The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
February 20, 2011
Psalms 119:33-40 and Matthew 5:38-48
“Going the Extra Mile”
It has been six weeks since I last preached in this Chapel, and as I reflected on the scripture passages for this week I thought, “Wow, a lot has changed.” For instance, six weeks ago it never would have occurred to me that Egypt might ever be governed by anyone other than Hosni Mubarak and his inner circle. There, and in Tunisia, massive change has so recently been brought about by ordinary citizens committed to nonviolence – using the power of moral argument, of audacious presence in numbers, and of a principled refusal to respond to attacks with attacks. I think I am not alone in the world in having lost respect for the supporters of Mubarak when they plowed into peaceful demonstrations by unarmed people and beat them up. I’m no International Relations scholar, I’m just a humble pastor, but I think that’s when Mubarak’s side lost. Oh, they seem to have gained for a time, might can be quite persuasive, but only for a little while if the opposition has stuck to the high moral ground of rational argument and non-violent social change. Our prayers go out now to the people of Libya, Iran, Jordan, Yemen and Bahrain in their non-violent struggles for democracy.
I say that it has been the reflection on scripture that has prompted these thoughts on non-violent resistance, and it’s true – Jesus is talking about these very things. Should there be an armed revolt against Rome? It’s a very live political question in his day; he and his fellow Jews are thinking about it. The Roman occupation has been brutal (what occupation isn’t?). The meager incomes of the Jews are extorted from them. They can be killed basically with impunity – on the slimmest of evidence, whether or not it’s credible. They can be humiliated and mistreated in a thousand ways on any given day. They can be slapped in the face. They can be taken to court for the slightest perceived infractions. They can be made to carry a centurion’s heavy pack if that soldier doesn’t feel like doing it for himself. Jesus begins, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” Yes, his Jewish listeners had heard that said. It’s a quote from Leviticus. By Jesus’ day the text was long outdated. No one gave up an eye for an eye – restitution for any crime was made with money, just like today. The doctor convicted of malpractice pays a fine; he doesn’t suffer a similar botched procedure. We get it, and so did they. But the original Law of Restitution was a humanitarian one – Jesus and his contemporaries knew that, too. “An eye for an eye” means that revenge is limited. The lost eye was a metaphor – if somebody takes something from you, you don’t take double back – to use that metaphor – you don’t put out both eyes. Then as now, many look at costs of restitution as opportunities to improve our families’ financial future. “No,” says Jesus, repeating Leviticus: only what you are due. Jesus reminds them, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” And then he goes on to say something very new: “But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.” Hmm. It’s one thing to ask for just compensation for what’s been taken. Is Jesus saying we should not resist the one who wrongs us in the first place? Do we just make ourselves completely vulnerable to those who harm us? Should we not resist at all ? No – no, that’s not what he’s saying. For starters, the Greek word that has been translated “resist” literally means “clash violently.” Jesus is saying: “You have heard that it was said ‘Do back at other people only what they’ve done to you’. But I say to you, do not clash violently with an evildoer.” That is, if violence has been done to you, do not do that in return. This leaves open many other forms of resistance!
My comments to come are informed by a biblical scholar named Walter Wink. The majority of scholars understand Jesus to be saying, in one form or another, to be kind even to those who persecute you, or they understand Jesus to be saying, “Nonviolence is the better way.” Jesus is saying that nonviolence is the better way, but he’s not calling for kindness to those who are cruel. He is calling for audacious civil disobedience!
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” 2,000 years ago in the Holy Land, it may well have been that the left hand was used for tasks considered unclean and the right hand for tasks considered clean. This is still the case in some societies today. If so, touching another person, especially on the face, even in a slap, would only have been done with the right hand. Additionally, then as now, a significant majority of the population was right-handed. Jesus’ listeners would have understood it – the slap to the right cheek that he describes is a backhand slap. It couldn’t be a slap made with the palm of the hand. The right-handed slapper would have to twist him or herself around and would not get a good swing. A backhand slap was a smack to a subordinate, to someone of lesser status. As if a slap to the face wasn’t demeaning enough, a backhanded slap added even greater insult. Jesus’ teaching is – when someone smacks your right cheek invite them also, while they’re in a smacking mood, to take a whack at your left cheek. To do that of course, would require the slapper to hit you with the palm of the hand, which is to say, to hit you as a person of equal status. Jesus’ listeners would have heard this instruction and laughed – what a great way to shame the person who hits you! The joke is on them – imagine the look on their face when you invite them to smack your other cheek! They’ll have to think about it! They won’t know what to do! Jesus’ first audience knew he wasn’t telling them to just be nice, but to shame the evildoer and insist on being treated as an honorable human being. “Go ahead – smack me again – I’ve got another cheek. Oh! What would it mean to slap me there?!”
Jesus gives them another example: “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” The coat was one’s outer wear, and one could be sued for that. Winters are cold in the Holy Land – this was a court judgment that could bring real hardship. But Jesus’ first listeners would have laughed again at the thought of a person who, sued for his coat (a low-down and mean thing to do to anyone) offers over his cloak as well. The cloak was the undergarment. The defendant would now be naked, or very close to it. In Jesus’ day, public nudity and under-dressing was particularly shameful. No one, no matter how destitute, could be permitted to be seen that way. Help must be given. Jesus’ contemporaries would have chuckled at the thought of a man in a courtroom giving the plaintiff his coat, then insisting that he take his cloak as well. The plaintiff would have been flustered, refusing, as the now naked defendant said, “But I insist!” He’d have walked out of the courtroom and the people in the street would say, “Look at you! What happened, man! Here, put on my coat!” And the person would say, “So-and-so just sued me for my coat so I insisted he take my cloak as well.” And the shame would be on that suer, perhaps a rich man who had sued a poor man for some non-payment of debt. It would be a very poor person indeed who would have no other asset to be sued for but his coat – no house, no animals or land, no stick of furniture. And still someone would demand his threadbare coat ? The scenario depicted by Christ is about the shaming of the unjust and greedy and inhumane. The poor man shines a spotlight on the inhumanity of it all, forcing the plaintiff - shaming the plaintiff – into acknowledging his own basic human dignity.
Jesus has a third scenario: “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile”. In this, he can only be talking about those Roman centurions. Their commanders permitted them to force the Jewish inhabitants to carry their heavy packs. A Jew might be on his way to something important, maybe in the company of his children – in any situation, a Jew could be made to put down his own belongings at the side of the road and carry the soldier’s in whatever direction the soldier was going. Would his possessions still be there when he got back? Would he then be out alone after dark? This wasn’t a mere nuisance and insult but a true hardship. The Roman soldiers, however, as a “humanitarian” gesture, were not allowed to require an individual Jew to carry their pack more than one mile. They could be strongly punished by their superiors if it were discovered that they had. Jesus’ first listeners would have laughed again – they’d be visualizing a lowly Jew and a mighty centurion fighting over a backpack at a Roman mile-marker. The Jew would be saying, “No, no! Let me carry your pack just one more little mile!” And the soldier would be looking nervously from left to right to see who might be near, and saying, “Just give me back my gear!”
As you can probably tell, I really love these teachings of Jesus. They are not his instruction to let mean people walk all over us. He does not teach us that to be Christian is to accept victimization and even make ourselves available for more. He does teach us to seek equal restitution, yet, never to answer violence with violence. He teaches us how to resist discrimination and oppression by turning hateful actions upon their own heads. By inviting more of that injustice – slapping, suing, carrying – we shine a spotlight on how demeaning it is. We hold a big public mirror up to the evildoers, and they have to confront their undeniable cruelty.
“Going the extra mile” does not mean “to be a good sport.” It means an audacious insistence on human dignity and equality. It means using the humble tools at one’s disposal to expose dominations of any kind. It shows us, even if we seem entirely powerless, how the moral power of our principled non-violence trumps all physical power (as we saw in Tahrir Square). “Going the extra mile” means proclaiming the dignity and infinite value of demeaned people anywhere. Perhaps, going the extra mile right now means supporting citizens of Arab countries in their non-violent protests for democracy, for freedom from autocratic rulers. Friends, wherever we find ourselves in the days and years to come, let us always be committed, on our own behalf or anyone else’s, to going that extra mile.
Douglas R.A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation Series, John Knox Press, 1993.
Walter Wink, Violence and Non-Violence: Jesus’ Third Way.