The Myth of Redemptive Violence

August 11, 2013


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Aug. 11, 2013

“The Myth of Redemptive Violence”
Matt. 5: 38-42

The last two weeks, I’ve spoken about the creation myth and the flood myth. Today I want to talk about another myth in the Christian tradition – the myth of redemptive violence. Here’s how it gets played out:
• A mother is talking to a friend about her child’s latest habit of biting. “I just don’t know how to stop her from biting! I’ve tried everything, but she still just wraps her teeth around anything and anyone.” “Well,” claims the other mother, “just bite her back. Let her know what it feels like and she’ll stop.”
• A teacher is concerned about controlling his classroom and talks with some friends. “Well, that’s the trouble with schools today. If you could just whap those kids upside the head, they wouldn’t be so quick to beat up on each other.”
• The answer to school and office shootings? More guns.
• What to do with murderers? Capital Punishment.
Now don’t get me wrong. I was a parent who spanked her children – although they still tease me about my wimpy paddlings! I believe in consequences for breaking the law.

But my concern here is the big picture – the philosophy we are using – that violence in our society is a thing we trust. When all else fails, we know we can turn to violence. We actually regard violence as redemptive. After all, some Christians say, it is the core of the Christian story that God allowed Jesus to die a gruesome death on the cross so that we can all get to heaven.

Jesus had a response to violence. It goes like this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
Matt. 5: 38-42

If you want my reaction to this text, I would have to tell you that it is great advice…. For other people! If someone messes with me or the people I love, I want revenge! This is a nice theory, but the real world simply doesn’t work that way. Another problem I have with this passage is that it seems like Jesus is advising passivity to the point of allowing abuse.

And then I read a book by Walter Wink. He points out that the Greek word used in this text is antistenai, which means to resist. That surprised me because when I read this scripture before, resistance wasn’t what I heard. Anti means “against” and stenai means “stand”, so antistenai literally means to stand against. The Scholars Bible has the best translation of if, “Do not react violently against the one who is evil.”

And then Jesus gives three examples o what he means by not resisting evil violently.
Turning the other cheek
Paul and Stephanie have agreed to demonstrate the scenarios for us. So face off with each other. Paul, show us your best right hook. The problem with this hit is what? Wrong cheek. Left cheek. Jesus says, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek.” Use your left hook for this. But wait! You can’t use your left hand in the ancient culture because it is your bathroom hand. To use it would defile you!

So how do you hit her right cheek with your right hand? You would backhand her. To backhand a person is a symbolic blow which is intended to humiliate. It’s a master to a servant or a husband to a wife or a parent to a child, or perhaps a Roman to a Jew. And by backhanding her, you aren’t saying, “I’ll hurt you,” you’re saying, “Get back where you belong.”

Jesus says “If they hit you on the right cheek, turn the other also”. Stephanie, turn your other cheek. What can Paul do now that she’s turned the other cheek? Equals. If you hit her with a right hook now, she’s given you a terrific target, daring you to hit her because that would establish her as an equal. By turning the other cheek, Stephanie has stood up to Paul and dared him to make her his equal. This takes the power away from the slapper and gives power to the one who was hit. Jesus is not suggesting passive submission to abuse, but defiance for abusive authority.

Giving Up your Cloak
The second example Jesus gives is, “If anyone takes you to court and sues you for your outer garment, give your undergarment as well.” The background to this example was the problem of debt. If you needed a loan, you had to put up collateral. First, you might use your cattle or land. Eventually, though, if you were a Jewish peasant, you had nothing but the clothing on your back. The people wore two garments – an undergarment like a dress, and a cloak which was the outer garment – nothing else.

Robin: Why are you bringing this man to court?
Stephanie: He owes me money and he says he can’t pay. So I want his coat.
Robin: Do you owe her money?
Paul: Yes, but I don’t have anything to give her. I can’t pay her back.
Robin: Then give her your coat.

(Paul takes off his coat and then begins to take off the rest. Stephanie is embarrassed.)

We’re laughing, and that’s likely how the people who heard Jesus say his responded. Can you imagine the havoc it would cause if everyone who was sued stripped down naked in court? Remember, in the Hebrew tradition, the person who saw nakedness was the one who was shamed, not the one who was naked. Remember Noah? When he got drunk and lay naked in his tent, he was not shamed. It was his son, Ham, when Ham saw Noah’s nakedness, who was banished from the country. It was Ham who was shamed.

Jesus was saying that when you try to be honest, when you try to pay our bills but the system of economics and justice work against you that the society has a problem. He is demonstrating that the shame for this kind of situation is on the creditors – the ruling party – and that their power should be challenged.

Going the Extra Mile
Jesus said, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go two miles with him.” Now, this wasn’t just a figure of speech, this was a humiliating thing the Hebrew people had to put up with because of the Roman soldiers in the area. It was within Roman law that a soldier could ask a slave (a Hebrew person) to carry their military pack, which was 60-80 lbs. But the law stated that the soldier could only ask the slave to carry the pack one mile. Romans wanted to be friendly ruler, that way they had less trouble with their slaves. Also, a malnourished, overworked, and beaten slave didn’t live as long and couldn’t do as much work. Roman roads had the equivalent to our mile markers. If a Roman soldier asked a slave to carry the pack more than one mile, he broke military code (and we all know that military code is stricter than civilian code.

Paul: Carry my pack.
Stephanie: No, no. I don’t want to.
Paul: I said to carry my pack.
Stephanie: Well, okay.
(Walk around)
Paul: Here’s the mile marker. Put my pack down.
Stephanie: It’s not so bad, I think I’ll carry it a bit more.
Paul: You can’t do that! I’m the soldier, you’re the peasant.
Stephanie: That’s okay.
Paul: Hey, come back here. I want my pack back. This isn’t the way it works.
Robin: Sir, What are you doing?
Paul: She won’t give me my pack back.
Robin: You mean a slave actually wanted to carry your pack farther than necessary? There is a fine for this kind of behavior. Drop and give me 20 in this nice dessert temperature.

You see, Jesus didn’t want people to be oppressed more than they were. He was teaching them to take power over personal and systemic oppression. He was prescribing active resistance. Gandhi once said, “Everyone in the world knows that Jesus taught non-violence except the Christians.”

Jesus asked us to think of power in a whole new way. We have a responsibility to embrace and teach creative alternatives to violence and oppression. We can no longer passively watch as our society becomes more and more violent. I know a woman who went to El Salvador and stood in solidarity with the peasants, staring down the guerrillas without a gun. She teaches school in Wichita now.

It’s time to give up the myth of redemptive violence. It’s time to stop the hijacking of the Christian story of Jesus. He began a new order based on partnership, equality, compassion, and non-violence.

Other great teachers agreed. The Greek philosopher Socrates is quoted saying “One who is injured ought not to return the injury, for on no account can it be right to do an injustice; and it is not right to return an injury, or to do evil to any man, however much we have suffered from him.”

Gandhi was convinced that the practical definition of love is when the security and well-being of the other person becomes as important as your own. Following its success in India, other leaders picked up Gandhi’s teachings, including Martin Luther King, Jr. The nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation, not victory – and that refraining from violence is not only a discipline of the fist, but of the tongue and heart, as well.

When we truly accept that violence is not redemptive, then we can begin the creative process of transforming our society so that, as Martin Luther quipped, “’an eye for an eye’ and ‘a tooth for a tooth’ won’t make the whole world blind and hungry.”

Bible References

  • Matthew 5:38 - 42