Jesus is encouraging nonviolent protest through the only means available to them.

This, of course, does not change anything, at least not right away, but it empowers the oppressed to act courageously. Wink declared that Jesus taught “a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity.”

The final example is not an example of nonviolent direct action, but reflects on life within an impoverished community, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (5:42). Jesus is encouraging a radical egalitarian sharing within the community, supporting one another against such oppression.

It is important that these examples of creative nonviolent protest not be severed from Jesus’ central command to love and pray for the enemy/oppressor. In other words, these instructions are not to be performed vindictively, but out of genuine concern for the oppressor, realizing that the one who victimizes others is also a victim of his or her own victimization.

These instructions are not laws; Jesus is not legislating specific behavior. He is offering an alternative to cowardly subjugation. Jesus is calling for creative, intentional, risky response to oppression that utilizes wit, humor, and some intelligent forethought.

If we read these instructions as laws then we are likely to throw up our hands in despair.  But these are not laws, they are examples; they are illustrations of the kind of righteousness that is higher, greater, more than the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20), because it is based on an ethic of love rather than law. 

A law can be obeyed in the wrong spirit.  Someone might say, “Jesus said to turn the other cheek, but he didn’t say what to do after that. So I’ll turn the other cheek, then I’ll knock your block off.”  The kind of righteousness that Jesus calls for is the kind that is motivated and empowered by an ethic of love. 

Love of God and love of neighbor (and one’s enemy is one’s neighbor) determines what is an appropriate response in any given situation. If turning the other cheek means that someone else will suffer great harm, then very possibly turning the other cheek is not the most loving response in that situation. It could just be a reaction of fear.

In a very real sense the ethic of love that Jesus embodied and teaches is situational. The question is not: What specific action is prescribed for this situation?  What law do I obey?  What rule do I follow?  The question is: What is the loving response?  What is the selfless response for the good of the other?  What is the redemptive response? 

According to Wink, Jesus’ third way incorporates the following elements:

Seize the moral initiative
Find a creative alternative to violence
Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person
Meet force with ridicule and humor
Break the cycle of humiliation
Refuse to submit to or to accept the inferior position
Expose the injustice of the system
Take control of the power dynamic
Shame the oppressor into repentance
Stand your ground
Make the Powers make decisions for which they are not prepared
Recognize your own power
Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate
Force the oppressor to see you in a new light
Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective
Be willing to undergo the penalty of breaking unjust laws
Die to fear of the old order and its rules
Seek the oppressor’s transformation

Jesus’ third way offers an alternative to passive withdraw and submission (flight), as well as armed, violent rebellion and retaliation (fight). His way enables the oppressed to stand against evil and expose evil, without being transformed by evil, thus pointing to a better way.  

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so embodied Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence that it became a social movement. He believed that nonviolent resistance was the most potent weapon an oppressed people could use in their quest for justice.

But he also understood that hate not only wrecks havoc on its victims, it is equally as injurious and damaging to the one who hates. According to King, it is like an unchecked cancer that corrodes the personality and eats away at the soul.

King also recognized that a strategy of direct nonviolent social action might possibly bring about a sense of shame in the opponent and break the cycle of violence. He understood that meeting hate with hate only intensifies the hate. He believed that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. He taught his followers that their aim was not to get rid of the enemy, but the enmity that empowered the enemy. Their aim was not to humiliate the offenders, but to win their friendship and understanding.

After a demonstration in 1962, King asked his most adamant supporters to make a commitment to: (1) meditate daily on the life and teachings of Jesus; (2) walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love; (3) pray daily to be used by God so that all people might be free; and (4) refrain from all violence of fist, tongue and heart. King taught that all nonviolent resistance must be directed against evil itself, not the person who commits the evil.

How different from Rev King’s voice has been the surge of contemporary Christian voices in support of violence.  Dr. Charles Marsh, Professor of Religion at the University of Virginia, in his book, Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity, references the war sermons delivered by influential evangelical ministers during the period leading up to the Iraq war in the fall of 2002 through the spring of 2003.  

Franklin Graham claimed that our military forces in Iraq were preparing the way for the conversion of the Muslin world. Can you imagine? President of the SBC, Jack Graham, said that “in these urgent days we will seize the opportunity to advance the Kingdom of God.”  James D. Kennedy not only endorsed the invasion, but extended the call for America “to exercise godly dominion and influence over every aspect and institution of human society.” He boldly declared, “No power on earth can stop us.” 

Dr. Marsh was particularly appalled by a sermon from a highly popular evangelical preacher whose sermons are heard by millions of television viewers. In calling for support of the war he said, “God battles with people who oppose him, who fight against him and his followers.” With a swat of the hand he dismissed the whole teaching and life of Jesus, saying that Jesus was speaking to individuals when he said to love our enemies. With one brief comment Jesus became totally irrelevant. Marsh comments on the sermon,

“The sermon’s tone of supreme self-confidence is horrifying. There is no anguish, no dark night of struggle, no wrestling with Scripture . . . not a hint of apprehension, or words of caution, about the certain violence inflicted on civilians. There is no sense in which the believer must evaluate all moral decisions on the basis of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.”

The sermon was delivered by Charles Stanley. Marsh wrote that Stanley “interprets the New Testament material on violence through the focal lens of American foreign policy and creates a new American Christ along the way.”

The Christ of Matthew 5:38–48 calls for direct nonviolent action in the context of love for the enemy.

What reasons does Jesus give for his command to love the enemy?  Ultimately, we love our enemies, not in order to change them or convert them, but because God loves God’s enemies. We love our enemies because we are God’s children, because we share the heart of God. God loves the very ones that ignore, reject, and scorn him and we are called to share his nature. Certainly we pray and hope that our enemies will discover God’s love for themselves and have a change of heart, but whether they do or do not, we love them because God loves them and we are called to share God’s heart. If we respond to those who wish to harm us with the same animosity that governs them, then we are being shaped by the spirit of our enemy, rather than the Spirit of God. 

God loves the evil person, even while God hates the evil that he does. Many of us find it difficult to separate the evil that a person does, from the person himself or herself. I think parents are most able to do this. Parents are able to remember the good in the child, before the child was shaped by evil influences and pressures. I believe that God looks at the most evil person, the most prejudiced, arrogant, selfish, malicious and violent person and sees what that person could have been or perhaps still could be.

In a scene from the movie, Ironweed, the characters played by Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson stumble across an old Eskimo woman lying in the snow, probably drunk. Sort of dizzy themselves the two debate what they should do about her. “Is she drunk or a bum?” asks Nicholson. “Just a bum. Been one all her life,” came the response. “And before that?” “She was a whore in Alaska.” “She hasn’t been a whore all her life. Before that?” “I dunno,” says Streep, “Just a little kid, I guess.” “Well, a little kid’s something. It’s not a bum and it’s not a whore. It’s something. Let’s take her in.”

Everyone is something; everyone is a child of God, no matter how far that child may have wandered from home and no matter how bad that child may have become.

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Much of the material in this blog was drawn from a section in my book, A Faith Worth Living: The Dynamics of an Inclusive Gospel.


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