Resilience – and Jesus’ Third Way

Resilience – and Jesus’ Third Way
David R. Weiss – March 31, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #18 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

I closed my last essay with a reference to Walter Wink’s discussion of the largely unrecognized radical character of Jesus’ famous words about turning a cheek, giving a cloak, or walking an extra mile. I characterized them as exhortations to not simply trust in the long arc of the moral universe, but to bend it with nonviolent human action.[1] And I promised more about Wink’s discussion—and how we jump—in this next post. We still won’t quite make it to jumping today, but we’ll take a good look at Wink and see how he can help with resilience.

So let’s turn to the text in question (Mt 5:39-42 || Lk 6:29-30; Wink considers Matthew’s version closer to Jesus’ original words than Luke’s). For two millennia most Christians have likely presumed these verses either advocate a Christian pacifism that is impossibly perfect (beyond the reach of all but true saints)—or they advise an unpromising passivism that sees virtue in simply accepting whatever ill-treatment other persons or social systems throw our way. Wink says it’s neither of these, and he’s adamant that the wisdom in these verses offers us a measure of revolutionary savvy that is as crucial today as it was for Jesus’ first listeners.

Each of the three situations Jesus mentions was an occasion, easily imaginable for his hearers, for humiliation by someone with greater power. When he refers to being struck on the right cheek (Mt 5:39b) he’s discussing a back-handed slap by a right hand wielded by someone in power (master, husband, Roman) to put a person of lesser status in their place (slave, wife, Jew). Such a strike was not meant to cause outward injury but public and inward humiliation: to re-inscribe the lines of domination in the relationship. It could only be administered with the right hand (and only to the right cheek) because only that hand could uphold one’s honor. The left hand was reserved—by indelible cultural-religious tradition among both Jews and Romans—for “unclean” tasks like cleaning oneself after using the toilet. It was socially impossible to conceive of using one’s left hand to assert dominance.

Thus, when Jesus instructs his hearers to “turn the other cheek” he isn’t counseling them to submit to humiliation. He’s inviting them to turn the tables. Because to offer the other cheek (the left cheek) is to say, “My dignity is not yours to take.” And while the left hand is utterly unavailable for use by the person in power, to use the right hand to now strike the left cheek is a movement that confers equality—and the recipient’s right to self-defense, perhaps even retaliation. This remark by Jesus is ripe with wisdom for exercising dignity and self-worth in the face of a dehumanizing system. And we mostly never knew.

Jesus continues, “If someone seizes your coat, give them your cloak as well” (Mt 5:40). As Wink discusses, the Hebrew Bible provides several references to the rights of creditors over those in debt to them. If a debtor is too poor to offer anything of real value to secure a debt, the creditor may claim the debtor’s outer garment as “collateral,” though he must return it each night so the debtor can use it as a blanket against the cold. With no material value, it’s an exercise in daily humiliation by one Jew against another, a public reminder of just who the “haves” and “have nots” are in the community.

However, in a culture where to see the nakedness of another was a powerful taboo—a transgression that shamed the one viewing far more than the one naked—Jesus tells poor debtors to turn the tables. If a creditor shows up in the morning to insist on claiming their collateral for the day—your outer garment (a claim that serves only to humiliate you), then strip yourself naked and offer all your clothes. The insufferable pettiness of such creditors will be revealed in their shame. Again, the words are about preserving dignity in a situation where it’s literally up for grabs. And we mostly never knew.

Finally, immediately after this (Mt 5:41) Jesus tells his listeners to “go a second mile” with anyone who asks them to walk a first one. But, critically, such a request was never made by just anyone. It was exactly the “request” that any Roman soldier could make of any civilian to “walk with them for one mile”—and carry their sixty-plus pound backpack as well. Jews were a frequent target of such requests, which were a weighty reminder of who represented the occupying force and whose land-culture-religion was occupied. Yet history also provides ample examples showing that Roman soldiers faced real disciplinary consequences for abusing the “one mile” limit to such requests.

Hence, under Jesus’ advice, the moment a Jewish person walks (with backpack) into that “second mile,” they’re absolutely NOT extending an extra kindness—they are, in fact, turning the tables. Now the soldier no longer holds power; in fact, he’s in very real danger of being disciplined himself. For a third time Jesus is advocating the exact opposite of quietly putting up with injustice. He’s offering suggestions for a nonviolent transformation of the world. And we mostly never knew.

In fact, this threefold set of teachings is introduced by the phrase, “Do not resist the one who does you evil” (Mt 5:39a), which Wink argues is an unhelpful translation. The Greek word behind “resist” literally means “stand against,” and it’s used most often to describe battlefield encounters: where soldiers “stand (violently) against” one another. So Jesus is really saying, “Do not stand-against-with-violence the one who does you evil.” Then he proceeds to offer examples of just how one might stand-against-WITHOUT-violence the one who does them evil. Wink describes this as Jesus’ Third Way. In a world—from Jesus’ day to ours—where options in conflict scenarios between unequal powers are often reduced to “fight or flight,” Jesus offers a Third Way. A way that preserves—and amplifies—one’s dignity and thereby aims to transform the dynamics of a no-win scenario into a moment with breathing space … and fresh potential.

And that’s precisely what Transition communities aim to do. The “governing” (political, corporate, and cultural) forces around us—from fossil fuel industries to corporate lobbyists, bought-up politicians, and deep-seated and long-cultivated personal habits—all exercise inordinate power over our day-to-day choices and jeopardize our long-term future. We cannot wait for their permission to act differently. We must, in effect, borrow our authority from the future.[2] Once we can see which direction the arc of the moral universe must bend (think slavery, women’s rights, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, human rights, etc.), our task is to bend the arc. Borrowing authority from the future and jumping on that arc with all our might.

Jesus’ words encourage us today to resist those powers that threaten life and dignity actively, nonviolently, and creatively. This will sometimes involve saying “No!” with words, votes, and bodies to policies and projects that threaten Earth’s wellbeing. As we engage in acts of resistance, we place ourselves in the company of the Hebrew prophets, countless Jewish martyrs, Jesus himself, and early Christians, all of whom knew that sometimes the affirmation of life begins with an emphatic, “No!” But just as importantly, other types of resistance say “Yes!” with words, votes, bodies—and especially as local communities—to patterns of life that find a Third Way forward, beyond what “permission” allows. Those types of resistance are the soul of resilience. We’ll consider what they might look like next time.

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey.  In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!

[1] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (NY: Doubleday, 1998), pp. 98-111. This text offers a very accessible discussion of Wink’s more scholarly treatment in Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), pp. 175-193—itself a chapter based on Wink’s exegetical analysis in “Neither Passivity nor Violence: Jesus’ Third Way,” Forum 7 (1991), pp. 5-28.

[2] I first heard this phrase from Amalia Vagts as she explained how Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries ordained LGBT persons for ministry without “permission” from the ELCA (pre-2009 policy change). Having prayerfully discerned the moral imperatives of the moment, she stated calmly, “We borrow our authority from the future.” Amen.

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One thought on “Resilience – and Jesus’ Third Way

  1. Good stuff david, MLK jr is very clear that nonviolent resistance is not being
    Passive in the face of evil or enemies, his Strength to Love is still one of
    Most radical statements.

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