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Sunday, February 19, 2017 | 8:00 a.m.

Jesus' Third Way

Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 119:33–40
Leviticus 19:1–2, 9–18
Matthew 5:38–48

Lord, for today’s encounters with all who are in need,
who hunger for acceptance, for justice and for bread,
we need new eyes for seeing, new hands for holding on.
Renew us with your Spirit; Lord, free us, make us one.

Fred Kaan, from the hymn “Help Us Accept Each Other”

For many years, my husband and I have had a bumper sticker on our car that says “When Jesus said love your enemies, he probably meant don’t kill them.” No one has disputed that with us. It’s so understated; Jesus went way beyond that. To love our enemies includes praying for those who persecute us. To say Jesus “probably meant don’t kill them” just scratches the surface. Nevertheless, if we are honest, how many of us find even that understatement radically different from the way we think and live?

The standard foundation for public justice in much of the world is an ancient teaching from twenty centuries before Jesus lived: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The Jewish people picked it up from the Babylonians. Initially this teaching was to restrain the human tendency toward overkill. It sets a limit on vengeance, seeking to match the response to the level of the initial harm done.

When humans experience power used against them, they generally choose one of two ways to respond. We tend to react either aggressively or submissively. There is either fight—get angry and retaliate—or flight—duck and cover. We really need to find alternatives to these polar opposite choices, because neither of them is particularly beneficial.

These two opposites are not our only choices. There is another way to function in the face of conflict, without either intensifying the battle or simply knuckling under. We find this other, or third, way in Jesus’ instructions to his followers about dealing with “enemies.” Notice, he doesn’t say, “You won’t have enemies.” Instead, in the Sermon on the Mount, he puts forward a creative way to respond: “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.”

According to New Testament scholar Walter Wink, whose thoughts permeate this sermon (Engaging the Powers, chapter 9, and Violence and NonViolence in South Africa: Jesus’ Third Way, chapter 2), that last sentence is a bad translation. The Greek word antistenai does not mean “Do not resist.” Jesus is not saying, “Do not resist evil.” The word he used to describe what not to do means “violent reaction against.” A better translation would be “Do not strike back at one who has done you evil. Do not counter violence with violence. Don’t let evil dictate the terms of your opposition.”

Jesus is proposing a third way, for which he gives a few examples: “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.”

These examples sound like advice to be a doormat, passively to accept abuse. But they aren’t. Let’s explore further.

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Why the right cheek? In a right-handed society, which it was, how would you strike someone on the right cheek? With a punch, you would hit an opponent’s left cheek. You could only hit the right cheek with the back of your hand. So this isn’t about a fist fight or a sucker punch. Not a pummeling, but a slap, an insult. The intent isn’t to injure but rather to humiliate.

Now, Jesus’ hearers were poor Israelites who were regularly subjected to indignities as a result of Roman occupation. They suffered under a hierarchical religious system of caste and race and gender. So why would he counsel people already humiliated to turn the other cheek? Because that kind of action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek says, in effect, “Do it again, if you want. Your first slap didn’t work. You can’t demean me. You can’t crush my soul. I am your equal.” This is not submission. This is creative and powerful nonviolent resistance.

Let’s look at another example: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” Under all the taxation from the Roman government as well as their temple, most Jewish peasants were deep in debt. They would not have had drawers full of underwear, shirts, and sweaters. They owned two items of clothing: a coat (an undergarment with sleeves) and a cloak (an outer garment, also used as a blanket). For poor people to give up both their coat and their cloak would have meant stripping themselves naked! So why does Jesus counsel them, when someone wants to sue them, to give over their inner garment as well?

Well, just imagine being the creditor making his demands. Imagine his embarrassment, as you hold your coat in one hand and your underwear in the other, particularly in a religious society in which nakedness was taboo! You have suddenly turned the tables. You had no hope of winning the trial. The law was entirely in the other one’s favor. But you have refused to be humiliated. And you have rendered a stunning, gleeful protest against a system that creates such outrageous debt. You lampoon them; you clown them into recognizing how ridiculous it all is.

Another example: “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go two miles.” The Roman Empire regulated the amount of forced labor that soldiers could levy on occupied populations. Rome knew that there was a limit to how much suppression a subjected people would put up with before the dominant power provoked revolt. So a Roman soldier was permitted to require a Jew to carry his pack one mile only. Rome tried to curtail the anger of its subjects. So why “the second mile”?

Again, the issue is how can the oppressed recover the initiative? How can they assert their human dignity when the rules belong to Caesar and they would obey only God? Imagine how off-balance the soldier would be. Imagine an imperial infantryman, knowing he could get in trouble, pleading with the Israelite, “Aw, c’mon. Please give me back my pack. I can carry it.”

How else can powerful people who are engaged in domineering acts be led to repent? How else but through love? How else but by being led to feel uncomfortable by their own actions?

Jesus’ third way is a kind of moral jujitsu, a way of using the momentum of evil to throw it, amplifying an injustice—the other cheek, your underwear, a second mile—in order to expose its fundamental wrongness.

Joseph Brodsky, a Russian and American poet and essayist, told a story of a Russian prisoner, who, along with the other inmates, was ordered to engage in a socialist competition with the guards to cut a vast amount of lumber. He responded, “And what if I refuse to take part in this?” The guard replied, “Well, in that case, no meals for you.” That inmate proceeded to cut wood along with everyone else. But then when others stopped to eat or rest, he did not. When everyone else had quit for the day, exhausted, he continued to cut wood. After hours of this, both his guards and fellow prisoners begged him to stop. Their reaction went from being sardonic to bewildered to terrified. Finally the man stopped and staggered to his cell to sleep. Never again while that man was in prison was another socialist competition ordered, though lumber piled up. Brodsky said, “The meaning . . . suggests that evil can be made absurd through excess; it suggests rendering evil absurd through dwarfing its demands with the volume of your compliance, which devalues harm. This sort of thing puts a victim into a very active position.” It exposes the meaninglessness of the whole enterprise (Joseph Brodsky, “A Commencement Address,” 16 August 1984).

There is a parallel teaching from the Apostle Paul in Romans: “Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves. . . . No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals upon their head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17–21).

Is not heaping burning coals upon others’ heads coming from malicious intent? No, such an interpretation is not true to the full message. “Burning coals”refers to the burning sensations of shame that persons will feel when good is returned for evil—which just might produce remorse and repentance of the enemy. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, and lived, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

A documentary film about the civil rights movement showed Martin Luther King Jr. meeting with demonstrators inside a church, while outside were gathered angry and threatening counter-demonstrators. In exhorting those inside the church to hold on to their courage and commitment to nonviolence he said, “Now we are going to teach Americans how to be Christians.”

When King expanded his application of nonviolence to take a stand against the U.S. war in Vietnam, he was criticized by many who told him to “stay in his lane.” To this Dr. King replied, “As I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. . . . This query has often loomed large and loud: ‘Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?’ ‘Peace and civil rights don’t mix,’ they say. ‘Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?’ they ask. And when I hear them . . . I am . . . greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling.”

Jesus’ teaching to forgo retaliation and instead to love our enemies should influence not only relationships between races but also relationships among nations and within families and neighborhoods. Jesus’ teaching should lead Christians to challenge our culture’s mindset that the best way to respond to gun violence is by carrying our own guns and being ready to use them. It should lead us to challenge our federal government when it wants to cut humanitarian aid in order to spend more on defense. It should lead us to move towards and stand with those who are portrayed as our enemies.

One of my best friends, Kathleen McDonnell, expressed her Christian calling for eighteen years by working in the Cleveland public schools with high school youth, most of whom have directly experienced violence. She taught them nonviolent communication, facilitating ways for youth to talk with one another instead of fight. Her efforts helped break the cycle of retaliation and revenge. In this case, “turn the other cheek” and “go the second mile” meant that the youth were willing to address their issues and feelings with one another, retain their dignity, name and acknowledge harm, listen to others, and reconcile instead of retaliate.

Kathleen was inspired by one of the young men she met, twenty-one-year-old Shaquille. When Shaquille was getting off the bus at 3:00 a.m. coming home from his night shift, he was faced by an attacker with a drawn gun. The attacker demanded that Shaquille give him everything he had. Shaquille gave him his wallet and his phone and began praying aloud for him. The man struck him with the gun. Shaquille continued to pray for him. The attacker paced back and forth and started talking about why he was doing this. It was his first robbery. He had no job and needed money. The robber stopped and said, “Man, keep your stuff. I’m sorry for this. You were the wrong type of person to do this to.”
Kathleen said, “I can only hope that I could show as much courage someday.”

It does take courage, and an open heart, not to return evil for evil. We need to turn to God to guide and strengthen us to live the third way of Jesus.

So what is going through your mind? Who are your enemies? Around whom do you feel vulnerable? Who may be abusing power over you or working against what you value or diminishing your dignity or your use of your gifts? Does that happen to you at work? In our society, are you marginalized? Are you knocked down in your family?

As a follower of Jesus, what creative, non-violent—non-violating—even caring response might you find as an alternative to the two standard reactions: either retaliating or buckling under?

“Love your enemies,” Jesus said. Love them, because God’s love, which is universal, encompasses them as well as you. Jesus’ words radiate hope: animosity and coercion can be overcome. Incivility can be engaged without being replicated. Hatred can be resisted without revenge. It can be resisted with imagination, with humor, and with love. This is Jesus’ third way. He believed it works and lived it. It is the path for our faithfulness, for transforming hearts, for peace with one another. For the sake of our nation, our city, our family, ourselves, let us love our enemies. Amen.