We continue to work our way through the Sermon on the Mount this Sunday with some apparent teaching on non-violence. Jesus says quite categorically, ‘Offer the wicked man no resistance.’ And then later on he adds, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ This is looks like some very strong teaching indeed and certainly runs completely opposite to the way the world thinks about things.
We find it difficult to comprehend what Jesus intends by this. Maybe if we were to think of ourselves being attacked we might be able to summon up the moral courage not to retaliate. But what about those close to us. Are we to stand defenceless before our enemies? Are we to stand aside when our children are attacked? Are we to fail to protect our spouses against brutal assault?
These are important questions. We might not think we are being called to answer them right now because we live in a relatively peaceful society. But we need to be prepared for the answer we might give if things became difficult. Our grandparents and great-grandparents had to have an answer to these questions during the time of the last world war. If the whole nation had taken Jesus’ teaching literally then the consequence would be that even today we would find ourselves under the jackboot of a foreign oppressor.
These are very difficult questions. But thank God that we live in a country which even with its back against the wall found space for the conscientious objector.
Maybe there is another way of looking at all this. If we examine the text carefully we find that Jesus is very specific; he says, ‘If anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well.’ What I believe we have to understand is that this is referring to an insult and not a full-frontal physical attack.
What I think Jesus is talking about is the situation where a socially superior person slaps you on the right check with the back of their hand. This is the sort of insult that many Jews would have received from their Roman oppressors.
We have to understand that in the ancient world the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. If you think about it, to hit a person on the right cheek with the right hand can only be done with the back of the hand. This is what makes it an insult. It is the sort of thing a master might do to a slave.
Jesus says turn the other cheek and if you do this then the oppressor cannot then hit the right cheek again since now the left cheek gets in the way. You would almost have to do this yourself to see what is being done here. Take it from me, it is virtually impossible to strike either cheek with the right hand if the victim turns his face to the right.
Essentially what is means is standing one’s ground before an oppressor in such a way as not to provoke him further but also not to permit him to repeat the insult.
In the milieu of the time no Roman would attack a Jew with their fist, since that would mean that they were facing an equal. The Roman can only hit a social inferior with the back of his hand, to do anything more demeans him.
So, when the inferior person turns the other cheek the superior person is necessarily defeated. He cannot assert his dominance any further. Of course, there can be consequences later, but in the face-off the inferior person is in effect declaring their equality and their refusal to be cowed.
If we take this understanding of the situation, we see that Jesus is not so much teaching non-violence as non-cooperation. He is encouraging us to stand up for ourselves but to do so in a way that enhances our human dignity and does not degenerate into unnecessary violence.
By going on to talk about loving your enemy Jesus takes things further and stresses that we should see things the way God sees them. We should realise that we are all equal and all deserve prayer and love.
By dividing the world into good and evil persons we do a disservice to our brothers and sisters in the human family. While there surely are people who are wholly good and others who are wholly evil, most of us fall somewhere in between.
What Jesus wants is for us to adopt a divine perspective and to see other people as they really are. He wants us to pray for everyone and to love them as God loves them. Jesus understands perfectly well that the best way to get people to behave better is to treat them with dignity and to appeal to their better instincts.
This means that we should see the good in others, it means we should treat even our enemies as brothers. By acting towards others in this way brings the good out of them and frees them from the grip of the evil that they have fallen into.
What we have therefore in this passage is not so much a teaching about unequivocal non-violence or love for enemies who continue to hate us. No, what Jesus is suggesting is that we should think more cleverly. We should stymie the oppressor by refusing to accept their insults and disarm our enemies by treating them as our brothers. Jesus is telling us not to follow the ways of the world, which clearly lacks intelligence and perpetuates old oppressions. This only leaves people stuck and unable to move forward.
Jesus is telling us that we should be agents of real change in the world by acting in unexpected ways. He is inviting us to think through the consequences of the old ways of doing things and to come up with new and unexpected ways of dealing with difficult situations. He wants us to be free and upright citizens of our world, he wants us to be rid of old oppressions and to be dignified citizens of our world.
This means that we do not go along with the crowd but rather approach the various situations of life with new and imaginative thinking as befits a disciple of Christ. He wants us to see the world not from the bottom up like a victim but from the top down as God does. And by seeing the world the way it really is we will find that we are in a far better position to change it.
While the message of non-violence has a great deal of merit, I believe it is not what Jesus is actually teaching here. He is preaching a Gospel of intelligence and imagination. He is inviting us to be active agents in the transformation of the world rather than being passive subjects and victims of old forms of oppression.
Jesus wants us to be liberated and free citizens of the world, active agents in its transformation. He wants us to be the ones who will change the world and bring it ever closer to the Kingdom of God which is its true destiny.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket