Shrewd Nonviolent Resistance

Wednesday, September 21, 2011 — Week of Proper 20, Year One

Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer)

EITHER the readings for Wednesday of Proper 20, (p. 984)

Psalms 119:97-120 (morning) 81, 82 (evening)

2 Kings 6:1-23

1 Corinthians 5:9 – 6:8

Matthew 5:38-48

OR the readings for St. Matthew (p. 999)

Morning Prayer: Psalms 119:41-64; Isaiah 8:11-20; Romans 10:1-15

Evening Prayer: Psalms 19, 122; Job 28:12-28; Matthew 13:44-52

I chose the readings for Wednesday of Proper 20

“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. 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

Jesus invites his followers into a path of aggressive, shrewd nonviolent resistance.

A strike on the right cheek would typically describe a common way for a superior to assault an inferior in an act of dominance. It would be a backhanded strike with the right hand. To turn the other cheek to offer the left side would present a challenge to the attacker. A backhand slap could not be accomplished. The angle would be wrong for a right handed strike, and the left hand was not used for such things. If the aggressor were to strike with the open right hand, it would communicate a challenge of an equal. If the aggressor were to punch, it would also be the action of an equal to an equal. To turn the left cheek is to stand before an aggressor as an equal. It is an aggressive, non-violent act of a disempowered person to compromise the honor of the more powerful.

If a creditor claims a debtor’s coat, and the debtor removes both the coat and the cloak in response, the debtor poses two problems to the creditor. First, the Torah prohibits a creditor from taking the cloak from a debtor (Deuteronomy 23:10-13). Second, in the Hebrew culture, to view the nakedness of another brings shame to the viewer. (See the story of the curse of Ham, Genesis 9:20f) By removing one’s coat and cloak, the creditor forces the debtor to break the law and to be shamed.

Roman law allowed their authorities to demand subjects in occupied lands carry equipment and messages for up to one mile. It was a violation of Roman law to force one to carry anything beyond one mile. Officers convicted of doing so faced military discipline. To go the second mile after being forced to carry something for one mile might subject the officer to legal charges.

Jesus’ advice is consistent with nonviolent strategies often employed by disempowered people.

But he goes a couple of steps further. “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Such radical generosity if widely embraced might be the undoing of aggressive economic practices.

“You have heard it 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.” Part of loving one’s enemies and praying for one’s persecutors can include acting in nonviolent ways to free them from their acts of aggression, to liberate them from their role as oppressor. When oppression is so exposed that it brings only shame to the oppressors, the oppressors may reclaim their honor by turning away from their unjust activities, liberating both the oppressed and the oppressor, opening the path of reconciliation.

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