Christian Non-Violence and the Sermon of the Mount

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During the Sermon of the Mount Jesus is reported to have said 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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

This passage has been interpreted in many different ways. According to Christian anarchists, Jesus calls for total nonresistance to the point of facilitating aggression against oneself. And since human governments defend themselves by military force, some have advocated Christian anarchism. One of them was Leo Tolstoy. One wonders if Jesus would have also postulated to surrender without defense if anyone wanted to kill you or those for whose safety you may be responsible.

The Jewish scholars Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler maintain that the issue is about justice after an injury has been committed. They argue that since the Greek word used in Matthew 5:39 for “resist” is “ἀντιστῆναι” (antistinai), which usually refers to armed resistance or resistance in a violent struggle, Jesus is offering to confront aggressive violence by maintaining your honor, and shaming the perpetrator, instead of escalating violence, or losing dignity.

Personally, I like this interpretation better than one that makes me a designated victim and deprives me of any means and justification of self-defense. I do not understand the logic of total non-violence. If somebody attacks me without provocation out of sheer evilness with violent aggression, to surrender and suffer this violence without any attempt to stop it or fight back seems equivalent to self-destruction. What if an evil aggressor attacks children or other defenseless people? Am I not supposed to try to help them? And will not an attitude of complete non-violence even against most cruel and perverted brutality be an outright invitation to evil and aggressive people to push others around and kill or enslave them?

In today’s world approximately 10% of all people are left-handed. This percentage was probably not much different when Jesus lived. But the legionnaires of the Roman occupation army in Judea probably contained a much lower percentage of lefties. The reason being that the Roman fighting tactic was predicated on the uniform use of the gladius with the right hand and of the shield with the left hand. Lefthanders would have been a problem for this tactical approach. It can therefore be safely assumed that the Roman legions contained very few lefthanders – if any. It can further be assumed that Jesus knew that.

Jesus said, “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also”. The “other” then must be the left cheek. Right? If you are a right-handed person, try to slap somebody in the face with the palm of your right hand. (OK, just pretend. Do not really slap the other person, lest you get one in the kisser yourself). On which cheek would your hand land? Correct. It will land on the person’s left cheek, not the right one.

For a right-handed person, like e.g., an arrogant Roman occupation soldier, to slap a Jew on the right cheek he must use the back of the right hand, not the palm. For the Romans that was a rather familiar gesture of contempt. It was not really meant to hurt physically rather than to hurt emotionally. A gesture of humiliation. It was the behavioral equivalent of saying, “Out of my way, you scum!” And that reflected pretty much the way the Romans perceived the Jews.

By offering the left cheek, the victim deflects the humiliating intent and effect of the slap. Turning the other cheek then was not so much an act of submission than of defiance. It was the behavioral equivalent to saying, “Want to have some more fun, you sadistic pervert?” thus challenging the perpetrator and exposing him as the twisted character he is.

This understanding of turning the other cheek is a bit less submissive than the anarchist understanding. It is indeed a form of non-violent resistance against oppression and denigration not unlike Ghandi’s approach.

Maybe Jesus was not quite as defeatist as some want to make us believe. I for one would hope so. After all, if you turn the cross on its head, it becomes a sword. The crusaders realized that. Maybe today’s limp and gullible Christians need to remember it.

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