Thursday, April 19, 2012

Is Jesus Against Defensive Violence?

The easy passage to cite when addressing the question of using violence for defensive purposes is Matthew 5, wherein Jesus says:
HCSB Matt 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two.
And here's another popular passage:
HCSB Matt 26:50 ... Then they came up, took hold of Jesus, and arrested Him. 51 At that moment one of those with Jesus reached out his hand and drew his sword. He struck the high priest’s slave and cut off his ear. 52 Then Jesus told him, “Put your sword back in its place because all who take up a sword will perish by a sword.
HCSB John 18:36 “My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus. “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. As it is, My kingdom does not have its origin here.”
And yet another:
HCSB Eph 6:12 For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.
So at first glance, it seems pretty obvious that Jesus was all about submitting to those who might bring violence against us.

But there's another way to look at Jesus.

I think we've mistaken Paul's words in Ephesians 6 that our fight is not against flesh and blood to mean that we should never fight against flesh and blood enemies. But Paul is saying nothing more than what Jesus told Pilate: his issues, his kingdom, our core purposes, are not of this world. And they aren't. But that doesn't mean we should sit by doing nothing while innocent people are abused by others. After all, Jesus said that if his kingdom was of this world, then his disciples would take up arms and fight (John 18:36). Jesus is not against violence for earthly reasons; it's just that his concern at his trial was not about earthly concerns. And Paul is likewise saying that our core concern is not about those things on earth, but in heaven. But there is no prohibition here of taking care of earthly concerns; that's just not to be our core focus.

In fact, Paul focused quite a bit on taking care of earthly concerns, trying to make sure the poor had some financial relief, and even going so far as to make sure his crew had an accountability partner (and perhaps body-guard?) when carrying large sums of money (2 Cor 8:16-21).

Earlier, before Jesus was arrested, he did have concern for earthly matters, including self-defense, as it applied to his disciples as he was about to be arrested. Just after his last supper (Luke 22:35ff), he asked the disciples if they had lacked anything when he had earlier told them to not take normal traveling equipment (change of clothes, money, shoes) the first time he sent them out. After they replied that they lacked nothing, he then instructs them, "Now I'm sending you again, but this time you need to go prepared, with money, a suitcase, and a weapon, even if you have to have a garage-sale in order to buy that weapon" (v. 36).

Earlier he had told parables of strong men protecting their possessions with violence as examples of expected behavior (Matt 12:29; Mark 3:27; Luke 11:21).

And even before that, he had said through the prophet Jeremiah:
HCSB Jer 22:3 This is what the LORD says: Administer justice and righteousness. Rescue the victim of robbery from the hand of his oppressor. Don’t exploit or brutalize the foreigner, the fatherless, or the widow. Don’t shed innocent blood in this place.
(Notice the command to rescue victims from robbers; also notice that the last command is to not shed "innocent" blood.)

Further, Jesus did not "turn the other cheek" when he found God's Temple turned into a mini-mall: he took the time to collect and assemble the materials to make a whip, trudge back into the Temple, and drive the marketers out, with violence (John 2:14-16).

Nor did he humbly submit to the evils of The System when it devours widows' houses or when it makes a proselyte twice as fit for hell as the hypocrites who converted him, but rather forcefully upbraided these evils (Matt 23:14-15).

So whatever Jesus meant by the phrase, "turn the other cheek", it seems he didn't mean we should be passive in the face of evil.

So what did he mean?

I find the following to be of interest:
Jesus clarifies his meaning by three brief examples. "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." Why the right cheek? How does one strike another on the right cheek anyway? Try it. A blow by the right fist in that right-handed world would land on the left cheek of the opponent. To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. As the Dead Sea Scrolls specify, even to gesture with the left hand at Qumran carried the penalty of ten days' penance. The only way one could strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand.

What we are dealing with here is unmistakably an insult, not a fistfight. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. One normally did not strike a peer in this way, and, if one did, the fine was exorbitant (four zuz was the fine for a blow to a peer with a fist, 400 zuz for backhanding him; but to an underling, no penalty whatever). A backhand slap was the normal way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans; Jews.

We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission. It is important to ask who Jesus' audience is. In every case, his listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor. Rather, Jesus is speaking to their victims, people who have been subjected to these very indignities. They have been forced to stifle their inner outrage at the dehumanizing treatment meted out to them by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and by the guardians of imperial occupation.

Why then does Jesus counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of power to humiliate them. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, "Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status (gender, race, age, wealth) does not alter that. You cannot demean me." Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, how can he now hit the other cheek? He cannot backhand it with his right hand. 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.

The second example Jesus gives is set in a court of law. Someone is being sued for his outer garment. Who would do that and under what circumstances? Only the poorest of the poor would have nothing but an outer garment to give as collateral for a loan. Jewish law strictly required its return every evening at sunset, for that was all the poor had in which to sleep. The situation to which Jesus alludes is one with which his hearers would have been too familiar: the poor debtor has sunk ever deeper into poverty, the debt cannot be repaid, and his creditor has hauled him into court to wring out repayment.

Indebtedness was the most serious social problem in first-century Palestine. Jesus' parables are full of debtors struggling to salvage their lives. It is in this context that Jesus speaks. His hearers are the poor ("if anyone would sue you."). They share a rankling hatred for a system that subjects them to humiliation by stripping them of their lands, their goods, finally even their outer garments.

Why then does Jesus counsel them to give over their inner garment as well? This would mean stripping off all their clothing and marching out of court stark naked! Put yourself in the debtor's place; imagine the chuckles this saying must have evoked. There stands the creditor, beet-red with embarrassment, your outer garment in one hand, your underwear in the other. You have suddenly turned the tables on him. You had no hope of winning the trial; the law was entirely in his favor. But you have refused to be humiliated. At the same time you have registered a stunning protest against a system that spawns such debt. You have said, in effect, "You want my robe? Here, take everything! Now you've got all I have except my body. Is that what you'll take next?"

Nakedness was taboo in Judaism. Shame fell not on the naked party but the person viewing or causing one's nakedness (Genesis 9:20-27). By stripping you have brought the creditor under the same prohibition that led to the curse of Canaan. As you parade into the street, your friends and neighbors, startled, aghast, inquire what happened. You explain. They join your growing procession, which now resembles a victory parade. The entire system by which debtors are oppressed has been publicly unmasked. The creditor is revealed to be not a "respectable" moneylender but a party in the reduction of an entire social class to landlessness and destitution. This unmasking is not simply punitive, however; it offers the creditor a chance to see, perhaps for the first time in his life, what his practices cause--and to repent.

Jesus in effect is sponsoring clowning. In so doing he shows himself to be thoroughly Jewish. A later saying of the Talmud runs, "If your neighbor calls you an ass, put a saddle on your back."

The Powers That Be literally stand on their dignity. Nothing takes away their potency faster than deft lampooning. By refusing to be awed by their power, the powerless are emboldened to seize the initiative, even where structural change is not possible. This message, far from being a counsel of perfection unattainable in this life, is a practical, strategic measure for empowering the oppressed. It provides a hint of how to take on the entire system in a way that unmasks its essential cruelty and to burlesque its pretensions to justice, law, and order.

Walking the second mile

Jesus' third example, the one about going the second mile, is drawn from the enlightened practice of limiting the amount of forced labor that Roman soldiers could levy on subject peoples. A soldier could impress a civilian to carry his pack one mile only; to force the civilian to go further carried with it severe penalties under military law. In this way Rome tried to limit the anger of the occupied people and still keep its armies on the move. Nevertheless, this levy was a bitter reminder to the Jews that they were a subject people even in the Promised Land.

To this proud but subjugated people Jesus does not counsel revolt. One does not "befriend" the soldier, draw him aside, and drive a knife into his ribs. Jesus was keenly aware of the futility of armed revolt against Roman imperial might. He minced no words about it, though it must have cost him support from the revolutionary factions.

But why walk the second mile? Is this not to rebound to the opposite extreme: aiding and abetting the enemy? Not at all. The question here, as in the two previous instances, is how the oppressed can recover the initiative, how they can assert their human dignity in a situation that cannot for the time being be changed. The rules are Caesar's but not how one responds to the rules. The response is God's, and Caesar has no power over that.

Imagine then the soldier's surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack (sixty-five to eighty-five pounds in full gear). You say, "Oh no, let me carry it another mile." Normally he has to coerce your kinsmen to carry his pack; now you do it cheerfully and will not stop! Is this a provocation? Are you insulting his strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to make you go farther then you should? Are you planning to file a complaint? To create trouble?

From a situation of servile impressment, you have once more seized the initiative. You have taken back the power of choice. The soldier is thrown off-balance by being deprived of the predictability of your response. Imagine the hilarious situation of a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew, "Aw, come on, please give me back my pack!" The humor of this scene may escape those who picture it through sanctimonious eyes. It could scarcely, however, have been lost on Jesus' hearers, who must have delighted in the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors.

Some readers may object to the idea of discomfiting the soldier or embarrassing the creditor. But can people engaged in oppressive acts repent unless made uncomfortable with their actions? There is, admittedly, the danger of using nonviolence as a tactic of revenge and humiliation. There is also, at the opposite extreme, an equal danger of sentimentality and softness that confuses the uncompromising love of Jesus with being nice. Loving confrontation can free both the oppressed from docility and the oppressor from sin.

So Jesus is not teaching us to be passive in the face of violence; he's teaching us not to get sucked into an unwinnable escalation of conflict, an eye-for-an-eye seeking of vengeance, to use our brains to accomplish what our brawn won't or can't.

If we understand Jesus' teachings to be not that of passive non-resistance, but of wily disarmament, and if we understand his and Paul's emphasis on the next world to not exclude paying some needed attention to this world, there is no longer any conflict with Jesus' instruction to carry a self-defense weapon when traveling, or his Old Testament instruction to stand up with whatever it takes to rescue victims from robbers.

Jesus does not say "Be a door-mat"; he says, "Do what brings peace, disarm the aggressor, which requires wisdom and cunning and courage and self-sacrifice, and sometimes even physical strength".

1 comment:

Kent West said...

When Jesus was arrested, Peter used his sword defensively. Jesus stopped him, saying, "“Sheathe your sword! Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given Me?” (John 18:11)

Notice that according to this account, Jesus did not stop Peter because Peter was doing wrong, but because it would prevent Jesus from fulfilling his role.

Also notice that Jesus did not say, "Get rid of, or surrender, your sword". He said, "Put it back on your hip."