Posts Tagged ‘Sermon on the Mount’

I missed church today after planning to go for the first time in a while. I wish I’d gone. I would have heard these words from the Lectionary for today:

Matthew 5:1-12

5When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in hear in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Today’s text readings in the Lectionary mark the beginning of the readings of the Sermon on the Mount in the liturgical year.

I wish the Sermon was the creed we’d read every week in church instead of the anachronistic Nicene Creed. The core teachings of Jesus, not the resolution of the theological disputes of the 4th century, should be the guiding lights of our practice and faith. The Sermon asks so much more of us. I guess that explains it.

Theologian Marcus Borg’s interview with Sojourners included a great indictment of the designation of the U.S. as a “Christian” nation:

What do you say to those who claim the United States is a “Christian” nation?

The negative side of the ambiguity of faith is that religions have often endorsed extraordinary cruelty and violence. For example, when cultural conventions said slavery was OK, Christians accepted slavery. You can make your own list  — segregation, wars, heterosexism, patriarchy, vast differences between rich and poor, and so forth. On the positive side, Christianity and other religions have also been protests against the way things are and [have affirmed] another possibility. The United States is statistically the most Christian country in the world in terms of [the] percentage of the population who will identify as Christian and in absolute numbers. Yet, the church is the only large institution in the United States where hate speech is still OK. This hate speech is directed mostly against LGBT people, but also against other religions, especially Islam. Can you imagine any corporation allowing its leaders to make statements about gay and lesbian people that are routinely said within the church?

Borg goes on to describe his idea of religious pluralism with a great analogy: religion as a kind of language.

One of my definitions of what it means to be Christian is, “a Christian is someone who lives their life with God within the framework of the Christian tradition.”…I really like the analogy of religions, in an important respect, being like languages. To be Christian, means [to speak] Christian, to be Jewish means [to speak]  Jewish, and so forth. Obviously, I’m not talking about speaking the ancient languages of the tradition but knowing and understanding the stories and vocabulary of your tradition. So being a Christian in a pluralized society, means to live deeply within the Christian tradition while being able to recognize the riches and saints of other traditions.

This analogy really helps crystallize a feeling of unease I’ve had towards “The Church” over the last several months.

Thinking of religion as a language opens up an analogous relationship–thinking of what it means to be “American.” There are a lot of people in the U.S. who speak “American,” or American English. Yet only a much smaller subset of these American English speakers are actually dyed-in-the-wool “Americans” in the sense that they are deeply committed to the values set forth in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. There’s a lot of folks who fly flags in their front yards, say the Pledge of Allegiance or who will slap a “Support the Troops” or an “America, Love It or Leave It” bumper sticker on their car, but often these are the folks most contemptuous of American values like free speech or civilian control of the military.

In the same way, there are a lot of people who speak “Christian” in the U.S.  They go to church every Sunday (or run churches every Sunday) but seem to have escaped any deep convictions derived from Jesus’ teachings. In fact, a good portion of the education they give and receive is designed to get them out of any obligation to the plain meaning of Jesus’ words. And like the “ugly American” tourists, these folks often set the impression about what a “Christian” is.

The funny thing is, the people who speak “American” but don’t absorb the values and the people who speak “Christian” but don’t absorb the values are often the same people.

This was the sign on a church we passed today in Plano, Texas: “Pray for the troops. Love your enemies.”

This sign confuses me, as the reader can draw any number of conclusions about what we’re supposed to ask for on behalf of the troops. I assume the attitude behind the sign is the attitude eviscerated so well by Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer.” I hope I am mistaken. Followers of Christ have no business cheer-leading for a war.

Here’s my prayer for the troops, that they:

  • Never fall under the impression that I want them to kill anyone or support a decision to do so;
  • Never pull a trigger or throw a weapon;
  • Return to their homes without physical or mental injury;
  • Live long, healthy, productive lives surrounded by people they love.

Suggested reading:

Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. The views expressed are his own. Say no to escalation in Afghanistan by signing our CREDO petition at http://act.credoaction.com/campaign/saynotoescalation/. Join Brave New Foundation’s #NoWar candlelight vigil on Facebook and Twitter to show your opposition to the war. But make these your first steps as an activist to end this war, not your last.

The President’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech is one of the great sins of his presidency. He posited an essentially warlike nature to man not borne out by science. For a person who frequently cites King and Gandhi, President Obama showed a stunning ignorance of history and of nonviolent struggle. His self-justifying redefinition of the dreams of King and Gandhi were offensive and dishonest. His words will be used to discount and delay the expansion of nonviolent struggle as a replacement for military conflict in international affairs. Corruptio optimi pessima. He should be ashamed of himself.

The president wasted no time getting to the excuse used by every executive for the use of violence in conflict:

“War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.”

Man is violent; the world is chaos; a strong man is needed to repel the violence from our happy land so that we may have peace and prosperity. That’s the rest of the song that always follows this verse. This is the first plank of the myth of redemptive violence.

Luckily, this is statement is neither historically justified nor born out in its implications by science. The Seville Statement on Violence makes it perfectly clear that man’s nature does not predispose a person or a society to war. War appeared when we began to organize ourselves in certain ways, well after we “appeared.” It appears today because of choices we make, not a flaw in our DNA.

If the president is speaking of the mythic appearance of man, then, he should remember that God made male and female and made them good. If war appeared in the Garden, it came in with the serpent, and with our choice to listen to him.

President Obama says he honors Gandhi and King and doesn’t think they are naive while patronizingly deflecting the extension of their ideas and ethic into international politics:

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago:  “Violence never brings permanent peace.  It solves no social problem:  it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”  As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence.  I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.  I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.  For make no mistake:  Evil does exist in the world.  A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.  Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.  To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

Within two paragraphs, the President assures us he finds King and Gandhi neither naive or passive, but then immediately discounts the extension of their ideas into international politics with statements like “I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle…evil does exist in the world.” In those lines the President reveals that he does, in fact, find their ideas and their opposition to war naive and passive, just as he rejected the guidance of Jesus Christ with the glib words “[The Sermon on the Mount is] so radical that it’s doubtful our own Defense Department would survive its application…Before we get carried away, let’s read our Bibles.”

The President tells us that he considers himself a “living testimony to the moral force of non-violence,” but that he cannot be guided by Gandhi’s and King’s examples alone because he’s the head of state sworn to protect his nation (When you say “by their examples alone,” do you have some specific ways in mind in which your policies are guided by their example? Do tell.). Frankly, personal ambitions which lead one to the presidency do not bear on the question at hand. The presidency did not happen to him. He devoted incredible energy to capturing it. If he doesn’t find their ideas naive or passive, then it’s on him for seeking an office in which he could not live according to their values (and for that matter, according to those of Jesus Christ as expounded in the Sermon on the Mount). Perhaps the President would like to articulate the other moral principles from which his lofty position frees him. Apparently what President Obama wanted (the presidency) and what his guiding lights demanded were incompatible. That’s the excuse of a child.

For make no mistake:  Evil does exist in the world.  A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.  Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.  To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

This is Reinhold Niebuhr with all his warts showing mixed with historical ignorance. If the president spent more time with The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., he’d know that King took from his study of Niebuhr that evil and sin permeate every level of man’s existence. King, however, had the courage to state that while we must take evil seriously, we must take the power of love more seriously.

Someone who makes sure we all know about the picture of Gandhi hanging in his Senate office should know that Gandhi and his allies faced armies who would fire into unarmed crowds until they ran out of bullets; despoil crops and food stores for the winter; beat scripture-wielding civilians. He also knew a thing or two about evil in the world.

Someone who wants to lecture on nonviolence in World War II should know that at the height of the Nazi campaign against the Jews, a mass nonviolent act succeeded against Hitler in Berlin and rescued 1,700 from the Holocaust, and that the Nazi leadership was absolutely terrified of the emergence of any counter-mass-movement. One should know the story of Andre and Magda Trocme and Le Chambon-sur-Lignone (Oh, wait, he does know.). One should know, in other words, that nonviolence often did work against Hitler and the Nazis, and that the failure of a nonviolent mass movement to materialize had much to do with people’s ignorance of the strategy, helped along by sweeping generalizations like the ones Obama made in his speech that wrongly discount its efficacy.

Invert the purported hard case of nonviolence against the Nazis and ask the president: stand in France in 1940 before the U.S. and Russian forces entered Europe in full. Ask yourself: should a person at this time and place make the same leap of logic made in Obama’s Nobel speech and say: military force cannot halt Hitler’s armies?

Invert the example again: should the Germans take from their failure in World War II that military violence could not stop the United States and that, therefore, the entire method of struggle should be discounted in international conflict? I guess the President won’t mind then if they go ahead and yank their troops out of Afghanistan.

Or, rather, should our visitor to World-War-II France and the modern-day German conclude that the tactics, force and other resource levels, and skill of combatants were the problem and not the strategy of military action, per se? Why should we also not make similar assessments about nonviolent struggle? Perhaps we can do without a Nobel speech that includes reductio ad Hitlerum.

The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their fundamental faith in human progress — that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.

Gandhi and King had no amorphous “faith in human progress” that can be manipulated so that one can align themselves with it while arguing that war has a place in human relations.  People do this to the words of Christ all the time, and it’s easy to do that with a person who lived 2,000 years ago and who we know through ancient books that fail to provide enough context without an independent study of history. But this is not so with Gandhi or King.

King, in his Nobel acceptance speech, made his beliefs explicit:

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. “And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.” I still believe that We Shall overcome!

How dare you, Mr. President, stand where King once stood, invoking his memory and dismissing his ideas in alternating lines of self-justifying philosophizing on the necessity of war while you accept the Nobel peace prize? King, who once stood before a nation not quite ready to hear him, and thundered:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action; for they ask and write me, “So what about Vietnam?” They ask if our nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence I cannot be silent. Been a lot of applauding over the last few years. They applauded our total movement; they’ve applauded me. America and most of its newspapers applauded me in Montgomery. And I stood before thousands of Negroes getting ready to riot when my home was bombed and said, we can’t do it this way. They applauded us in the sit-in movement–we non-violently decided to sit in at lunch counters. The applauded us on the Freedom Rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Oh, the press was so noble in its applause, and so noble in its praise when I was saying, Be non-violent toward Bull Connor;when I was saying, Be non-violent toward [Selma, Alabama segregationist sheriff] Jim Clark. There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, Be non-violent toward Jim Clark, but will curse and damn you when you say, “Be non-violent toward little brown Vietnamese children.”

How dare you, Mr. President, stand on that stage and invoke King while also invoking that strange inconsistency? How dare you parrot those misguided zealots who used violence against their neighbors shouting, “Gandhi’s swaraj has come”? In this one speech, the president disqualifies himself forever from pointing to their life’s work as the foundation for his own. Yes, the sprouting of their trees made his ascendancy possible, but he will bear them no fruit – he is a dead branch.

As is the case with mankind in general, war is not something that happens to this president. He chooses it.

I held my nose and voted for President Obama last year, fully understanding he planned to send roughly 12,000 troops to Afghanistan, fully aware that he would have to be resisted, protested, cajoled and boxed in if we were to have hope of true change. And though I knew he planned to escalate, I never expected we’d go from 12,000 to 47,000 new troops in just under a year. And I certainly never expected to hear a man I voted for pay lip service to Gandhi, King, and their work for nonviolence in a way that will retard its adoption in the international arena.

Whether he ever realizes it or not, President Barack Obama disgraced himself on Tuesday. After reading this speech, I can honestly say I regret my vote for him. No, I don’t regret it: I repent of it. God save this President from himself, and God save us from this perversion of King’s dream.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. Learn how the war in Afghanistan undermines U.S. security: watch Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six), & visit http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog.

“It is a blasphemy to say non-violence can be practiced only by individuals and never by nations which are composed of individuals.” –M.K. Gandhi

On September 8, 2009, President Obama sat with a group of students to answer their questions. A student named Lilly asked him who he would have dinner with if he could have any guest, dead or alive. Here’s the full transcript of the exchange. From the Boston Globe:

STUDENT: Hi. I’m Lilly. And if you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be? (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: Dinner with anyone dead or alive? Well, you know, dead or alive, that’s a pretty big list. (Laughter.) You know, I think that it might be Gandhi, who is a real hero of mine. Now, it would probably be a really small meal because — (laughter) — he didn’t eat a lot. But he’s somebody who I find a lot of inspiration in. He inspired Dr. King, so if it hadn’t been for the non-violent movement in India, you might not have seen the same non-violent movement for civil rights here in the United States. He inspired César Chávez, and he — and what was interesting was that he ended up doing so much and changing the world just by the power of his ethics, by his ability to change how people saw each other and saw themselves — and help people who thought they had no power realize that they had power, and then help people who had a lot of power realize that if all they’re doing is oppressing people, then that’s not a really good exercise of power.

So I’m always interested in people who are able to bring about change, not through violence, not through money, but through the force of their personality and their ethical and moral stances. And that’s somebody that I’d love to sit down and talk to.

The same day the president opined about his admiration for nonviolent luminaries Gandhi, King and Chavez, Afghan insurgents in Kunar Province killed Petty Officer 3rd Class James R. Layton, Gunnery Sergeant Edwin Wayne Johnson, Jr., 1st Lieutenant Michael E. Johnson and Staff Sergeant Aaron M. Kenefick. At least 253 U.S. soldiers died so far in 2009 in Afghanistan, and between January and August of this year, U.S forces and their opponents killed 1561 civilians. We don’t have estimates of how many “Taliban” the U.S. and allies killed. Before President Obama answered Lilly’s question, he’d increased U.S. force levels in Afghanistan from 30,100 to 50,700, and as he answered he was considering up to 80,000 more.

In that context, it really takes some nerve to pontificate to school children about the importance of Gandhi and nonviolence. It’s a little like being lectured about vegetarianism by the local butcher. If you line his words up next to his actions as president, the implicit message is, “Sure, nonviolence is great, but c’mon–this is the real world.”

(more…)

During and after the 2008 campaign, President Obama repeatedly identified himself as a Christian for whom the Sermon on the Mount figured prominently in his faith. The Sermon on the Mount, as he has acknowledged, is a radical text of nonviolence, self-sacrifice, and enemy love.

Since taking office, President Obama has massively escalated the war in Afghanistan, resulting in increasing civilian deaths and massive human suffering on the part of Afghans and Americans sent to fight his war.

This video is offered not as an attack on the President’s personal faith. Instead, it’s intended to be an illustration of the way in which many Christians, including President Obama, seem willing to set aside the ethical content of the Sermon on the Mount when it conflicts with national goals.

Mr. President, for Christ’s sake, end this war.

This video uses clips from Rethink Afghanistan (http://rethinkafghanistan.com), The Passion of the Christ, Gandhi, and various bits of footage from around the Internet. The music featured in the final montage is “Agnus Dei” by Psalters (http://www.psalters.org).

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. [Matthew 5:38-41, NRSV]

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.

Wink explains:

“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.