Saturday, March 14, 2009
Moving Beyond Nonresistance: Matthew 5:38 -48
I was first drawn to the Mennonite Church because of its peace tradition. My pacifist convictions go back to the Vietnam War. When I received my draft notice, at the age of 19, I had to immediately decide if I could kill another human being on behalf of the state. I felt I couldn’t, so I registered as a conscientious objector. I was drafted into the Army, but served as a noncombatant. As a Southern Baptist I later became involved in peace and justice issues because of an understanding of faith that wedded Christian belief with social concerns. In my final ten years as a Southern Baptist you might have found me teaching seminars on world hunger, standing in front of the Naval base in Alameda, California protesting the presence of a nuclear submarine with my two-year-old daughter, Toni, on my shoulders, or reading books on liberation theology. I found kindred spirits with the Mennonite writers I was reading at the time. I also started reading about those radical, nonviolent Anabaptists of the 16th century, through the influence of a baptist theologian, James McClendon, Jr., who was a member of my Southern Baptist congregation in Alameda. I spoke with the former pastor of that same church about becoming a Mennonite. We went to the same seminary and he had become a Mennonite. I felt that the Mennonite Church would provide a tradition compatible with my peace and justice convictions.
So, in 1987, when I became pastor of Houston Mennonite Church, I gathered together some members in the congregation interested in leading our church forward in its peace witness to the community to form a peace committee. It was nearing Christmas and we decided that our first project would be to draw attention to the issue of war toys. Following the lead of such groups as the War Resisters League, we were going to carry signs and hand out leaflets in front of the Toys 'R Us, after we had talked to the management. We were not going to chain ourselves to the doors, disobey any laws, or get ourselves arrested. Well, we were ready to announce our first peace event to our historic peace church one Sunday morning.
No one in the peace group expected to get the reaction we got when we announced our proposed peace action. After the service I was pulled aside by a concerned young adult member, who said that if our peace group protested war toys a number of members would leave the church. They didn't want our church associated with what they saw as negative public actions. It was shock to me. I thought I had become part of a peace church. Eventually, we had to have a conference mediator come in and help us deal with a conflict over peace! I couldn’t believe it: a peace church in a conflict about peacemaking. What an irony!
After sitting through some rather emotionally charged dialogues, I came to the rude awakening that not all Mennonites believe that peace is central to the Anabaptist tradition, let alone the gospel of Jesus Christ. For many of the young Mennonites in my congregation, peace was a very passive and secondary belief. Since becoming Minister of Peace and Justice with the Mennonite Mission Network, I have come a modest estimate that well over half of Mennonites do not consider peace to be essential to the gospel. For many Mennonites peace is primarily about what you don't do. It means you don't use force or go into the military.
The Mennonite peace stance has traditionally been understood as passive non-resistance, that is, you do not resist evil. Passive nonresistance is grounded in a two-kingdom theology, which believes that there are two radically separate kingdoms; the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God. Christians and the church are clearly located in God’s kingdom. And although God can use the state, politics, and society for God’s purposes (Romans 13), these realms are essentially outside God’s kingdom. Two-kingdom theology reinforced early Mennonite isolation from society and its concerns. With this belief in Two-kingdom theology and passive nonresistance Mennonite can, in good conscience, leave the affairs of the world, such as peace and justice, to the state, and focus their concerns upon the church.
Second, passive nonresistance is biblically based upon a particular understanding of Matthew 5:39, which says, in the King James Version, “resist not evil.” I believe this is an erroneous interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. I propose that we reread this classic text from the Sermon on the Mount and consider moving beyond passive non-resistance as a faithful peace witness for our times.
If we examine the passage on non-resistance in the Sermon on the Mount, we will find that Jesus is not advocating being passive at all. Our focal text is the fifth of six "antitheses." Jesus begins with the formula "You have heard that it was said," and then proceeds to give his own radical extension of the law's interpretation. First, Jesus addresses the Judaic law of an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth. This law of reciprocal justice meant that if you poked my eye out, legally I could poke your eye out. If you knocked my tooth out, I too could knock yours right out of your head. Lex talionis or the law of retaliation, found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, and in most ancient societies, may seem a bit brutal for pacifist sensibilities.
And yet, the law of lex talionis was rather a legal means of checking unbridled blood revenge. We see this type of unchecked retaliation in the story of Lamech, who killed a man for striking him and was "avenged seventy-sevenfold" (Genesis 4:23). In other words, you knock out my tooth, I knock your whole head full of teeth off your body. A tooth for tooth was equal retribution. As a law of lex talionis helped to put an end to the escalating cycle of violence.
Jesus teaches his disciples an active nonviolent approach. He bridles the wild impulse for violence even further. "But, I say to you..." Jesus calls us to go beyond the law of equal retribution with the statement "Do not resist evil." What does Jesus mean by these words? Here we find the fountain from which our Anabaptist-Mennonite teaching on non-resistance springs. But, the idea of not resisting evil may fall strangely upon our ears. It raises many questions for us. What does Jesus mean by not resisting evil? Does he mean that we are to let evil have its way without a fight? Does nonresistance mean that a battered wife is just to "turn the other cheek" and allow her husband to beat her senseless? Surely, Jesus didn't mean that. Are we to be the world's doormat, passively allowing the violent and the mean-spirited to walk all over us without the slight bit of resistance? Is the way of peace that Christ is advocating a form of passive non-resistance, that is, humbly doing nothing in response to the abuse, oppression, injustices, and violence that is dished out to us and others within the world?
This passive approach to peace appears to have been the general understanding of non-resistance among Mennonites for centuries. Mennonites have identified themselves as a "nonresistant church." The nonresistance peace approach meant resisting no evil, using no force, being defenseless in the presence of violence, suffering wrong rather than retaliating in violence, and bearing no arms. By the way, do you know why Mennonites wear long sleeves? They don't want to “bare arms!” Ha! The most practical way of maintaining such a passive nonresistant stance was to be the "quiet in the land" isolated off from society and its ills. With Mennonites becoming part of the urban world, a pure nonresistant stance has become extremely difficult to maintain. Still, Guy Hershberger in his classic book War, Peace, and Nonresistance did try to apply passive nonresistance to how we are supposed interact the broader world. Nonresistance has been the predominant Mennonite peace position. Nonresistance has permeated Mennonite attitudes and lifestyles.
There have been nonresistant Mennonites with such a tender conscience that they were hesitant to post "No Trespassing Signs" on their property because it might give the appearance of threatening wandering hunters with the force of the law. A Mennonite youth speaker once argued that nonresistant drivers should not retaliate with their high beams when oncoming drivers failed to use their low beams! Passive nonresistance has not only shaped Mennonite lifestyle, historically it has been the dominant understanding of the Mennonite peace position. But, is passive nonresistance what Jesus was teaching his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount?
First, we must understand what Jesus meant by "not resisting evil." The court translators of King James chose to translate for their "loyal subjects" the Greek as "do not resist evil." This was a wonderful translation for royalty who want to quell any idea of resistance to the King's unjust policies! The word translated "resist" is a combination of two words; one meaning "against" and the other meaning "violent rebellion, armed revolt, or sharp dissension." The word in no way advocates being docile or passive.
The context of this word also helps us to interpret what Jesus meant. Jesus has been countering the law of lex talionis, the law of retaliation. Jesus is countering retaliation as a response to evil done to us. A better interpretation might be, "Do not retaliate," "Do not get even" that is, do not "fight fire with fire", blow with blow, violence with violence." Or as Paul put it in Romans 12, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil." Jesus is not presenting the choice of two polarities, either violent opposition or passivity. Rather, Jesus is advocating a third way.
I am indebted to the insights of New Testament scholar Walter Wink for transforming how I read Matthew 5. Jesus says, "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." "Well," you say, "that sure sounds like being passive to me." Jesus' words evoke images of having to passively stand there while another person beats the “holy bejesus” out of us! But, note that a blow in a right-handed world would have landed on the opponent's left cheek. What we have here is rather the back-handed slap of insult given by a person of superior status or class to a person of inferior status or class. The blow is intended to humiliate and to put the other person in their "place." This is a strike of insult, not the blow of a fistfight. For a person of lower social position to fight back would have meant suicide. Was a person's only recourse cowering submission? No. Jesus says "offer the other cheek."
He is not proposing that we take on further abuse, nor that we become "passivists." Turning the other cheek is not a sign of weakness, but of moral strength. By offering the other cheek the offended person robs the oppressor of their power to humiliate and dehumanize. It is as if the stricken person says, "Go ahead. Strike again. You have not stolen my dignity. You cannot demean me. I am a human being just like you." In this specific example "turning the other cheek" exposes the act of the offender for what it is---morally deficient.
This approach is akin to what Ghandi, a Hindu highly influenced by Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, hoped to achieve through satyagraha, or "truth force." Satyagraha is a form of active, nonviolent resistance. By responding nonviolently to the violent actions of their oppressors Ghandi and his followers hoped that the perpetrators of violence might see the ugliness of the violence. It's interesting to note that Ghandi clearly understood Jesus' as teaching nonviolence. He observed; "The only people on earth who do not see Christ and His teachings as nonviolent are Christians." Lewis Murphey, one of Ghandi's biographers, visited his small hut at his ashram. The only picture he saw on the wall was one of Jesus and below it were the words from Ephesians, "He is our peace." Even Ghandi, a Hindu, could see that Jesus was not advocating passive nonresistance to the evildoer. And "turning the other cheek" was more than a simple example of nonretaliation. Jesus is advocating an approach of active nonviolence.
Jesus' second example of nonviolence has to do with responding to the person who takes your coat. He is not referring to a thief who comes at night and steals a coat from your closet or accosts you on the street and somehow yanks it off your body. In Luke the garment is stolen. In Matthew the person is being sued for their garment. In ancient Jewish society when the poorest of the poor had nothing to give in payment for their debts, they would give their garment as collateral. Jewish law strictly required that the garment be returned by the evening. The scene in our text is that of a poor debtor, who is being brought to court by their accuser, in order to squeeze out the last drop of repayment they can, forcing the poor person to literally give "the shirt of their back."
Debt was a burden of the poor in this first century peasant society, resulting from oppressive Roman taxation. When the wealthier landowners became indebted, they would sell their only asset, their land, which went against Jewish tradition. Then, the land would be farmed out to landlords. Jesus often addressed the problem of debts in his parables and even his model prayer. In such an oppressive economic system why would Jesus tell his listeners that if someone sues you for your coat, your outer garment, then give them your cloak, or your inner garment also. Is this advice for the powerless to just give up in the face of injustice? Just hand over everything? Is Jesus advocating passive nonresistance? Or could Jesus be advocating “naked justice” in the courtroom?
Imagine this scene. The wealthy landowner takes the poor, indebted landlord to court to take away his outer garment as an assurance that he will be paid by the poor man. The poor man hands the landowner his outer garment. With nothing left to give, but the shirt off his back, the indebted landlord takes off his undergarment as well, and hands it over to the landowner. Naked justice. What an embarrassment this would be to the landowner. The landowner stands there beet-red with the poor, naked debtor's outer garment in one hand and inner garment in the other.
Nakedness was a taboo in Judaism, as can be seen in the story of Noah' sons discovering him naked. By taking off one’s "under clothes" and offering them also, the unmerciful creditor is exposed as one stripped of compassion and the whole debt system an embarrassment. The poor debtor acknowledges the law, but presses the injustice of the economic system to its logical absurdity.
Could this possibly be the beginning of the church's clown ministry or Christian comedy? Jesus is painting, in clown colors, a very humorous picture. His teaching fits with Jewish tradition. We find a similar approach to insult in the Talmud where it says, "If your neighbor calls you an ass, put a saddle on your back." I wonder if Johann Stander, the radical South African Nationalist businessman, was following this clowning tradition of nonviolence when he removed his trousers in front of the Port Elizabeth city hall in April of 1986 while demonstrating against apartheid.
Sojourner Truth followed this tradition of Matthew 5 during a Democratic gathering in 1858. Pro-slavery Democrats, led by T.W. Strain, questioned whether Sojourner was really a woman, as a challenge to her leadership as a slave woman in the abolitionist movement and to sidetrack the meeting from the real issue of slavery. The pro-slavery Democrats prevented the adjournment of the meeting claiming that she had the voice of a man. Challenging the sexual identity of women leaders was a common ploy of the day, as a way to undercut their rights to speak and lead. The charge against Sojourner polarized the meeting. The pro-slaver group insisted that Sojourner step aside and show her breast to the women in the audience, who could then report on her true gender.
With bodacious wit and wisdom, Sojourner told them that her breast had suckled many a white babe, to the exclusion of her own offspring; that some of those white babies had grown into men and were, in her estimation, more manly than they appeared to be. And as disrobed her breast she asked them quietly if they, too wished to suck! She told them she would show her breast to the whole congregation, not to her shame, but to their shame.
Now, when it comes to Jesus saying “give him your cloak as well,” he is not necessarily telling us that in every legal case expose our bootie to Judge Judy in order to win our case in court. Neither is he teaching us to passively accept injustice. Jesus' advice to "give your cloak also" is a nonviolent act of resistance to injustice that reveals the absurdity of the debt systems and shames those who perpetuate injustice. Jesus has given us a vivid and humorous example of how to expose systems of injustice through creative, nonviolent actions.
Jesus' last example of a nonviolent response has to do with "going the second mile." It has become a common phrase for going beyond what is required of us. "Going the second mile" comes from the practice of forced labor that the Romans could require of their colonial subjects. Soldiers could make Jews carry their burdens for up to a mile. Mile markers could be found along the roadways. Simon of Cyrene was forced into such service when he was compelled to carry Jesus' cross. For a soldier to force a person to carry their pack beyond a mile could result in severe military penalties.
And what is Jesus advise to those forced to carry the soldiers pack for a mile? Noncompliance? Revolt? No. Carry it two miles. This is definitely not passive nonresistance. Imagine the soldier's shock when arriving at the mile marker along the road and the person with the pack says, "I'll carry it for you another mile" and keeps on walking. Now the soldier is wondering, "Is this Jew just being kind? Or is he provoking me? Challenging my strength? Trying to get me in trouble, maybe?" The soldier is thrown of balance by the response and any feelings of superiority he may have had are turned on their head. I can just see the soldier pleading with the disciple, "Aw, come on now, let me have my back pack back!"
Through creative, nonviolent action the oppressed takes back their own dignity and humanity from the one who would rob it from them. Instead of unbridled revenge (Knocking someone’s head off for a lost tooth) the law of lex talionis calls for equal retribution (a tooth for tooth). Jesus takes the law to another level of nonviolence. Not by advocating passive nonresistance (Do nothing and let 'em box your face to a pulp). Jesus teaches us to actively love our enemies and advocates creative nonviolence. Jesus' teachings call us to move beyond passive nonresistance to a more active, creative, nonviolent peacemaking. No longer can a totally passive response to evil, injustice, and violence be considered a truly faithful peace witness.
Thank God, many of our responses to evil have been active responses. We have tried to work for more just living conditions by feeding the hungry, caring for the world's poor, and living simpler lifestyles. But, we are also beginning to learn that peace and justice are inseparable, and that a contemporary understanding of our peace witness may call for more creative, active, nonviolent resistant actions, like the examples that Jesus gave us. We are becoming more politically aware and responsible. Mennonite Central Committee U.S.’s Washington office has keep us informed and politically responsive to issues of peace and justice.
We are seeking creative solutions to legal system of retribution. The Victim/Offender Reconciliation programs try, in some legal cases, to bring together victim and perpetrator to peaceful reconciliation through restorative, instead of retributive justice. We are entering the arena of active, nonviolent resistance. Christian Peacemaker teams are practicing civil disobedience as a form of protest and are entering unarmed into violent political situations to try to negotiate peace. We are moving beyond separating ourselves from the evils of the world, and at the same time responding to evil and violence with nonviolent action.
Believe it or not, Mennonite leaders have been advocating a more active, nonviolent peacemaking stance for over forty years. With rising urbanization and modernization, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, and Civilian Public Service and Mennonite Central Committee workers experiencing a broader cultural world, a more active peace stance began to emerge, not only among Mennonites, but among all Christian groups. A totally passive peace position has become more and more irrelevant, not only to the world, but to Mennonites themselves.
Already in January of 1960 J. R. Burkholder challenged the passive stance of the Mennonite Church concerning demonstrations, the draft, and payment of war taxes. 55 years ago he asked that "the Mennonite church give serious attention to radical protest, direct action if you will, as a part of its evangelistic and prophetic testimony." Some forty years ago the Mennonite Church was already struggling with the issues of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience to laws of the State that were evil or unjust. In 1966, when I was just a senior in high school, former MCC Executive Secretary Orie Miller, expressed the conviction that "Mennonites must find a way of engaging in social protest that will be acceptable to a peace-loving people." Many Mennonites, forty years later, have not yet welcomed this viewpoint.
In a world of increasing violence from wars, gangs, domestic abuse, racism, heterosexism, classism, injustice and poverty, we need an ever-broadening understanding and creative application of Christ's way of peace. Absolute passive nonresistance, that simply avoids doing violence, also avoids any sense of responsibility for our neighbors, who live in the midst of a violent world. This perspective on peace is not only irrelevant, but is not be faithful to the teaching and example of Jesus Christ.
Love will necessarily lead us into, not away, from a world that needs the good news of Christ's peace. Vengeful retaliation and passive nonresistance are not the only ways we have to deal with violence and injustices in the world. There is a third way, the way that Christ has taught us.