You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The first principle of nonviolent action is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating.
Regardless of nationality, all men are brothers. God is "our Father who art in heaven." The commandment "Thou shalt not kill" is unconditional and inexorable...The lowly Nazarene taught us the doctrine of non-resistance, and so convinced was he of the soundness of that doctrine that he sealed his belief with death on the cross. When human law conflicts with Divine law, my duty is clear. Conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, death, or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the Army.
Ben Salmon (1889-1932)
ac-id test (n): a decisive test that establishes the worth or credibility of something
The world-famous Gandhi, the Indian Hindu nonviolent revolutionary, read this Script every morning of his adult life. The lesser-known Ben Salmon, the only American Catholic conscientious objector imprisoned during WWI, leaned heavily on this teaching of Jesus in his 200-page manifesto written right after 135 days of force-feeding during his self-imposed hunger strike. Walter Wink, the late Union Theological Seminary professor who devoted two decades of his life to scholarship on the "principalities and powers" language of the New Testament, called Jesus' scandalous teaching on nonviolence & enemy love "the acid test of Christianity": the legitimacy of any follower of Jesus should be judged entirely on how well they obey this command.
Jesus' Sermon on the Mount was taught to marginalized masses searching for a compelling way to fight for dignity, humanity & opportunity. These folks were overtaxed, scapegoated & demonized by the Roman Empire and the "client kings" of Jerusalem whose policies were justified by the whole Temple apparatus (obediently go to church, pay your taxes & God will reward you and the Nation). They had very little hope in a dynamic & liberating future because their national history was precisely the opposite of white America's: they had been repeatedly conquered by neighboring empires from Assyria to Persia to Babylonia to Rome.
In this particular portion of the Sermon, Jesus articulated three scenarios quite familiar to the original hearers of the Gospel of Matthew sometime around 75CE. First, in a right-handed culture (one would only use the left hand for "unclean" activities like wiping one's ass), to be struck "on the right cheek" would only be possible with a back-handed slap, a painfully common practice of abuse used to show who's charge. Men would back-hand women (not the other way around). Bosses would back-hand workers (not the other way around).
The second example comes from a court scene where wealthy lenders would sue poor peasants who could not pay back their mortgage debts (loss of land ownership was mostly due to overtaxation). Only the poorest of the poor would have only their cloaks to give up as collateral. And this practice was strictly limited to the daylight hours, as the Law required that they be returned to the indebted laborers for warmth at night (Exodus 22; Deuteronomy 24).
The last example mirrors the military-industrial-complex of 1st century Palestine. Roman soldiers would lug 80 pound packs long distances and would consistently & forcibly enlist common folk to carry them. The Law required that soldiers limit each commoner to one mile of heavy labor.
In this undignified & dehumanized atmosphere, Jesus offers would-be disciples "a third way" that would transcend the dualistic & painful cycles of fight-or-flight & blame-or-shame copings. Like a mix between Nelson Mandela & Stephen Colbert, Jesus creatively relied upon courage & laughter to demand dignity for the afflicted. Only these imaginatively transformative practices can break the cycle of violence and usher disciples into subversive & salvific peace cycles. But we must know the real context of the biblical witness in order to get the joke and break the cycle.
In the first scenario, Jesus exhorts his followers to "turn the other cheek" (the left), making it so that the oppressor could only use his fist to punch (instead of slap with the back of the hand), thus turning both the abuser & abused into equals (this symbolism was vital in an honor-shame culture). This is not a command to "just lay down" and let your abuser have his way. It is an in-your-face recovery of humanity.
Then, Jesus urges his followers not only to give up their cloaks to their sue-happy lenders, but to give them their underwear too! This would leave them butt naked in a court of law, a scandalous thought in an honor-shame culture where the disrobing would bring shame upon the ones who looked at the naked debtor! And, indeed, what is more shameful: full-frontal nudity in a public place or the rich getting richer off the backs of homeless, poor peasants who need their cloaks to stay warm at night in the open air? This was precisely the symbolic message of the Prophet Isaiah when he traveled around Israel naked & barefoot for more than 3 years (Isaiah 20), "exposing" the injustice and cruelty of the socio-economic system that worked for elites…but no one else.
Lastly, Jesus calls upon his followers to carry the heavy packs one more mile, creating a comical and confusing situation for Roman soldiers. They would be forced to ask repeatedly to get their own possessions back from lowly peasants who demanded to break the law and keep walking, thus seizing the initiative and taking back the power of choice.
In short, at the core of Jesus' program for life is NOT an apolitical, passive acceptance of power relations, but a crafty pacifism that seeks transformation. Even better, the Gandhian (& US Civil Rights Movement) concept of nonviolent direct action, addressing the oppression of our unique contexts with creative confrontation, most clearly fleshes out what Jesus was getting at with his own campaign. As Martin Luther King wrote from jail in 1963:
We who in engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.
However, the only motivation that Jesus gives for these audacious practices of love & forgiveness is that we ought to strive to mirror the Maker. In the end, it's not about "what works," but about our pledge of allegiance to be like God, providing heat, light, water & food for both the oppressed & the oppressors in our world. Everyone deserves dignity, no matter what. This is what it means to be teleos (unfortunately translated as "perfect" in our English Bibles), a "whole", "complete" force of Love, just like the Heavenly Father.
The real biblical challenge is translating Jesus' teaching on the Mount for 1st World Christians (mostly white, upper-middle-class Americans) who enjoy the privileges of oppressive systems (think about the Chinese slave labor that produces our mobile phones or the massive American economic growth created by the production of weapons, war & the drive for more fossil fuels). The Gospel of Matthew was written to communities of Jesus followers with far less power, privilege and possessions than North American suburban dwellers.
As always, Jesus' teachings call us to both personal inventory & prophetic imagination. Where might we be implicated in policies & practices that "bitch slap" the "least of these" (Mt 25:16-31), that overwhelm them with debt and that burden them with the task lugging heavy loads? And do we have the courage & creativity to pledge solidarity--in word & deed, with our time, energy & resources--with all those who are shut in, locked down and cast out?
Epilogue: Meditate on Wink's concise description of Jesus' 3rd Way:
-Seize the moral initiative
-Find a creative alternative to violence
-Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person
-Meet force with ridicule or 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