The Third Way
“Be perfect, therefore, as you heavenly Father is perfect.” Matt 5: 48
We simply do not understand the Bible. Of what does God’s holiness consist? As stated from the beginning to the end of the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures, our God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.
The translators employed, i.e. paid by, King James manipulated the scripture in places to favor the king. So they translated, “Do not strike back at evil in kind,” as “Do not resist an evil doer.” Making the sense of the entire passage in Matthew 5: 38-48 virtually meaningless. For Jesus is all about non-violent resistance. Jesus resists playing into the hands of the Roman oppressors, and counsels his followers, that would be you and me, to do the same.
“You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not strike back at evil in kind.” Or, “Don’t react violently against one who is evil.” That is, the tradition teaches proportionate response. If your opponent takes an eye, you are to take ONLY an eye and no more, for this is to reflect the holiness of a God that desires to relent from punishing. Jesus pushes it one step further: Do not meet violence with violence. Do not strike back in kind.
Walter Wink in his little book, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2003) argues that we have a choice in how to respond to evil and injustice. The standard responses are Fight or Flight. Jesus, argues Wink, offers a Third Way – Nonviolent Resistance. Nonviolent Resistance is a way of living into our inherent imgao dei, being created in the image of God. It is a way to live into the holiness of God by responding to people with the kind of compassion and desire for the good and justice for all people (as outlined in part in Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18, 33-34), which is what God desires for the whole world, everyone and everything therein.
Yet, thanks in part to those in King James’ employ, we do not understand what it means to “turn the other cheek.” One needs some knowledge of the time and place in which Jesus says this. Jesus is not commanding docility or even neutrality, both of which concede power to the one striking you. Jesus lived in a right-handed world in which one in a position of power and authority would strike one across the cheek with the back of the right hand. Roman soldiers would backhand non-citizens; masters would backhand slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews.
Wink observes what we have are sets of unequal relations in which retaliation would be suicidal, and submission is to concede the injustice. Jesus’s third way is to turn “the other also.” This, in effect, invites another blow, but this time it needs to be either with the left hand, which was prohibited and only to be used for unclean tasks, or with the open palm or a fist, which in that culture acknowledges you as an equal, a peer.
So, to turn the other cheek robs the oppressor “of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, ‘Try again. Your first blow did not achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not deny or alter that fact. You cannot demean me.’” [Wink, pp 15-16]
Similarly, if you give up both your coat and the undergarment in court you embarrass and humiliate the one suing you. And if you carry a centurion’s backpack an extra mile, you humiliate the Roman soldier since by regulation he can only ask you to carry it one mile or be subject to discipline himself. One might see that Jesus, in addition to advocating nonviolent resistance, robbing the oppressor’s power over you, while also making a mockery or burlesque of those repeated attempts to abuse power in ways that are unjust and corrosive of society as a whole. It is a way of unmasking the ultimate futility and poverty of power.
Then we are ordered to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, for even God sends sun and rain on the bad as well as the good. To be created in the image of God, to have the kind of compassion and desire for the good of all people, especially widows, orphans and resident aliens, is the kind of “perfection” to which God calls us. Not getting A+ on all our work, but going the extra mile in exposing the falseness that surrounds us. It means adapting these principals of nonviolent resistance to any and all similar circumstances. Wink cites the example of the South African Apartheid government’s desire to demolish a shanty town. They waited till nearly everyone left for work and brought in the bulldozers. Three women remained at home. They were ordered to leave. Instead they marched out to the bulldozers and perhaps sensing the prudery of the farm boys, stripped themselves bare. The army and the bulldozers fled.
I keep going back over and over again to Leviticus chapter 19, verses 33-34: When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Jesus understood this and lived this all the way to the cross.
This is what Biblical religion is all about. Our “perfection” will be in finding new ways of adapting the strategies of Jesus’ Third Way. Fight and/or Flight will not get the job done.