A few days ago, ex-Vice President Dick Cheney gave an interview to The Politico in which he criticized the new administration’s restrictions on torture. The reporter wrote:
Protecting the country’s security is “a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business,” [Cheney] said. “These are evil people. And we’re not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek.”
Cheney used (and derided, intentionally or not) one of Jesus most central and radical teachings as the antithesis of strength and responsible leadership in the face of violence. He implied that, when dealing with real, mortal enemies, the Sermon on the Mount has nothing to say.
He’s not alone.
A while back, then-Senator Barack Obama said something with similar implications [emphasis mine]:
Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application?
Obama is now the President of the United States. Presumably, he plans to keep the Pentagon open. In fact, he just ordered 17,000 more troops to deploy to Afghanistan. Obama has intoned the Sermon on the Mount as central to his faith, but, like Cheney, does not seem to trust it to guide a response to evil in the “tough, mean, dirty, nasty” real world of Talibans, al-Qaidas and Iranians.
Cheney and Obama seem to have found a little bit of bipartisan agreement. They both have faith in the power of violence to solve problems. And, as Obama’s new troop deployment and Cheney’s sadistic defense of torture show, they act (or order others to act) on their faith. Both are stuck on anachronistic readings of the Sermon on the Mount.
Theologian Walter Wink’s exegesis on the Sermon shows what a caricature the modern concept of Jesus’ teachings has become. Jesus, speaking to a crowd, living under a humiliating occupation, watching his people bubble towards a suicidal rebellion, gives in the Sermon one of the most revolutionary teachings on love and nonviolence in history. This sermon lays the foundation for a movement that will, in the years after his death and resurrection, become the first totally anti-violence sects in recorded history.
“Turn the other cheek” suggests the passive, Christian doormat quality that has made so many Christians cowardly and complicit in the face of injustice. “Resist not evil” seems to break the back of all opposition to evil and counsel submission. “Going the second mile” has become a platitude meaning nothing more than “extend yourself.” Rather than fostering structural change, such attitudes encourage collaboration with the oppressor.
Jesus never behaved in such ways. Whatever the source of the misunderstanding, it is neither Jesus nor his teaching, which…is arguably one of the most revolutionary political statements ever uttered.
The Greek word [commonly translated “resist”] means…to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an insurrection. Jesus did not tell his oppressed hearers not to resist evil. …He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition.
A proper translation of Jesus’ teaching would then be, “Do not retaliate against violence with violence [emphasis mine].”
Jesus clarifies his meaning by three brief examples. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Why the right cheek? How does one strike another on the right cheek anyway? Try it. A blow by the right fist in that right-handed world would land on the left cheek of the opponent. To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. As the Dead Sea Scrolls specify, even to gesture with the left hand at Qumran carried the penalty of ten days penance. The only way one could strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand.
What we are dealing with here is unmistakably an insult, not a fistfight. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. One normally did not strike a peer in this way, and if one did the fine was exorbitant (four zuz was the fine for a blow to a peer with a fist, 400 zuz for backhanding him; but to an underling, no penalty whatever). A backhand slap was the normal way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews.
We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission. It is important to ask who Jesus’ audience is. In every case, Jesus’ listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor. Rather, Jesus is speaking to their victims, people who have been subjected to these very indignities. They have been forced to stifle their inner outrage at the dehumanizing treatment meted out to them by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and by the guardians of imperial occupation.
Why then does Jesus counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of power to humiliate them. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status (gender, race, age, wealth) does not alter that. You cannot demean me.” Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, how can he now hit the other cheek? He cannot backhand it with his right hand. If he hits with a fist, he makes himself an equal, acknowledging the other as a peer. But the whole point of the back of the hand is to reinforce the caste system and its institutionalized inequality.
The second example Jesus gives is set in a court of law. Someone is being sued for his outer garment. Who would do that and under what circumstances? Only the poorest of the poor would have nothing but an outer garment to give as collateral for a loan. Jewish law strictly required its return every evening at sunset, for that was all the poor had in which to sleep. The situation to which Jesus alludes is one with which his hearers would have been too familiar: the poor debtor has sunk ever deeper into poverty, the debt cannot be repaid, and his creditor has hauled him into court to wring out repayment.
Indebtedness was the most serious social problem in first-century Palestine. Jesus’ parables are full of debtors struggling to salvage their lives. It is in this context that Jesus speaks. His hearers are the poor (“if anyone would sue you”). They share a rankling hatred for a system that subjects them to humiliation by stripping them of their lands, their goods, finally even their outer garments.
Why then does Jesus counsel them to give over their inner garment as well? This would mean stripping off all their clothing…Put yourself in the debtor’s place…There stands the creditor, beet-red with embarrassment, your outer garment in one hand, your underwear in the other. You have suddenly turned the tables on him. You had no hope of winning the trial; the law was entirely in his favor. But you have refused to be humiliated…You have said, in effect, “You want my robe? Here, take everything! Now you’ve got all I have except my body. Is that what you’ll take next?”
Nakedness was taboo in Judaism. Shame fell not on the naked party but the person viewing or causing one’s nakedness (Genesis 9:20-27). By stripping you have brought the creditor under the same prohibition that led to the curse of Canaan…The creditor is revealed to be not a “respectable” moneylender but a party in the reduction of an entire social class to landlessness and destitution. This unmasking is not simply punitive, however; it offers the creditor a chance to see, perhaps for the first time in his life, what his practices cause-and to repent.
Jesus’ third example, the one about going the second mile, is drawn from the enlightened practice of limiting the amount of forced labor that Roman soldiers could levy on subject peoples. A soldier could impress a civilian to carry his pack one mile only; to force the civilian to go further carried with it severe penalties under military law. In this way Rome tried to limit the anger of the occupied people and still keep its armies on the move. Nevertheless, this levy was a bitter reminder to the Jews that they were a subject people even in the Promised Land.
Imagine then the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack (sixty-five to eighty-five pounds in full gear). You say, “Oh no, let me carry it another mile.” Normally he has to coerce your kinsmen to carry his pack; now you do it cheerfully and will not stop! Is this a provocation? Are you insulting his strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to make you go farther then you should? Are you planning to file a complaint? To create trouble?
From a situation of servile impressment, you have once more seized the initiative. You have taken back the power of choice. The soldier is thrown off-balance by being deprived of the predictability of your response.
This is not the passivity mocked by Cheney nor discarded by the president. In Jesus’ statements we have a perfect illustration of active, nonviolent, loving resistance to evil and oppression. These statements helped build the foundation for the nonviolence of Tolstoy, and later, Gandhi.
Wink asserts that every act of violence is an act of faith in a violent system. Right now, the U.S. is offering up 17,000 more troops and who-knows-how-many civilians on the altar of that system. The American Friends Service Committee has put together an online letter you can send to your federal representatives, asking them to deny funding for troop increases in Afghanistan. It’s a small offering to the nonviolent God revealed in Jesus, but small offerings can be the seeds of miracles.