“LESSONS FOR SURVIVAL”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
August 13, 2023
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 evil-doer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give your coat as well, 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
We dedicated the new school year this morning and prayed for safety and for learning and those things. Safety is a real concern when it comes to schools these days thanks to our violent, gun-filled society. It’s also a concern because of the bullying – of students, and of teachers. Some of it is by individuals and some of it is by our own government. And things aren’t really any better in the rest of our world right now. Much as I’d rather preach about flowers and peace and love, sometimes you have to focus on lessons for survival. And since we are talking about teaching and learning, this passage is a perfect starting point.
Now I’m not going to teach you jiu-jitsu moves, or how to handle a weapon safely. That’s not my thing, when it comes to lessons for survival. I have a different approach; the one Jesus recommends. I know, you probably are thinking that the advice I just read in the Scripture is the most useless bit of advice you’ve ever heard! Turn the other, cheek, go the extra mile, give away your shirt as well as your coat? That might mean you survive, but what kind of life is that? But maybe you haven’t heard the real meaning behind these words. If you have, great. If you haven’t, I want to share with you the teaching of Walter Wink on these verses.
Walter Wink was one of the most influential voices in Christian theology. His focus was on the nonviolent teachings of Jesus. His teaching about these verses in Matthew's Gospel showed that Jesus was pointing to a third way: not fight, not flight, but an active, nonviolent challenge to the oppressor. He begins by pointing out that we have been taught there are two responses to violence: fight or flight. We all understand that “fight” is basically a violent response. “Flight” can take a number of forms. We may physically flee, but in some cases we can’t and so our form of “flight” becomes denial, self-loathing, acceptance of abuse and other things that are actually just as violent, it is just they are self-directed rather than other-directed.
The third way, the way Jesus teaches, is to challenge the injustice but not by doing more injustice. In other words, our response is not “do unto others as they have done unto you.” That is just another way to justify violence in response to violence. Instead, the third way is to challenge others when their actions are unjust.
If you don’t think those in power have twisted the Gospel to make it seem powerless then think about how you have heard these verses explained. They sound like Jesus wants us to be doormats to injustice and abuse. But the fact is they have been twisted. “The translation of ‘do not resist evil’ is actually a mistranslation. The Greek word translated “resist” in Matt. 5:39 is antistenai, meaning literally to stand (stenai) against (anti). What translators have over-looked is that antistenai is most often used in the Greek version of the Old Testament as a technical term for warfare. It describes the way opposing armies would march toward each other until their ranks met. Then they would “take a stand,” that is, fight. Ephesians 6:13 uses precisely this imagery: “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand [antistenai] on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm istenai].” The image is not of a punch-drunk boxer somehow managing to stay on his feet, but of soldiers standing their ground, refusing to flee. In short, antistenai means more here than simply to “resist” evil. It means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an armed insurrection.
The Bible translators working in the hire of King James on what came to be known as the King James Version knew that the king did not want people to conclude that they had any recourse against his or any other sovereign’s tyranny. James had explicitly commissioned a new translation of the Bible because of what he regarded as “seditious… dangerous, and trayterous” tendencies in the marginal notes printed in the Geneva Bible, which included endorsement of the right to disobey a tyrant. Therefore the public had to be made to believe that there are two alternatives, and only two: flight or fight. And Jesus is made to command us, according to these king’s men, to resist not. Jesus appears to authorize absolute authority of kings. Submission is the will of God. And most modern translators have meekly followed in that path. But, in fact, Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms.”
Here’s the real meaning: “Notice Jesus’ audience here. The kind of people Jesus was talking to, [peasants and] slaves, these are people who are used to being treated badly. He is saying to them, “refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.”
“Why does Jesus reference the right cheek specifically? Jesus lived in a right-handed world where left hands were reserved only for unclean tasks. Therefore, we can assume that the person doing the hitting would use their right hand. The only way to strike someone on the right cheek with your right hand is a backhanded slap. This is intended to be an insult, not a fistfight. It was a normal way to reprimand someone over whom you had power (e.g. masters to slaves, husbands to wives, Romans to Jews). To strike your equal in such a manner was socially and legally unacceptable, carrying with it a huge fine.
So picture this: “You are a wealthy, powerful person whose slave has displeased you in some way. You reprimand your slave with a backhanded slap. The response you expect is the response you have always received from your slaves. You expect your slave to cower, submit, and slink away. Instead, your slave defiantly turns their other cheek and challenges you to hit them again. What can you do?
“You would like to give your slave another backhanded slap to show them their place, but to do that you would have to use your left hand which would make YOU unclean. You could hit them on their left cheek, instead, but it would be embarrassing to hit your slave the way you should hit your equal. You’re confused. You don’t know what to do. You could order the slave be flogged, but the slave has already made their point. They have shown you that they are a human person with dignity and worth. You don’t own them, you cannot control them, and they do not submit to your rules.
So, “Jesus’ instruction not to resist evil and to turn the other cheek is not an instruction to accept injustice but a challenge to resist systems of domination and oppression without the use of violence. Rather than ignoring an evil situation and hoping it will go away, Jesus is telling his followers to find creative, active, and nonviolent ways to assert their humanity and God’s love in the world.”
In Jesus’ time what is translated as cloak and shirt meant “outer garment,” and “inner garment.” So, if someone to whom you owe a debt demands you give them your outer garment as payment because you have not repaid a loan, for example, Jesus is saying, give him your underwear too. You would be naked. Now in our culture we might be embarrassed, sure. In Jesus’ world the embarrassment was always considered greater for anyone who sees a naked person than for the person being naked. In addition, the laws of Jesus’ religion required that if someone did take the outer garment from a poor person, they were required to give it back before dark because the risk was the person might die from the cold overnight.
“The law was entirely in the creditor’s favor. But the poor man has transcended this attempt to humiliate. He has risen above shame. At the same time he has registered a stunning protest against the system that has created his debt. He has said in effect, ‘you want my robe? Here! Take everything! Now you’ve got all that I have except my body. Is that what you’ll take next?’ This is guerilla theater folks. The entire system by which debtors are oppressed has been publicly unmasked. The creditor is revealed to be not a legitimate moneylender but a party to the reduction of an entire social class to landlessness and destitution. This unmasking is not simply punitive however. Since it offers the creditor a chance to see perhaps what his practices cause and to repent.”
In the third example, the Roman soldier had the right to compel anyone in their occupied lands to carry his pack a mile. The Roman empire had markers that measured a mile on their highways. But if a soldier forced someone to carry that pack further the solder was subject to fine and beatings and demotion. It was one of Caesar’s “enlightened” rules, I guess. So, imagine the poor Jew forced to carry that soldier’s pack a mile. To get even instead of stopping then he keeps on walking not giving the soldier the pack back. Imagine the soldier chasing after the man trying to get his pack back before his Captain sees and punishes the soldier not the poor man forced to carry the pack! I imagine Jesus’ hearers laughing at the mental image.
“Jesus is not advocating non-violence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a just means of opposing the enemy in a way that holds open the possibility of the enemy’s becoming just also. If possible, we want both sides to win. This is necessary since we will usually have to live with our opponents after the conflict is over. This was the principle they used to transform Apartheid in South Africa. We are summoned to pray for our enemy’s transformation and respond to ill treatment with love. The logic of Jesus’ examples in Matthew goes beyond both inaction and overreaction to a new response, fired in the crucible of love, that promises to liberate the oppressed from evil, even as it frees the oppressor from sin.” These examples inspired Rev. Martin Luther King and others who led the civil rights efforts in our own country. These principles work. We must find a way to use them today.
There is a violent minority trying to take over our systems of education, government, and even religion. Is “fight or flight” our only choice for survival? Jesus Christ chose his way knowing it meant a cross. He challenged his followers to go there too. That’s a hard thing to do, isn’t it? But maybe the greatest lesson for survival is that we do not need to give up our human dignity and human rights to survive. We must find and use Jesus’ third way. Amen.