Give Your Undergarment As Well?


We are considering Jesus’ call to non-violent resistance. In my last post: we looked at the first example Jesus gave: “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”, in its original context, to understand its meaning.

Today, we continue with the second of the three examples that Jesus gives, that confirm his call to non-violent resistance: “And if anyone sues you for your outer garment give your undergarment as well.”

Walter Wink – a Bible scholar and theologian with a very influential voice in the Christian theology of nonviolence shares the following insights:

“Jesus’ second example of assertive nonviolence is set in a court of law. A creditor has taken a poor man to court over an unpaid loan. Only the poorest of the poor were subjected to such treatment. If you didn’t have animals or land and you were really destitute, the last thing you had was the coat on your back – this long robe.

Deuteronomy 24: 10-13 provided that a creditor could take as collateral for a loan a poor man’s long outer robe, but it had to be returned each evening so that that poor person would have something in which to sleep.

Indebtedness was a plague in first century Palestine. Jesus’ parables are full of debtors struggling to salvage their lives. Heavy debt was not, however, a natural calamity that had overtaken the incompetent. It was the direct consequence of Roman imperial policy.

Caesars taxed the wealthy heavily to find their wars and bankroll the bureaucracy. The rich naturally sought non-liquid investments to hide their wealth. Land was best, but it was ancestrally owned, passed down over generations. And no peasant would voluntarily relinquish it. However, exorbitant interest of twenty-five to two hundred and fifty percent could be used to drive land-owners even deeper into debt. And debt, coupled with the high taxation required to pay Roman tribute, created the economic leverage to pry Galilean peasants loose from their land. Does this sound familiar?

By the time of Jesus, we see this process already far advanced. Large estates, owned by absentee landlords, managed by stewards, and worked by tenant farmers, day labourers, and slaves. Many of whom had formerly been landowners. It’s no accident that the very first act of Jewish revolutionaries in 66 A.D. when the Roman War began, was to burn the temple treasury where the record of debts was kept – their own Temple!

So, the situation behind this text in the gospel, is one in which the wealthy have hiked up interest rates so much, that the poor have become landless. They’re defaulting on their loans; they’re losing their land and they’re becoming absolutely destitute. This has not just happened to a few people – it’s happened to a huge number of people. It’s an act of violence against the poor.

So, Jesus is responding and speaking into a social situation of great injustice. As before, his hearers are the poor: “If anyone would sue ‘you’…” They share a rankling hatred for a system that subjects them to humiliation by stripping them of their lands, their goods, and finally even their outer garments. And Jesus is saying, ‘Okay, next time they haul you into court and take your outer garment, give your undergarment as well.

Why does Jesus counsel them to give over their undergarments as well? This would mean stripping off all their clothing and marching out of court, stark naked. They didn’t have Jockey underwear! There were two items of clothing: the outer and the inner. But nakedness was taboo in Judaism and shame fell less on the naked party rather than on the person viewing or causing the nakedness.

By stripping, the debtor has then brought shame on the creditor. There stands the creditor covered with shame. The poor debtor’s outer garment in one hand, the inner garment in the other. The tables have suddenly been turned on the creditor.

Jesus is not advising people to add to their disadvantage by renouncing justice all together as some commentators have suggested. He is telling impoverished debtors who have nothing left but the clothes on their backs, to use the system against itself.

So, let’s see this get role played:

The debtor had no hope of winning the case. The law was entirely in the creditor’s favour. But the poor man has transcended this attempt to humiliate him. He has risen above shame. At the same time, he has registered a stunning protest against the system that created his debt. He has said in effect, “You want my robe? Here! Take everything! Now you’ve got all that I have except my body. Is that what you’ll take next?” Imagine the debtor leaving court naked. His friends and neighbours aghast, inquire “What happened?” He explains. They join his growing procession, which now resembles a victory parade.

This is guerilla theatre. The entire system by which debtors are oppressed has been publicly unmasked. The creditor is revealed to be not a legitimate moneylender, but a party to the reduction of an entire social class to landlessness and destitution. This unmasking is not simply punitive however, since it offers the creditor a chance to see – perhaps for the first time in his life – what his practices cause, and to repent (change).

The ‘powers that be’ literally stand on their dignity. Nothing deflates them more effectively than debt lampooning (publicly criticize by using ridicule, irony, or sarcasm). By refusing to be awed by their power, the powerless are emboldened to seek the initiative, even when structural change is not immediately possible. This message, far from counselling an unattainable otherworldly perfection, is a practical strategic measure for empowering the oppressed.

It’s being lived out all over the world today, by previously powerless people ready to take their history into their own hands, even if it costs them their lives. Shortly before the fall of political apartheid in South Africa, police descended on a squatters’ camp that they had long wanted to demolish. They gave a few women there, five minutes to gather their possessions. And then the bulldozers would level the shacks. The women, apparently sensing the residual puritanical streak in rural Afrikaners stripped naked before the bulldozers. The police turned and fled. Last I heard, that camp still stands. But the difference is, they’re now getting electricity and water.

Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence provides a hint of how to take on an entire system by unmasking its essential cruelty and burlesquing (parody or imitate in an absurd or comically exaggerated way) its pretentions to justice. Those who listen, will no longer be treated as sponges to be squeezed dry by the rich. They can accept the laws as they stand, push them to absurdity, and reveal them for what they are. They can strip naked, walk out before their fellows, and leave the creditors and the whole economic edifice that they represent, stark naked.”

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