Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King
Saturday, March 3, 2012
Jesus said, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles … Love your enemies.
Love your enemies, Jesus says, but do not bow to injustice or oppression. Instead, stand firm without returning the violence. New Testament theologian Walter Wink tracks down customs of the Jewish culture in which Jesus lived, and writes that Jesus was offering a “third way” between passive acceptance of oppression and aggressively fighting back. It has come to be called “non-violence.”
Non-violence has not overcome what Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence*,” but it was responsible for unseating British power in India. It did result in the unlikely passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, championed by southern President Lyndon Johnson. And it was the molten core of the social revolution Christ-followers began to bring to the world, before Constantine began the process of making Christianity a state religion.
Jesus knew that in the Jewish world people did not use their left hand to strike people. A backhand blow was the way a superior hit an inferior, and that is the only way a right cheek can be struck by a right hand. Try it!
So to turn the other cheek would require the second blow to come as an open-handed slap or an overhand fist. In that culture, these are the blows of equal fighting equal. The superior could continue the beating only by treating his adversary as a social peer.
Jesus also knew that most of the Jewish poor wore only an inner garment, or shirt, and an outside coat. If your enemy demands your shirt, give him your coat too: in other words, strip naked, to show all who can see what the system is doing to you. And in that world nakedness shamed the person who observed it.
Jesus knew that Roman soldiers were allowed to force civilians to carry their equipment for one mile, but for no more. So by following Jesus’ suggestion, a civilian puts the soldier in a position where he either risks getting in trouble or has to wrestle his own gear back from the helper.
So when Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” he stands in a position of strength, not weakness. The power of the great Christian ethic, the “Golden Rule,” pours from the inside out: God loves me, so I can love myself, so I can love you. That algorithm does not change, regardless of what you might think you can do to me. And when I love my enemy, he can eventually see his way to this truth too.
Show me, Lord, how to live in the peace that surpasses understanding. To love others, not because of anything I get back, but only because you first loved me.
* Here are two links to 1) an excellent summary of these ideas, and 2) a fascinating article Professor Wink wrote in 2007 about redemptive violence: