People who meet me today are shocked to learn that as a younger man I was a bouncer at a somewhat legendary honky tonk in Calgary, Alberta. It was a fairly rough place at times, and a night wasn't complete without helping people leave the premises often under duress. In that position we had two methods of dealing with conflict - ask you to leave and hopefully, you felt intimidated enough to do so peaceably, or ask you to leave, and we would help you leave - whichever, it really didn't matter.
In the honky tonk, the schoolyard or workplace we have a tendency towards one of two evolutionary responses to conflict and fear. The social scientists tell us that we will either fight or flight. A lot of how we respond is conditioned in our growing up and has very much to do with how we perceive the threat. Often we decide in a split second, but we also tend to evaluate our strength in relation to the threat. Strength can certainly be physical might but also social status/power and privilege.
Traditionally, many have practiced an eye for an eye (fight) or conceded to the greater power (flight). These two approaches are very common, and both have been affirmed by spiritual voices throughout the ages. Eye for an eye, believe it or not, curtailed violence and it was a great first step to mitigating violence. Before eye for an eye, if a person killed your son, you would retaliate and kill the perpetrator's son and the rest of their family. Eye for an eye set a limit on vengeance, on how many people you could kill in the name of justice. But an eye for an eye doesn't make the retaliation somehow just. Violence, even eye for an eye violence begets more violence. Eye for an eye simply means more people being killed and more grieving, hurting people. The old adage rings true - an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind!
The flight posture, conceding or cowering to intimidation by the powerful/privileged has been spiritualized as well. Turn the other cheek, give your coat and tunic and go the extra mile are presented as spiritualized ways of dealing with our sense of powerlessness and injustice. How many times have we quoted these scriptures but on the inside we feel angry, powerless, violated and bitter? How many times would we have really liked to stand up for ourselves but we didn't because recognized that we are up against significant odds? This is no resolution to conflict only a recipe for a toxic cauldron of inner angst.
But what about turn the other cheek, give your coat and tunic and go the extra mile? Didn't Jesus tell us this is how we are to respond to offenses? Yes but CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT. Jesus, speaking to the victims, is showing us a subversive, non-violent third way to dealing with the abuse from others. One that doesn't resort to an eye for an eye violence nor one that leaves us feeling emasculated!
Did you know:
Matthew 5:39 uses the words 'do not resist' (an Evildoer) which is translated from 'antistenai'. It refers to a specific kind of resisting, specifically an armed revolt or insurrection.
Turn the other Cheek - Matthew 5:38
If someone hits you on the right cheek, turn and offer them the left! - This is very subversive but to understand it we need to understand the culture. First, the left hand was almost exclusively used for "ignoble" purposes (like cleaning oneself after going to the toilet). So the left hand wasn't used for much else and certainly not in a social context and to do so was considered very crude. The right hand was used for most other functions.
The next thing we need to know is that when dealing with an "equal" one uses a closed fist. When you are dealing with someone beneath you, you would use an open hand and slap.
Did you know: The fine for punching a peer was 4zuz but to slap a peer was 400zuz! The fine for slapping an underling? Zero, zilch, nada!
With this in mind, when someone hits someone on the right cheek, they would have to use their right hand, and it would be a backhanded slap. The backhanded slap was to humiliate the person and remind them of their place. However, to turn and offer the left cheek (using the right hand) they would be in a posture where they would have to punch (with a closed fist). This would be scandalous to punch someone beneath you would be akin to saying that they are your equal! This bit of psychological judo is a sharp act of defiance while not needing to resort to violent retaliation or the soul crushing slinking away with your tail between your legs.
Coat and Tunic - Matthew 5:40
In context, Jesus is speaking about another humiliation for the powerless, and that is indebtedness. The poor, who were often indebted to the rich (make no mistake this was a financial racket for sure!), were at their mercy and the rich and powerful would often drag the person in debt into court to get payment and interest on their debt. Many would have very little, except a tunic and a coat. The court could order the surrender of the coat to the one who is owed the debt. Jesus' instruction to give your tunic as well was delightfully subversive! With no coat and no tunic, the person would be naked. In the cultural context, the shame would not be on the naked person but rather the intense social shame would fall on the people who see the naked person (all in the court) and especially the one (lender) who caused the person's nakedness!
The Extra Mile - Matthew 5:41
Nothing characterized power and dominance as the Roman army and people hated them deeply. It was quite common for Roman soldiers to demand a citizen to carry their pack for them - but for one mile only. This was a strict Roman law among their soldiers, in part to reduce the risk of inciting greater animosity leading to potential rebellion. Jesus's instruction to carry the pack 2 miles would have been embarrassing to the soldier and may put him in a place where he could be sanctioned. Again, psychological judo that uses the soldier's own power by turning it back on them!
Jesus turns the two defaults of fight or flight, on their head. In effect, he shows us a third way of dealing with conflict without the feelings of powerlessness or resorting to violence. Jesus was equipping his followers with practical and poignant ways of asserting their human dignity in a context where the privileged and the powerful took every opportunity to exert that power over the poor and the weak.
Today more than ever the need for non-violent solutions are essential. Violent conflict and violent intervention will always require more violence, a greater show of strength to keep the false peace. We see the treacherous means employed by those in reaction to the unwise use of power, violence used against them. These people feel crushed under a foreign power and they find terrible ways to enact their vengeance in resistance. All too clear a reminder that violence, even when we dress it up as somehow just or sacred only begets more violence.
Non-violent and loving confrontation can be a powerful agent for change. It is an effective way to empower and liberate the oppressed from the dehumanizing sense of powerlessness. It can also help free the oppressor from sinful behavior by helping them see how their behavior is not right. This is a very practical way that we can truly love our enemies and break the cycle of violence, vengeance, and abuse of power. Blessed are the peacemakers - those who end the cycle of violence.