In the last few posts starting here: https://www.kerygma.org.au/turn-the-other-cheek-the-radical-case-for-non-violent-resistance, we have been considering Jesus’ radical call to non-violent resistance and three illustrations that he gives, of ways to live out this call.
Today, I want to summarise the heart /disposition behind Jesus’ call to non-violent resistance – love for our enemies! It isn’t for the faint-hearted, but a radical call for all those who would follow Jesus – with his grace – all the way.
Walter Wink – a Bible scholar and theologian with a very influential voice in the Christian theology of nonviolence shares the following insights:
“These three examples then amplify what Jesus means in his thesis statement: ‘Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.’ Instead of two options ingrained in us by millions of years of threats from the environment and other people – flight or fight – Jesus offers a third way. This new way marks a historic mutation in human development – a revolt against the principle of natural selection. With Jesus, a way emerges by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored.
It’s too bad that Jesus did not provide twenty or thirty further role plays, since we do not tend naturally to this response. But Gene Sharp, who is one of the great writers in the area of non-violence has 198 non-violent types of action. Under which there are many, many, many listings: https://commonslibrary.org/198-methods-of-nonviolent-action
To those whose life-long pattern has been to cringe before their masters, Jesus offers a way to liberate themselves from servile actions and a servile mentality. And he asserts that they can do this before there is a revolution.
There’s no need to wait until Rome is defeated, slaves are free, peasants have land. They can begin to behave with dignity and recover humanity now. Even under the unchanged conditions of the old order. Jesus’ sense of divine immediacy has social implications. The reign of God is already breaking into the world. And it comes not as an imposition from on high but as the leaven slowly causing the dough to rise – as in Jesus’ parable of the leaven.
Jesus’ teaching on non-violence is thus integral to his proclamation of the dawning of the reign of God. Here indeed, was a way to resist the powers that be, without being made over into their likeness.
Jesus did not endorse armed revolution. It is not hard to see why. In the conditions of first century Palestine, violent revolution against the Romans proved catastrophic. But he did lay the foundations for a social revolution. And a social resolution becomes political when it reaches a threshold, a critical threshold, of acceptance. (This in fact did happen to the Roman Empire as the Christian church overcame it from below).
Nor were peasants and slaves in a position to transform the economic system by frontal assault. But they could begin to act from an already recovered dignity and freedom. They could create within the shell of the old society, the foundations of God’s domination-free order. They could begin living as if the reign of God was already arriving.
This is not pie in the sky idealism. It was literally enacted in Poland when in 1980 the Labour Union – Solidarity, was organized, in defiance of the communist regime. After a year and a half, Solidarity was declared illegal and martial law was imposed. Solidarity appeared to have disappeared altogether. But in fact, it had gone underground. With its own universities and secondary schools being held in private homes. Poetry readings, concerts, in fact all the elements of a dynamic society.
When the communist rulers foolishly called a snap election to endorse their rule, Solidarity suddenly reappeared and won all 98 contested seats in Parliament. They had not been destroyed. Rather they had built, by nonviolent means, a democratic shell within the shell of the old decrepit rule.
To an oppressed people, Jesus is saying, “Do not continue to acquiesce in your oppression by the powers. But do not react violently to them either. Rather find that third way. A way that is neither submission nor assault. Neither flight nor fight. A way that can secure your human dignity and begin to change the power equation even now, before the revolution.
‘Turn your cheek’. Thus indicating to the one who backhands you, that his attempts to shame you into servility have failed. ‘Strip naked and parade out of court’. Thus taking the momentum of the law and the whole debt economy, and flipping them Aikido-like in the burlesque of legality. ‘Walk a second mile’. Surprise the occupation troops by placing them in jeopardy with their superiors.
In short, take the law and push it to the point of absurdity. These of course, are not rules to be followed legalistically. But examples to spark an infinite variety of creative responses in new and changing circumstances. They break the cycle of humiliation with humour, and even ridicule, exposing the injustice of the system. They recover for the poor a modicum of initiative that can force the oppressors to see them in a new light.
Jesus is not advocating non-violence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy. But as a just means of opposing the enemy, in a way that holds open the possibility of the enemy’s becoming just also. If possible, we want both sides to win. This is necessary since we will usually have to live with our opponents after the conflict is over. As in South Africa.
We are summoned to pray for our enemy’s transformation and respond to ill treatment with love. The logic of Jesus’ examples in Matthew goes beyond both inaction and overreaction to a new response, fired in the crucible of love, that promises to liberate the oppressed from evil, even as it frees the oppressor from sin.
Do not react violently to evil. Do not counter evil in kind. Do not let evil dictate the terms of your opposition. Do not let violence lead you to mirror your opponent. Don’t become the very thing you hate.
This forms the revolutionary principle that Jesus articulates as the basis for non-violently engaging the powers. Jesus abhors both passivity and violence. He articulates out of the history of his own people’s struggles, a way by which the oppressor can be resisted without being emulated. And the enemy neutralized without being destroyed. Those who live by Jesus’ words point us to a new way of confronting evil. Whose potential for personal and social transformation we are only beginning to grasp today.”