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SOTM #6: Holy Retaliation

July 11, 2010

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42 TNIV)

In this teaching from the Sermon on the Mount we asked the question: What might Jesus be saying with this “do not resist” command? This is perhaps one of the most misunderstood teachings of Jesus. Is Jesus saying to never resist? Then what does that mean? And if we are not to “resist”, then why does Jesus immediately present three examples of how to…resist? In presenting this part of the SOTM I highlighted this phrase in verse 39 as being the hinge to the whole passage, and argued that resist cannot mean “be passive and do nothing” but rather to absolutely “do something”. The key is what we do as resistance.

In preparation for this message, one of the sources I looked at was Walter Wink’s Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. I found this (little) book to be a helpful and interesting exploration of what nonviolence is, and particularly what Jesus meant by the word “resist”. Wink recounts the process when translators-working for King James-made an interesting choice in this instance:

When the court translators … chose to translate antistenai as “Resist not evil,” they were doing something more than rendering Greek into English. They were translating nonviolent resistance into docility. Jesus did not tell his oppressed hearers not to resist evil. That would have been absurd. His entire ministry is utterly at odds with such a preposterous idea. (10)

Is it possible that a king (even good ol’ KJ), who was in power, would not want their subjects thinking they had more options when it comes to resistance? It’s an interesting line of thinking, and a reminder of why context is SO important when it comes to interpretation.

He then goes further to suggest (as does N.T. Wright and others) that a translation, retaining the flavor of the original social/political/religious context would be something like: “Don’t strike back at evil (or, one who has done you evil) in kind.” (11). Essentially, resist evil, but forget about using violence to do it. This would be a relevant teaching to Jesus’ audience (tempted to fight their oppression with violence; see also Matthew 24), and makes sense with Jesus’ examples of how to resist. Another thing is clear: doing nothing is not an option. Doing something creative, on the other hand…

Brings us to Jesus’ examples. Each example Jesus gives is a creative, nonviolent form of resistance with a purpose:

  • It can allow the oppressed person to gain control in the situation.
  • It can teach the oppressor a powerful lesson.
  • It can give the oppressor a chance to see God’s way.

It creates powerful possibilities. I don’t see Jesus’ examples as literal or legalistic commands, but rather as creative nonviolent actions that can change a situation to make the above elements possible. Of course this does not imply that creative nonviolence is easy in any way. It is not, and it may include suffering or sacrifice. So we ask for God to inspire our imaginations that we might be open to this “third way”, but also to give us strength to practice it.

Some questions: What are your impressions of “nonviolence”, and where do you think your impressions come from? Do you have any stories of nonviolent resistance that you could share? What did you learn about Jesus from the experience?

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