Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Nonviolent Resistance in the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount, as many Christians will know, is a famous “sermon” given by Jesus in the book of Matthew, containing some of Jesus’ most familiar sayings. I put the word “sermon” in quotation marks, because it is unlikely that Jesus uttered all these sayings in one long soliloquy on a single given day during his life. Comprising three full chapters in Matthew’s gospel, it reads more like a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, which Matthew collated into a single teaching discourse.

Entire books have been written about the various teachings that make up the Sermon on the Mount, but I want to focus particularly on five sayings that fit with Jesus’ profile as a prophet engaged in nonviolent resistance to the domination system of imperial Rome and its Jewish collaborators.


Don’t let the subtitle scare you. A “preindustrial domination system” is simply an anthropological way of referring to just about every civilization that existed prior to the industrial age of the 18th century. A “domination system” is a type of civilization where the vast majority of the populace lives near or below the subsistence level, with the fruits of their labors being expended primarily by a powerful and wealthy few. Think of medieval Europe, where the peasants – the serfs – worked the land and lived in virtual poverty, so that the kings and dukes and lords could live in luxury. This is a classic domination system, preindustrial, and thus “agrarian” (farm-based).

This is the kind of civilization Jesus and his followers lived within. The Romans were the imperial overlords, and the Jewish elite – the “chief priests, scribes, and teachers of the law” frequently named in the gospels – were their native collaborators. They were “collaborators” because they did Rome’s bidding to the detriment of the Jewish population. They kept people in line, collected taxes and fines, oversaw the court system and the religious system, and generally acted as the pawns of imperial Rome. Rome rewarded them with wealth, status, and power.

This, needless to say, did not go over well with the average Jew, which led to a serious of resistance movements and armed rebellions over a period of 140 years, from the death of Herod around 4 B.C.E., to the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132 C.E.

The resistance movements that rose up among the Jews during these years are consistent with the kinds of resistance movements that tend to crop up in all agrarian domination systems. There are generally two types of resistance, each with two possible methods.

The first type is violent resistance, and it includes both passive and active violent resistance. Active violent resistance is, of course, akin to armed rebellion – bands of angry peasants rising up with sword and spear to overthrow the authorities. Passive violent resistance can be characterized as opting out of a true act of war, but being prepared to defend one’s self violently if necessary. “I won’t draw first blood, but I’ll strike quick and deadly if you make the first move.”

The second type is nonviolent resistance, and it too has passive and active forms. Passive nonviolent resistance is the form of resistance that many Jews of the 1st century took, including the gospels’ infamous Pharisees. Instead of violently resisting the Roman overlords and their native collaborators, the Pharisees delved into their religious traditions as a way to passively resist cultural, religious, and even genetic assimilation. This tradition of passive nonviolent resistance has become the hallmark of Judaism, and it is the reason why Jews still exist as a distinctive culture to this day, despite nearly 2,000 years without a homeland. In the annals of anthropology, this is quite remarkable. Notice that there are no Assyrians, Hittites, or Medians still around in the 21st century – they were assimilated long ago.

Active nonviolent resistance, on the other hand, is akin to the type of resistance the United States saw during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Violence is rejected, but active resistance through defiance, civil disobedience, and noncompliance with cultural norms is affirmed.

This active nonviolent resistance is the type of resistance that Jesus and his follower embraced during the first part of the 1st century. Jesus does not appear to have engaged in or supported violent rebellion, but he encouraged his followers to actively resist the domination system around him.


With that context in mind, we move to the Sermon on the Mount, which has several sayings that illustrate Jesus’ commitment to active nonviolent resistance of the imperial Roman domination system and its elite Jewish collaborators.

The sayings in question make up only a fraction of the entire discourse, but their importance to the Jesus movement cannot be underestimated. Walter Wink was the first scholar to highlight their importance as forms of nonviolent resistance, and the following analysis is largely Wink’s work, repeated by scholar Marcus Borg in a recent book on the historical Jesus.

1. 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 an evildoer.

2. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

3. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.

4. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

5. 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.

Each one of these sayings is rife with active forms of nonviolent resistance, though many (if not all) of them are frequently misunderstood in popular Christianity.

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 an evildoer.
I have often found it odd that Christians frequently quote this phrase to support the idea of capital punishment and other punitive measures against criminals. “If someone stabs a person 20 times, they should be executed by being stabbed 20 times.” I honestly couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this argument. A cruder version goes something like this: “If someone commits rape, they should have their genitalia removed.”

I’m reminded of a well-known song by the Charlie Daniels Band called “Simple Man.” After a verse that talks about all the violent things that the narrator would like to do to criminals, the chorus states: “The Good Book says it so I know it’s the truth: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. You better watch where you go and remember where you’ve been, that’s the way I see it, I’m a simple man.”

This sort of thing dumbfounds me because in the “Good Book,” Jesus explicitly rejects “eye for an eye” justice systems. Perhaps Charlie Daniels doesn’t realize there’s another 27 books after Malachi in his bible.

In any case, when Jesus says “do not resist and evildoer,” there is a slight mistranslation at play that causes the phrase to come off as entirely passive – if you are attacked, simply lay down and die. But in the original Greek, the word translated as “resist” implies violent resistance. So what Jesus says here is that his followers should not “violently” resist an evildoer. Resist evil, but not with violence.

Thus, this saying is a kind of introduction to what comes afterward. The remaining sayings in this cluster illustrate what it means, in practice, to resist evil nonviolently.

But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
As with the phrase “do not resist an evildoer,” there are those who would suggest that the “turn the other cheek” statement encourages us not to fight back if we are attacked. Lie down and die, as it were. It is difficult to believe that Jesus taught this – and clearly if his followers had followed such a teaching, the religion that sprang up in his name wouldn’t have survived the persecutions of the 1st century!

Instead, this saying from Jesus is talking about something much more specific – namely, the imperial domination system of the 1st century Jewish homeland.

In that context, consider the word choice: Jesus refers specifically to the “right cheek.” Picture a person slapping someone on the right cheek. In order to do it, the striker would have to use a backhanded swing. The backhanded slap was a way a superior struck his subordinate. A forehand slap was the way an equal would strike another equal – such as during a fight. In this saying, then, Jesus is talking about a superior – one of the wealthy, powerful elites – striking a commoner. Perhaps a landowner striking a day laborer. When this happens, Jesus urges, turn the other cheek as well. By doing so, you are giving your left cheek, which would require a forehand slap – the slap of an equal. This is a powerful image of active nonviolent resistance. You can strike me, but you will do it as my equal.

And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.
The radicalism of this particular saying is sometimes lost because modern folks don’t generally understand the clothing designations of the ancient world. To put it simply, a common Jew in the 1st century wore two garments – a cloak or tunic, which covered the body, and a coat or robe worn over top. The cloak, then, was the undergarment, and the coat was the outer garment.

What does it mean to talk about someone “suing” you for your coat? Quite simply, this is a reference to a person being sued for clothing because of debt. This may seem foreign to our modern sensibilities, but this was the nature of poverty that so many common Jews lived within in the 1st century. Indebtedness was rampant and feared almost more than anything else, and if you could not pay your debts, you might be sued for the coat on your back, so that the creditor could sell your coat to recoup his money.

When Jesus encourages his followers to give both coat and cloak, the image is quite striking – the debtor would literally be left naked. This, like the image of turning the other cheek, is a powerful image of active nonviolent resistance. First, it shames the creditor, because in 1st century Jewish culture, nakedness shamed not the person who was naked, but the person who saw the nakedness. Secondly, as Marcus Borg puts it, it serves as a symbolic statement: “Look what this system is doing to us, stripping us naked.”

And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
This statement, rather than being a general statement about giving yourselves to others, is referencing a specific practice in the Roman Empire. A journeying Roman soldier had the right to force a commoner to carry his heavy gear for one mile. The limit of one mile was put in place because the practice had been abused, and commoners were often forced to march with the army for extremely long distances. To put it bluntly, they sometimes had to walk as long as it took for the soldier to find another sucker. This, of course, not only served to stir up resentment, but also could have had an economic impact, as a landowner might see his fields lay dormant for a day because a passing regiment enlisted all his workers to carry their gear to the next town.

After the “one mile” rule was put in place, it was enforced with sometimes severe penalties. No Roman soldier wanted to be caught forcing a peasant to carry his gear for miles on end. So, as Walter Wink suggests (and Marcus Borg repeats), the image is almost a comical one, of a peasant insisting on going the extra distance, and the soldier wrestling with him to put the gear down and go home.

As such, this too creates a powerful image of active nonviolent resistance to the entrenched domination system, by revealing its absurd side and putting the soldier (who represents the power base of the system) in an uncomfortable spot. It turns him – and thus the system – on its head.

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.
In the same way that the “eye for an eye” saying functions as a kind of introduction to this cluster of instructions about nonviolent resistance, so the “love your enemies” saying works as a kind of summary or conclusion to the theme. “Resist evil,” Jesus says, “but do it nonviolently, and love your enemies just the same.” This, for Jesus, is illustrative of God’s character. As Marcus Borg puts it, speaking about Jesus’ perspective: “Love of enemies and nonviolent resistance are grounded in God’s character and passion.” For Jesus, Borg argues, “God’s character is nonviolent; therefore, be nonviolent. God’s passion is justice, therefore be passionate about justice. Resist injustice. And do so nonviolently.”


Jesus opposed the domination system of his day through active nonviolent resistance, illustrated by several teachings recorded in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus rejected compliance with the powers that be, and attempted, through his life and message, to encourage his followers to resist the imperial domination system – what scholar J.D. Crossan calls the “violent normalcy of civilization” – through nonviolent means. These nonviolent means, like the sit-ins and freedom rides of the 1960’s, were geared at making powerful statements and exposing the dark underbelly of the systemic evils in normal society.

It leaves us with several important questions. As Christians, what are we doing, today, to resist systemic evil? We no longer live in an agrarian domination system, but in what ways does our own civilization encourage oppression and subjugation? And, most importantly, are we fighting and resisting those oppressive elements in our own society, or are we collaborators against God’s sense of justice and compassion, against Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God?


Anonymous said...

wow, what a question. where do we stand? And what if the system we live in that we see as the 'real world' and 'normal' and 'ordinary' is but within the system we live in and subject to change? Does it so pervade our lives that we can't see the wood for the trees? By going with the flow we are participating in the system on it's terms and as people tend to be herd animals and rush forward together is it possible to change? There's plenty to get angry about and there's violent disagreement but I still have to lock and bolt my door at night, does the answer really come in laws and from the top-down and not from the inside and bottom up? apocolypticism is rife today means we're approaching the end of the current system. the truth is always the same but can we see it well enough to shine? no need to panic but a need to BE, and time as the herd crashes against a wall, all leaders stand up and speak

Anonymous said...

Glad to see you're back writing....

Scott said...

I think you've hit on the core of Jesus's message. Change has to start with the individual.