I’d like you to try an experiment: Mentally face another person, and take a swing at him or her (in your imagination, not for real). Be sure to do it so your blow hits the person’s right cheek. Now notice.
If you’re righthanded like 90% of the population, there’s only one effective way of hitting a person on the right cheek: with the back of the hand. (A punch with the right hand would land on the left.) This is important; it’s the context of Jesus’ teaching, which so many people so often get so wrong.
Jesus is talking to people who were used to getting backhand slaps – from Roman occupiers, from moneylenders, wives from husbands, and in general from all the people who thought they were superior (and had the power to back it up). That’s what a backhanded slap means; you don’t slap an equal in status that way. It’s to show a person “their place.” Now remember something else: in a culture based on honor such as Jesus’, one wouldn’t engage in a fistfight with someone who wasn’t a social equal; that would be bad form, treating with honor someone who should be considered “beneath you.”
So what does “turning the other (that is, left) cheek” to the adversary after being slapped backhanded do? It forces the aggressor to make a choice: He can no longer reach the right cheek, so he can start a fistfight with his “social inferior” (he has to swing a punch and hit your left cheek); or he can stalk away without having intimidated you. Jesus is not advocating passivity: He is giving instructions for psychological judo. His suggestion is this: “Do not admit inferiority; force the attacker to treat you as an equal.” This is the key to Jesus’ strategy of nonviolent resistance to evil: Not passivity, but smart judo!
Now next: “If someone goes to law over your tunic, hand over your cloak.” Context: Peasant farmers often gave a piece of clothing to a moneylender to guarantee the loan that let them buy seed for a season. If the crop failed, the lender could enforce the loan’s terms and keep the clothing (here, tunic). Jesus knew the unfairness of this, and how frequently it happened. So his recommendation is this: When your loan-shark takes you to court to keep your tunic, go and stand there, proudly, in court. Then take off all your clothes, give them to him, and walk away naked, head held high.” (In Jewish culture it was a much greater shame to see a naked person than to be naked.) This will show what’s truly going on: The loan-shark and the “justice” system are exploiting you, and deserve to be treated with contempt; so, shame them!
The final example, “going two miles.” The context is that the Roman legions traveled on foot, and soldiers were allowed to conscript the locals to carry their packs (remember the soldiers forcing Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ cross – same idea). But to keep the locals from being too upset, Roman military regulations had severe penalties for anyone who had a peasant carry his pack more than a mile. At that point the soldier had to find someone else and transfer the pack. So imagine it’s the end of the mile; the soldier says, “Put down the pack, I’ll get another peasant to go on.” You say, “Oh, no, it would give me great pleasure to keep carrying it another mile!” The soldier is confused and afraid: He can get into major trouble if he says yes to you, but he feels like a fool for saying no. Again, judo against the oppressor, and dignity for the person who’s been oppressed.
Modern nonviolent resistance movements have learned this Gospel approach: Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Martin Luther King Jr. in our own country, and many more groups that never make the headlines but are quietly effective throughout the world have done it. Careful research 1 has shown that violent resistance to oppression works only about 25% of the time – while the success rate of nonviolent campaigns (such as those suggested by this Gospel) is about 75%.
I admit this is hard for us to imagine. Our culture is so full of images of violence as a “last resort” (which is actually more like a “first resort” in conflict) that we find the numbers hard to believe. We also don’t teach nonviolent technique to individuals (except in some sorts of martial-arts training), and as a culture we invest in the study of warmaking, but not nonviolent strategic resistance. No wonder we so misunderstand Jesus’ way. More next week. Until then, peace.
1 Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia Studies in Terrorism and Irregular Warfare), 2011.