Was Jesus a Pacifist?

September 28, 2003



Was Jesus a Pacifist? (9/28/03)

Words of Life: Matthew 5:38-41

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

I imagine that most people read the title of today’s sermon—Was Jesus a Pacifist?—and think the answer is “yes.” Well, not so fast. This morning we are going to look at the primary teaching of Jesus upon which this assumption is based—Matthew 5:38-41, which we heard read from the lectern this morning—and perhaps come to the conclusion that this basic teaching of Jesus has been misinterpreted through history.

Some may think that what I say this morning is very controversial, but in fact this has been taught in seminaries for many years. And I should credit Walter Wink, the brilliant Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, for much of the content of this sermon. It is Walter Wink’s book, Jesus and Nonviolence—A Third Way, that provides the bulk of the material I will present this morning.

We tend to think there are two ways to react when we are confronted with evil: Fight or flight. One choice is to fight it with everything we’ve got. The other choice is to either run, or lie down and let it run over us. Many claim that according to the teachings of Jesus, the Christian response to evil is to lie down. In fact, they insist, Jesus tells us quite plainly not to resist evil.

And that thinking is supported by today’s Bible passage from the Sermon on the Mount. The King James Version of the Bible translates Jesus’ words in this way: Resist not evil. Two of the more popular modern versions of the Bible—the New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version—translate it this way: do not resist an evil person, and do not resist an evildoer.

That sounds pretty straightforward. In those translations, Jesus tells us, plain and simple, do not confront evil. However, many scholars have arrived at the conclusion that these words of Jesus have been tragically misinterpreted over the centuries. Remember, Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and his words were written by the gospel writers in Greek. That Greek was then translated to Latin and much later to English. New Testament scholars now insist that the Greek which has been historically translated as resist not evil is a mistranslation.

A recent version of the New Testament, known as the Scholars Version, translates the passage that has historically been rendered as resist not evil in this way: do not react violently against the one who is evil. Others translate the passage as do not retaliate against violence with violence.

Now, that puts a whole new spin on things. And this is what Walter Wink calls the “third way.” Jesus taught us that there is a third way—an alternative—to the fight or flight mentality that has guided our thinking when it comes to the problem of evil. Yes, we can return evil for evil. And yes, we can either run or lie down and let evil triumph. But the third way—Jesus’ way—is to practice militant nonviolence. And there is a big difference between this form of “nonviolence” and pacifism—or at least between nonviolence and what people usually think of as “pacifism.”

Many of the people who followed Jesus wanted him to lead an armed revolt against the Roman army. The Romans were occupiers of the Jewish land. The Romans allowed the Jews to practice their own religion and to follow the traditional Jewish customs; but the Romans were still an occupying force. They were outsiders who inflicted their political system on Israel, and who enforced their laws with the use of armed force.

The Jews mounted several uprisings against Rome, each ending in dismal failure. What we must recognize if we are to understand Jesus’ teaching is that Jesus was every bit as opposed to the evil of the Romans as were the most fanatic anti-Roman resistance fighters. It is a mistranslation—a misinterpretation of the very core of Jesus’ teachings—to say that Jesus does not want us to resist evil. Jesus says it is our moral responsibility to resist evil. What sets Jesus apart is the way he tells us to fight evil.
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Again, there are three possible responses to evil: violent opposition, passivity, and the third way—militant nonviolence. That sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it—militant nonviolence. But that is the very phrase Walter Wink uses to describe the philosophy of Jesus in confronting evil. In fact, Walter Wink makes this bold statement: Jesus abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil.

Jesus abhors passivity? But how can that be? In today’s Bible passage Jesus commands us first to turn the other cheek when struck; then to give away to those who sue us even more than they sue for; then to go a second mile if someone forces us to go a single mile. That sounds pretty passive at first glance. But first impressions can be misleading. In fact, in the modern world, all three of those commands have completely lost their original meaning. Each of those sayings said something to first century Jews that was so culturally conditioned, we can’t hear the original message today.

Let’s examine each one, beginning with the one that is most difficult to accept: If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn also the other. The key to understanding the original meaning of these words lies in understanding what it meant—in first century Israel—to be struck on the right cheek. Most people in the ancient world were right handed. That hasn’t changed over the centuries. So if one person were to strike another, he would make a fist with his right hand and hit them in the face. This means he would strike them on the left cheek.

While nobody wants to get clobbered, being struck in that manner—on the left cheek, by a person’s right hand—was not an insult. While it certainly meant that somebody was mad at you, or offended by you, it was not an insult to your character. It was the way one man hit another man.

Sadly, then, like now, men occasionally struck women. In those patriarchal times, women were considered at least a step or two beneath men on the hierarchy of being. Remember the Tenth Commandment: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, or wife, or slaves, or ox, or donkey. Women were the possessions of men, and they were ranked just below houses and, thankfully, two full notches above donkeys. So there was no problem with slapping around your wife. But there was an acceptable way to do it. You backhanded her. It was entirely inappropriate to make a fist and belt your wife. The proper method for disciplining her was to backhand her a good one—striking her, obviously, on the right cheek.

The ultimate insult you could pay another man—the way you could humiliate and degrade another man in public—was to backhand him as if he were a woman. It was a way of saying, “You are so far beneath me, you are not even worthy of being struck like a man.”

If that is not bad enough, let me explain the other possibility of what it would have meant to be struck on the right cheek. Remember Jesus’ great line about what defiles a person? When people are arguing over what foods are proper to eat, Jesus says, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” His meaning, of course, is that our words define us—not our dietary habits.

But as often is the case, his disciples don’t quite get it, and he has to explain it to them. So Jesus says, “Whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer.” That is pretty graphic stuff, and we don’t hear that part of the teaching preached too often. But it is a great example of how Jesus uses humor to make his points. What Jesus doesn’t mention is how one cleanses oneself after this natural biological function. But to be as discreet as possible, let me assure you that said cleansing took place with the left hand. Thus, in that culture so obsessed with purity and cleanliness, the left hand was considered unclean. So even more insulting than a good backhand to the right cheek would be to strike a person with the left hand. Again, the insult of being struck on the right cheek is painfully clear.

So what does it mean for Jesus to tell people that if they are struck on the right cheek to turn the other also? Remember, who was Jesus’ audience? Who did he tell these stories to? The people who were getting backhanded! Consider this: if a Roman man struck another Roman man with his fist, the fine was the equivalent of about $40. If he backhanded him, the fine was $4,000![1]—100 times as much! To backhand another person was literally the ultimate insult. But the fine for backhanding a person who was beneath you on the social ladder—the fine for that was nothing. Masters could backhand slaves, husbands could backhand wives, parents could backhand children, and Romans could backhand Jews.

And this is the part of Jesus’ teaching that is lost on modern audiences. Jesus is not calling for passivity in the face of this abuse of power. Jesus is calling for people to stand up against their oppressors and demand respect. The act of turning the other cheek denies the aggressor the power to humiliate. The person who is struck says, in effect, “I deny you the power the humiliate me. I will not cower in the face of your evil. I will not flee from your hatred. I am a human being just like you, and I refuse to allow you to demean me.”

Now, this is where the genius of Jesus’ wisdom becomes clear. I will quote Walter Wink on the subject: [This turning the other cheek] would create enormous difficulty for the striker. Purely logistically, what can he do? He cannot use the backhand because his nose is in the way. He can’t use his left hand regardless. If he hits with a fist, he makes himself an equal, acknowledging the other as a peer. But the whole point of the back of the hand is to reinforce the caste system and its institutionalized inequality. Even if he orders the person flogged, the point has been irrevocably made. The oppressor has been forced, against his will, to regard this subordinate as an equal human being. The powerful person has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. This response, far from admonishing passivity and cowardice, is an act of defiance.

Let’s turn to the second example that modern readers have construed as a call to lie down in the face of evil. Jesus says, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” Here is another great example of how one must set this saying in the context in which Jesus said it. First, we must understand that a coat was an outer garment and a cloak was an undergarment. Second, we must understand that by the time of Jesus, the Romans had taken ownership of most of the land in Israel. They taxed people into indebtedness, and took their land to repay the debts. Being in debt was the greatest social problem in first century Israel. That is why so many of Jesus’ sayings involve debts and debtors, wealthy landowners and poor slaves, and judges who rule kindly or unkindly toward the poor and indebted.

Now, consider a person who is sued for his coat. That means he has lost any land he ever had; he has lost any possessions he has ever owned; he has, quite literally, nothing but the clothes on his back. And that would consist of two garments: and outer garment—his coat; and an inner garment—his cloak.

Why would Jesus tell somebody that if they are sued for their outer garment, to also give their inner garment, leaving them stark naked? Because it turns the tables on the creditor. He is left holding your outer garment in one hand and your underwear in the other, and you walk from the courthouse naked, revealing the injustice of the system to the stunned people in the street.

The creditor has no choice but to feel like a fool. I again quote Walter Wink: The Powers That Be literally stand on their dignity. Nothing depotentiates them faster than deft lampooning. By refusing to be awed by their power, the powerless are emboldened to seize the initiative… Here is a poor man who will no longer be treated as a sponge to be squeezed dry by the rich. He accepts the laws as they stand, pushes them to the point of absurdity, and reveals them for what they really are.”

Let’s turn to the third example Jesus provides in confronting an evil and oppressive force. Jesus says, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” The Roman soldiers who were stationed in Israel held great power over the civilian population, and those soldiers were widely hated. As soldiers marched through, they were permitted to demand that civilians carry their packs for them. A loaded pack weighed between 65 and 85 pounds, so this was no easy task. Roman law, trying to keep the anger of the civilians from getting out of control, allowed a soldier to demand a person carry his pack only a single mile. To demand a civilian carry his pack more than one mile carried with it severe penalties under military law.

What would the soldier think when after going the first mile, you insist on carrying his pack another mile? You do this cheerfully. You don’t even offer to stop carrying the pack—you just keep going, and say, “Please, let me carry it another mile.”

He has never seen this response before. What are you doing? Are you simply being kind? Are you provoking him? Are you insinuating that he himself is not strong enough to carry his own pack? Are you trying to get him in trouble with the military authorities? Are you going to go the extra mile and then file a complaint? Remember, the penalties for forcing someone to go more than a mile are quite severe.

What have you done by going the extra mile? You have taken control of the situation away from the soldier. You have seized the initiative and taken away his power.

So…let’s return to the title of today’s sermon. Was Jesus a Pacifist? Well, yes. And no. It depends on how you define pacifism. I think we can all agree that by setting Jesus’ examples of pacifism in their proper context, Jesus is certainly nonviolent. But he is in no way passive. And this brings us to a very important point. In all three of the examples we studied today, there is every chance that the person who employs this third way—this militant nonviolence—may wind up getting hurt. In fact, he may get killed.

In the case of turning the other cheek, the striker may be so upset at the situation, he beats you to a pulp. In the case of the person who sues you for your coat and you give him your cloak as well, his embarrassment at being revealed as a ruthless and uncaring person of power may result in his hiring somebody to tie a stone to your foot and throw you in some deep river. And in the case of the soldier whom you have confused by your apparent kindness, well, soldiers are armed. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to conjure up some unhappy endings to that little story.

Jesus’ teachings are important, but they are not easy. And when you and I see injustice, we cannot parade under the banner of Christianity and turn a blind eye to that injustice, any more than we can become violent in confronting it. We cannot see the hungry and turn away. We cannot see the oppressed and hide our eyes. We cannot see a world where far more people die from a lack of care than from a lack of resources, and refuse to confront that evil because we are “peaceful” people.

This world can be a crazy place, but it is also a beautiful place. And we are called to make it more beautiful, and more just. Jesus’ third way demands that when confronted with evil, we seize the moral initiative, expose the injustice, and be willing to suffer rather than retaliate. And that’s not easy. It is easier, and safer, to violently fight back than to practice militant nonviolence. It is easier, and safer, to run than to make a stand in the face of evil. None of us can do it alone. None of us can do it alone. But I believe from the depths of my heart that is exactly what God wants us to do…together.

[1] Mishna, Baba Qamma 8:1-6, per Wink’s Jesus and Nonviolence, p.15.