“Jesus: Midrash #4: Violence"
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 22, 2017
University Baptist Church
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
My name is Doug and I am a recovering violent person. I have drunk deep from the well of violence in my life. I have said and done things that are mean to my sisters and brothers. I have consumed more than my share of natural resources. I have harbored hatred in my heart for my fellow human being. I have even lifted my hand to strike another in anger. I have objectified women and have cringed when I realize that the #metoo of my sisters means that I have perpetuated a culture of microaggressions against women. With your help and God’s help I’m trying to get better.
Many of us are stuck in a cycle of violence. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer says that the most popular religion in the world is not Christianity, not Islam, not Hinduism or Buddhism or Judaism. The most popular religion in our world is violence. We have the mistaken belief that violence saves us. We have the illusion that the only way to defeat violence is by superior violence. We glorify violence. We project our myth of redemptive violence onto God and we end up in the place we are—living in fear of our sisters and brothers, making sure that we are one step ahead so that we can not be overtaken by the superior violence of our adversary.
But Jesus never used violence. With the possible exception of turning over the tables of the moneychangers, he never succumbed to the temptation to return violence with violence. He embraced a nonviolent lifestyle.
Dorothy Day spent her life as a pacifist. She urged noncooperation in war and many of her followers were jailed with her. When pressed, she reaffirmed that “our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers. Speaking for many of our conscientious objectors, we will not participate in armed warfare or in making munitions, or by buying government bonds to prosecute the war, or in urging others to these efforts.” In 1941 as the US entered Word War II, she said of her pacifist stance, "We must renounce war as an instrument of policy. . . . Even as I speak to you I may be guilty of what some men call treason. But we must reject war. . . . You young men should refuse to take up arms. Young women tear down the patriotic posters. And all of you—young and old—put away your flags." She advocated nonviolence before, alongside, and after MLK. She was called a fanatic, a communist, a traitor, and a saint. How would she be received today?
I heard Coretta Scott King speak at my alma mater a number of years ago. She made the distinction between active nonviolence and passive resistance. She said, there is nothing passive about nonviolence. Nonviolence is an active exercise of body, mind and soul. It is a lifestyle choice. It cannot be passive, for violence is active and the only way to oppose violence is actively, persistently and passionately.
Today’s scripture reading is a classic example of nonviolence in action. Jesus starts out by quoting an old scripture, "you have heard it said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth"—that old vengeance mantra—“but I say to you, do not resist the evildoer with violence." According to Biblical scholar Marcus Borg that "with violence" part is the best translation of verse 39. Gandhi said that if we live by an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, then we end up with a world full of blind people without any teeth. Jesus is not saying don’t resist evil or the actions of an evildoer, he is saying don’t resist them with violence. Resist them in a better, more creative, more redemptive manner.
He then gives us three examples of nonviolent resistance. These are the great reversals. You know these very well, turn the other cheek, give your coat and go the extra mile. Now, the popular understandings of these sayings are that we are to let people walk all over us. We are to suck it up and be patient. But there is an underlying political element to each one of these statements of Jesus. In each one of these instances, Jesus tells the people to do something that will confuse and trip up the one who does evil to you. When this happens, you can resist the evil without becoming evil yourself. Glen Stassen called these transforming initiatives. Each of these transforming initiatives instances merits an entire sermon.
Jesus could have easily entitled this section of the Sermon on the Mount, “How to deal with a bully.” Maybe even, “how to disarm a bully.”
Jesus taught us how to stand up, deflect and embrace a better way.
We have turn the other cheek,
Give of your cloak
And go the extra mile.
First turn the other cheek. The scripture is very clear. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. Here’s the thing, though. You would never use your left hand to strike someone. That hand is used for dirty things. So, with your right hand, you can only strike a person on the right cheek with the back of your hand.
That’s the way you would treat a dog. Not someone who is you equal. If you are being treated like a dog, implies Jesus, then stand up with all of your dignity, look your accuser in the eye and offer the other cheek. Make him treat you as an equal. And see if he does it again. And be ready to deflect the blow this time.
The second instance is giving your cloak. Back in ancient times, if you owed a debt, someone could sue you for your coat. But they would have to give it back to you at the end of the day so that you would have something in which to sleep. It was a shameful way that people who were well off reminded people of their status. It was like demanding immigration papers at all times. It was landowners shaming their debtors who too often were poorer, and had the darker skin of a laborer. Jesus says, if someone sues you for your coat, give them your cloak also. One usually only had 2 garments. Leaving you naked. Imagine if you demanded a cloak and I got completely undressed? The shame would not be on the one naked, but the one who gazes upon the nakedness. It would usually result in the other not demanding the debt and reconsidering his stance, or better yet running away from the one who has seized the power in the relationship.
Finally, we have, "If anyone forces you to go a mile, go also the second mile." Now, historians have told us that it was lawful for a Roman soldier to make someone carry their belongings for one mile, but no more than this. They could force a peasant to carry armor and food and clothing, whatever for a mile. That means the person had to drop whatever he or she was doing and go with them for a mile. But there was a law against forcing anyone to go more than a mile. It was iilegal. The peasants needed to get back to their fields in order to keep the economy going. So why does Jesus tell them to go a second mile? I think it is to take the power back from the Roman soldier to the peasant. The peasant knows that the Roman soldier can get into trouble for going more than one mile with a peasant. Jesus gives them a nonviolent way to confront a violent situation. The soldier is now in trouble with his authorities. And that’s Jesus’ point. The real authority is God. And you don’t want to be in trouble with God.
Jesus gave us ways to deal with bullies. Bullies only understand vengeance. Jesus was showing us a better way. He has us teach our adversaries a better way. Vengeance is a vicious cycle and it diminishes us all.
When I was in college, my Head Resident was named Teddy Pearre. Teddy was an ox of a man who had the amazing ability to show no pain. He was a rugby player who would limp back to the dorms after a game or a practice with blood all over him, just smiling. Lots of people thought he was a bit odd. He was. It was one of his charms. But he was smart as a tack when it came to interpersonal conflicts.
During my first year in college, I lived in a dorm with lots of football players. It was Division III, so there were no scholarships. One of the favorite pastimes of many of these guys was to get drunk and to start breaking things. Sometimes when they were done breaking things, they would start breaking people. The worst and most feared of the bunch was Joe. One night Teddy found Joe in the hall of the dorm trying to break down a door. He had already been responsible for destroying some furniture, but no one could ever catch him, let alone make him stop.
Teddy walked up to him in his calm cool manner and said, "Joe, if your want to hit something, hit me." Cocky Joe, whom everyone feared swung with all his intoxicated might and landed a right into Teddy’s stomach.
Teddy took the blow, looked him straight in the eye and said, "Have you had enough, Joe?" Joe hurled around in frustration and landed another hard blow. This rock of a man took that one, too. A crowd had started to gather by this time. To everyone’s surprise, he said again, "Have you had enough, Joe?" A series of blows by Joe followed and Teddy just stood there, showing no signs of pain, and not budging an inch.
Joe got more and more frustrated and before long, turned into a whimpering heap on the floor. That was the last time he fought or broke anything.
I don’t know how Teddy did this and I am certainly not suggesting that any of us take blows like that, but he demonstrated to me how nonviolence can take violence, turn it around, expose its futility and make it stop. Teddy gave Joe the opportunity to let it out of his system. He was strong enough not only physically to take the blows, but emotionally to know that this behavior was not all there was to Joe. Teddy went an extra mile with Joe. He probably saved him from expulsion.
We are taught to react with vengeance when someone has wronged us. But vengeance is a form of violence. There must be a better way. Dorothy Day and others advocated nonviolence. Not passivity. Not letting someone walk all over you, but never responding with vengeance when someone has done something to you that is shameful. Nonviolence shows a better way. It points out the futility of vengeance. It exposes the flaw in the system. It seeks to deflect the blows, so that the person offering the blows has a chance to embrace a better way. That means being very creative.
Embracing the reversals of the ways of the world is what the Gospel is all about. Seek a better way. Turn the other cheek, take off your clothes, go the second mile. Transform yourself so that others might be transformed.
Nonviolence is more than simply a concept. It is a lifestyle choice. Jesus gave us some tactics in today’s scripture, but the real work of nonviolence comes in our hearts. Martin Luther King said that as we seek to be nonviolent, we need to resist our own propensity toward violence of the fist, the tongue and the heart. This means that we are to not hurl insults, we are not to write people off with whom we disagree, and we are not to even think thoughts of violence.
Dorothy Day’s daughter Tamar said, according to her daughter, that you haven’t grown up until you have forgiven your parents. It might have something to do with this eschewing of vengeance thing that Jesus was advocating.
The only way to live this way is to have a spiritual awakening and be supported in that awakening by a community. That’s what the church is all about. This is the subversive spirituality that we seek.
Violence needs only fertile soil in which to grow. The fertile soil is all around us. It is alive and well in our culture. The counter-cultural lifestyle Jesus calls us to is one of nonviolence. When someone does something evil to one of us, we are to resist that evil, but not with violence. The nonviolent way is the creative way. It is the just way. It is the way that values all people regardless of their actions. It is the subversive way. It is the Christian way that Jesus wanted for us.