Jesus Says: Stand Up!

by Tricia Gates Brown

A friend recently complained, “I wish Christianity wasn’t such a wimpy religion!” Turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, blessed are the meek—you know the drill. She is tired of it. She is angry and she wants fighting words. I countered that Christianity is not, in fact, wimpy (though I contend it is inherently nonviolent). But it is often poorly taught. For example, over the centuries “turning the other cheek” has become synonymous with doormat passivity, when the actual meaning is quite the opposite. Surprising to many, it is synonymous with taking a stand.

Jesus was teaching an alternative to violent retaliation, the futile “eye for an eye.” But doing what he commends as the alternative takes courage, and issues a challenge that violence—which stoops to the level of the oppressor—cannot. The teaching, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist [word implying warfare] an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matthew 5: 38-41).

In Jesus’ day, the left hand was reserved for select unclean tasks. Therefore, when a person struck someone, they used their right hand. Imagine hitting someone on the right cheek, as Jesus specifies, with your right hand. This involves a backhanded slap, which is exactly what Jesus is talking about. A backhanded slap was reserved for those one wished to humiliate and subjugate, such as servants, children, and probably not uncommonly, wives. In the teaching, Jesus is instructing someone hit in this demeaning way to stand tall and offer the abuser their left cheek. This is akin to saying “Now give me your best shot and treat me like an equal.” The abuser can either acknowledge the person’s equality and strike them on the left cheek, or refuse the person’s demand. Either way, the person being hit has leveled a challenge and robbed the abuser of their dominance.

The saying “give your cloak” to someone who sues for your coat refers to a similar scenario. It is saying: strip down to your skivvies and see how they react!  This act would shame the one demanding the coat, not the naked soul who stripped off his cloak. Most of Jesus’ audience were poor and likely had only one coat, one cloak. Stripping off one’s cloak is a way of saying: You might as well take everything! By one’s nakedness, one is exposing the greed of the one who sued, thereby seizing the power in the situation. Finally, a similar challenge is leveled in the last teaching: “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile,” which refers to Roman soldiers forcing subjects to carry their packs. In Jesus’ day, soldiers commonly forced subjects to carry their load, but an “enlightened” law limited to one mile the distance a soldier could conscript a subject in this way. Now imagine you reach the one mile mark and the soldier demands you return his pack. But you don’t return it. You insist: “No, I’ll keep going. Not to worry. I’m just getting started!”  In this scenario, you are reversing the power differential as the soldier must now ask you to take off his pack. He can in fact be punished if you continue to haul it for him. In the meantime, you are exposing the sham of his power.

These sayings of Jesus are a menace to the oppressor. In three succinct phrases, Jesus exposes the fragility of the oppressor’s power claims. Sure, the oppressor can back-hand you again, or wrestle your cloak back onto you, or threaten you into not carrying his pack one step further. But in the meantime, you have reversed the situation, seizing the agency for yourself. You have held up a mirror, exposing to them and any onlookers the charade of their dominance. This is not inconsistent with Jesus’ sayings about loving enemies. Exposing the actions of an oppressor can actually be the most loving action there is. Helping a person to see themselves as they truly are, is an act of love.

The situations in these sayings would have been familiar to Jesus’ followers. Who knows, maybe there was a note of comedy in his delivery. I like to think so. The group of sayings end with the following (Matt. 5:42): “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you,” and transitions into several verses about loving one’s enemies. When one considers that most of Jesus’ audience were poor, you see Jesus is commending radical generosity and love here, and this during a time of great hardship. He wants us to treat others with respect, not domination.

There is much in the teachings of Jesus and others New Testament writers that commends meekness, love of enemies, compassion. But this does not make Christianity “a wimpy religion.” Just as there was nothing wimpy about the civil rights marchers braving attack dogs and billy clubs, or the followers of Gandhi who faced the weapons of the British Empire. Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi knew their method of standing up to violence nonviolently was a kind of “love force,” that had the potential not only to transform a situation of oppression, but to redeem the oppressor, exposing to them their violence. It certainly had the potential to rob them of their dishonest justifications.

Part of the astuteness of Jesus’ teaching is his understanding of the powerful, who rely desperately on ill-begotten dignity and ego. More than anything, they are threatened by being exposed. Exposure sends them into a panic (or a 3 AM tweet-storm), that ends up amplifying their inherent weakness. Jesus and his later interpreters understood this. (See the narrative about Pontius Pilate in the Gospel of John, brilliant with irony and the portrait of a confused, feckless Pilate—though he is remembered historically for his brutality.)

Most people will not confront the kinds of threats outlined in Jesus’ sayings, or the sort faced by Gandhi or MLK. But each of us experiences dominating forces in our lives. This can be a boss at work, a relative or neighbor who traffics in intimidation, a beloved who cannot transcend ego for the sake of love. In each case, Jesus’ teachings apply. We are most certainly not commended to fall limp like a welcome mat and let people trample us. We are advised to stand tall and find creative ways to reverse the situation nonviolently, exposing the absurdity of the domination and the inherent weakness of the oppressor—who is only as strong as his latest lie. (On good days, I see journalists in the United States doing this with the forty-fifth). Not only will we stand up for ourselves when we proceed this way, we will chip away at the illusions of the oppressor. That is Christian love at its finest.

{Photo is of R. Philip Randolph, an organizer of the Civil Rights March on Wash. Photo by Rowland Scherman. A nod to the late scholar Walter Wink, whose books introduced me to the dynamics behind Matthew 5:38-41 in the mid-1990s.}

First posted here at Theology of Resistance