“Turning the Other Cheek and Nonviolence: King, Gandhi and Jesus’ Third Way”Posted in Movements, Non Violent Social Change, Peace, Social Justice, Speeches
Delivered at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, Michigan,
Martin Luther King Jr. Day
January 20, 2014
Carlyle Fielding Stewart, III
We gather today to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr, one of America’s most beloved freedom fighters – whose concern for social justice led him into a variety of nonviolent struggles for human dignity and social equality which have inspired the world over.
I am proud to have this opportunity to stand before you today to share some insights on one of the primary scriptures used in influencing the use of nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement in America and the movement for Independence from the British in India.
In the analyzing of Martin Luther King Jr’s life and work and in gathering source materials for my forthcoming book on The Ethics and Strategies of Nonviolent Social Change in the Life and Work of Martin Luther King Jr, and Mohandas K. Gandhi, we find that the two men had some common sources of their social philosophies. While King was a Christian minister who revered the Holy Bible and the teachings of the prophets, Jesus, and the works of Gandhi as a basis for developing nonviolent strategies and tactics for American Civil Rights – Gandhi the Hindu, and British-trained lawyer also used the Holy Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the teachings of Jesus in developing his own understanding and practice of nonviolence in South Africa and India. There are many parallels between these two men which I will cite in the book.
A primary text used by both men in building their respective philosophies and ideas is the Gospel of Matthew 5:38-42, and although they utilized this basic scripture as a foundation for understanding the use and practice of nonviolence, in the person to person context, it was Gandhi’s expansion of turning the other cheek into a mass social movement for liberation in India that became an inspiration for King in mobilizing the masses for Civil Rights in America. Both men valued the teachings of Jesus and understood how the practice of nonviolence both individually and socially could positively change the world through peaceful means of protest for social justice and human freedom in their respective social settings.
Before analyzing the meaning of Matthew 5:38-42 according to Walter Wink and other scholars, let me say something about the social conditions of Jesus’ time. Jesus’ ministry is set against the backdrop of religious and political turbulence in Rome and Palestine, with the Roman Empire as the ruling system of domination which frequently clashed with the local Jewish peasant populations who struggled for human dignity and positive social and economic change in Judea and Galilee.
Richard Horsely, in his book Jesus and Empire, tells us that one of the last corners of the world to be taken over by Rome was Palestine. It was important for Rome as the pre-eminent world power to maintain control over these various provinces as they developed Roman commerce and shipped goods safely through various ports and roads. Roman expansion in Judea and Galilee often meant the appropriation of peasant lands to develop roads and bridges in order to transport building materials and supplies.
Clashes thus occurred between local Jewish populations, not only because of geographical displacement due to such expansion, but also because of conflicts in religious and political belief systems. Jews believed strongly in religious sovereignty and would go to great lengths to resist anything that encroached on their religious independence and integrity. The Roman Empire on the other hand believed in political and military sovereignty and would preserve its political and economic order against the threats of Jewish rebellion and all other forms of revolt that threatened its existence.
It is the nature of institutions, political, economic, religious or otherwise, to preserve themselves by any means. Preserving change amid order and order amid change is a fundamental goal which often puts those who seek change at odds against other groups and entities striving and struggling for the same aims and ends. A primary objective of institutions is to consolidate power for infinity and to wield as much influence as possible. It has been observed that the failure of institutions to adapt to a variety of changes over time and adopt new directions and sensibilities often causes their disintegration and demise. Those fighting for dignity and bread often clash with those who would take their bread and dignity. This is the source of continuing conflict in human history and was a concern during Jesus’ time, as it was for both Gandhi and King and in the struggle for human dignity today.
James C. Scott’s book “Weapons of the Weak, delineates the various forms of struggle among agrarian peasant populations that include foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering and feigned ignorance, to name a few. All were expressions of protest by the powerless, in facing the powerful, and were designed to provide a measure of dignity and autonomy when personal sovereignty and independence of spirit – in facing these powers – providentially decreased.
Hyam Maccoby, in his book Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs, tells us that regular revolts and outbreaks occurred during Jesus’ time which often put local populations at odds with Roman civil and political authorities. In our reading of biblical texts we seldom get a clear understanding of the social, cultural and political conditions giving rise to those scriptural texts and thus miss important information about the meaning and relevancy of scriptures to our current times. We have been taught in the west, says John Dominic Crossan, to compartmentalize our thinking. In Jesus’ time, religion and politics were not separate disciplines, as we come to regard them today. Politics surrounding the acquisition of land and bread had profound religious and political ramifications in that they reflected a value system which underscored the worth of human beings in society.
Jim Wallis is correct. All politics today inherently contain elements of social contracts for the common good. All fiscal and budgetary issues intrinsically reflect moral value systems that propel or repel the common good.
Some of these conflicts escalated into mass executions of large numbers of people by Rome. Crucifixion was used as a deterrent to rebellion, and it is in this context of political upheaval and revolt that Jesus emerges as a nonviolent peacemaker proclaiming the Kingdom of God on Earth. His ministry of healing and feeding and delivering the people was a direct response to their suffering and displacement by the larger society.
This Kingdom of God foretold by the former prophets, and ushered in by violent overturning of the existing system of domination, would also portend for Jesus a Kingdom ultimately of peace and justice. While containing apocalyptic overtures, it would also pacifically eliminate all the earthly divisions, suffering, hardship and oppression among the people.
This new kingdom would be a kingdom of peace, justice and equality – a kingdom which brought judgment on rulers and fostered the renewal of Israel. “Thy Kingdom Come and Thy will be done” on earth as it is in heaven.”(Crossan) Jesus ministered during a time of Roman domination and understood the necessities of local peoples surviving for dear life in that system, with sanity, humility and dignity. He understood the value and practice of nonviolence and also knew that armed revolt against such a powerful system would bring the quick, swift obliteration of the local peoples.
It is in this context that we must understand the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-42, whose setting in first century Palestine was similar to the setting in America in the 1950s and 1960s, and in India in the 1930s and 1940s – the times when King and Gandhi, respectively, emerged as leaders of power movements for positive social change. The struggle for freedom, justice, equality and human dignity were at the heart of those movements for change throughout human history and were core values of Jesus’ movement.
Let me read the passage of Matthew 5:38-42 to you again to refresh your memory:
“You have heard that it was said, Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
Perhaps no other scripture is misunderstood in its meaning and application. Usually it’s interpreted to mean that people should cooperate with evil by not resisting it, by just letting evil have its way. This text is often used to suggest that people should always take flight rather than fight. Sometimes taking flight is expedient and necessary, but according to Walter Wink, this is not what Jesus means here.
Friends – usually in matters of personal and social conflict, the response is to do absolutely nothing but flight, which is total passivity – or to engage in fight, through extreme forms of bloody violence, to overcome and annihilate the enemy. These two options are offered up as adequate responses to injustice and evil, and Jesus is advocating neither. He is not urging us to be completely passive to evil and he is not saying that we should engage in a violence that dehumanizes, devalues and destroys one’s adversaries or those who do evil.
On the contrary, Jesus is advocating a third way, as followed by King and Gandhi; a middle of the road way that neither flees from evil, ignores injustice, nor destroys evil doers. This third way offers a nonviolent form of resistance that allows the people to keep their humanity and dignity while not cooperating with the various systems of domination that demean, devalue and discard them.
The problem, as I have stated, has to do with how this text has been interpreted and translated. Matthew 5:39 says, “Do not resist an evil person or resist not evil,” which is usually taken to mean, “Do nothing. Just let evil and the evil doer have their way.” Theologian, scholar Walter Wink makes the following observation:
“When the court translators working in the hire of King James chose to translate the Greek word antistenai as “Resist not evil,” they were doing something more than rendering Greek into English. They were translating nonviolent resistance into docility. Jesus did not tell his oppressed hearers not to resist evil. This would have been absurd. His entire ministry is utterly at odds with such a preposterous idea. The Greek word antistenai is made up of two parts: “anti” which is a word still used in English to mean, “against” and histemi a verb which in its noun form means “violent rebellion, armed revolt, sharp dissent.”(Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence, p.10-11)
In the Greek Old Testament antistenai is used primarily for military encounters – 44 out of 71 times. It specifically refers to the moment two armies collide, steel on steel, until one side breaks and flees. In the New Testament it describes Barabbas, a rebel. The term refers to a potentially lethal disturbance or armed revolution.
A proper translation of Jesus’ teaching would then be, “Don’t strike back at evil, or one who has done you evil, with evil. Do not retaliate against violence with violence. Do not react violently to one who is evil or uses violence against you. The only difference is how one should fight evil.” (Wink p.11,12)”
When this text is translated to mean “resist not,” it implies that we engage in no forms of resistance; that our response should be to do nothing, to simply look the other way; to cooperate with evil and lie down with it. Jesus abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil – but then what can be done?
It is this third way that Wink brilliantly describes as neither passivity nor violence. His third way advocates a method of dealing with evil that does not give consent or cooperation to evil or evil doers, it is neither submission nor assault, flight nor fight, but a way that can secure your human dignity and begin to change the power equation by still recognizing the humanity of the evil doer. It does not willfully destroy them in response to their evil. One must also, according to writer Ken Sande in his book Peacemaker, distinguish between evil-doing and the person who is often accused of being evil. One must distinguish between the behavior, as evil action, and the person committing the action. One may commit evil acts but not necessarily be an evil person. Differentiating between the behavior and the person in such situations is very important.
For, historically speaking, violence usually begets violence, which spirals into vindictive cycles of resentment and retribution that have no end. It does not, however, insure complete compliance or allegiance to it. Violence is a makeshift measure that brings temporary submission. It is not a permanent long-term solution that abides the higher principles of sanctity and life. But nonviolence deals from a position of strength and morality, which recognizes that all persons possess the capacity for evil – and that to kill or destroy adversaries perpetuates this vicious, never-ending cycle.
In some cases violence is expedient to preserve and protect life, and to prevent a greater evil from annihilating and destroying the greater good. The best defense is the capacity to protect and preserve oneself from annihilation. It is necessary to preserve the peace with a peace maker. We understand this concept and practice as a law of life.
But in this context of Jesus’ words and nonviolent practice, the point is to change the heart of the enemy -not to destroy him. This is the essence of the satyagraha (soul force) nonviolence of Mohandas K. Gandhi and the nonviolence of the American Civil Rights Movement employed by Martin Luther King Jr. It is not passivity in the face of violence, and it is not violent retaliation. Instead, non-cooperation is a refusal to submit to an agenda, to bow to a dictate. It is the renunciation of weapons of violence as a means of bringing justice out of injustice and good out of evil. It is morally refusing to use the weapons of opponents, to become like them in using the same tactics to demean, destroy and devalue them in reverse.
Had Gandhi and King advocated violence they would have lost the moral high ground of their social movements and brought the wrath of their oppressors down upon them. And although there are times when violence is absolutely necessary to preserve order and ensure peace, in this context the use of violence would have only begotten the wrath and annihilation of adversaries, which it already did, in other forms. By resisting evil nonviolently, they gained the moral high ground and even the respect of some of the people who had come to hate them.
Let me say that this principle not only applies on the aggregate social level but in the area of personal, individual relations. The personal abuse that people experience in relationships is also dehumanizing and destructive and must be resisted. Rather, to not become like the abuser in dealing with the abuse is the case in point.
So this idea of making all Christians totally passive in the face of evil and violence in whatever forms, or on whatever levels they come, is not only hermeneutically incorrect, it is ethically indefensible and morally irresponsible. To just say to someone to “resist not evil” and to “turn the other cheek,” in response to violence and evil and systems of oppression, is a misreading of Jesus’ teachings and does not bring out the various nuances of what he meant in this text. To look away from evil is in essence a way of cooperating with it. Looking the other way does not ensure that evil will go away. That evil often spirals back, sometimes in more vehement forms. But to resist it nonviolently is a legitimate way of protesting it, refusing it, in the spirit of God’s love.
This is true justice; to not endorse the dehumanizing tactics of adversaries and to refuse to perpetuate violence as the only answer to evil; to not become the evil one seeks to eradicate. To resist it violently may be a way of hurting the enemy but that does not corroborate the higher moral and spiritual principles that make for reconciliation – or with lasting peace, with the goal of ultimately permanently effecting genuine human community.
Looking further at this text, we can see where Jesus is driving home the principles of nonviolence or this third option.
In verse 39 we find the following words, “If someone 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? A blow by the right hand 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, menial tasks. The only way one could strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the right hand. It would be a back-handed slap.
What we are dealing with here is unmistakably an insult, not a fist fight. The intention of the backhanded slap is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone back in his or her place. A backhanded slap was a common way of admonishing inferiors or humiliating subordinates. Masters back-handed slaves; husbands backhanded wives; parents backhanded children; men and women backhanded servants and Romans backhanded Jews. Here we have a set of unequal social relations, in which one person or persons have power over another person or persons. Striking back or retaliating violently from that backhanded slap would mean certain and sudden death. The only response would be cowering submission to the superior; to surrender to the humiliation without protest or resistance. ( Walter Wink, p.13-17)
But by turning the other cheek under these circumstances it robs the humiliator of the power to further humiliate. By turning the other cheek, the one who is slapped says, “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 does not alter this fact. Slap me, kick me or kill me. I deny you the power to demean me and devalue me as someone beneath you. I am a child of God, worthy of respect. I will not submit to you nor will I endorse your way of violently disgracing me.” (Wink p.16)
“Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. What can he do? He cannot use his backhand again because with the other cheek turned his nose is in the way. He can’t use his left hand regardless. If he hits his subordinate with his fist he makes him an equal, acknowledging him as peer. But the whole point of the backhand slap is to reinforce the caste system, and its institutionalized inequalities. The whole point is to humiliate and remind the subordinate of who has power. Even if he orders the subordinate flogged or whipped, the point has been made. The oppressor has been forced against his will, to regard his subordinate as an equal human being. The powerful person has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. This response, far from admonishing for passivity and cowardice, as this text is often interpreted, is an act of defiance.”(Wink p.16)
It is a way of creating a condition of justice in which the powers that be can no longer subordinate, humiliate and annihilate a person because of his social condition or status. Dominators thus lose the power to create injustice because the oppressed refuse to comply with their various backhanding systems of humiliation and subordination. So if someone slaps you on your right cheek turn to him your left. That’s a completely different interpretation of this text than what we are accustomed to. It does not advocate complete passivity; it suggests finding an honorable way to resist humiliation without violating the person of the one who is humiliating another.
This strategy was employed by King and Gandhi in their respective movements and worked to change the hearts of those who would strike them.
The second portion of the text is set in a court of law. The text reads “If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic give him your cloak or if they sue you for your coat give him your shirt as well or if they sue you for your outer garments give them your inner garments.” In Deuteronomy 24: 10-13,17 we find an explanation, when someone is being sued for his outer garment.
“When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to fetch his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you. And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge; when the sun goes down, you shall restore to him the pledge that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you….You shall not take a widow’s garment in the pledge.”
Let me say to you that “only the poorest of the poor would have nothing but an outer garment to give as collateral as a loan. Jewish law strictly required the return of that garment 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 all his hearers would have been all too familiar. So in this circumstance Jesus is referring to the poor debtor who had sunk deeper into poverty, the debt cannot be repaid, and his creditor has hauled him into court to try to seize his property by legal means. (Wink, p.17-18)
“Why then does Jesus counsel him to give over his inner garment as well? This would mean stripping off all his clothing and marching out of court stark naked! Now put yourself in the debtors place and imagine the chuckles this would have invoked. At that time it was no shame for the person who was naked to be so. The shame was with the onlookers to their nakedness and those who caused it. So here you are in court being sued for your coat garments by your creditor; someone who has more than enough and can give you grace but instead decides to take the very clothes from your back and you decide to not only give them your outer garments but your inner garments as well and now you stand naked in the court room.
“You had no hope of winning the trial; the law was entirely in his favor. And now you register your protest against a system that spawns such debt. You have said in effect, ‘You want my robe? Here take my inner garments, my underwear, everything!!! Now you’ve got everything. Do you want my body also?’ But you have refused to be humiliated. You have turned the tables on him. You have registered a stunning disclaimer to a system of injustice.”(Wink, p. 19-20)
Now you march out of the court room butt naked, and as you parade into the street, your friends and neighbors startled, aghast, inquire what happened. You explain that you have had enough and instead of just giving your cloak you gave all your garments to your creditor. 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 not be 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 it urges him to repent. Far from collaborating with injustice, the poor man has used the law akido like, to make an exploitative, unjust law a laughing-stock. “If someone sues you for your tunic or outer garment give him your cloak – or sues you for your coat give him your shirt as well.” Again Jesus uses this opportunity to teach the third way; a way to protest and resist evil and injustice without destroying the adversary or simply complying with the injustice.
And finally we have the third part of this text; “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” During Jesus’ time it was not unusual for Roman soldiers to force Jewish residents to carry their 60 – 85 pound back packs, not including their weapons. Mile markers littered the roadways and any soldier could force a civilian to carry for that one mile – but to force a civilian to carry the back pack further than a mile was forbidden and military law imposed severe penalties. In this way Rome attempted to limit that anger of the occupied people while keeping their armies on the move – nevertheless this levy reminded the Jews that they were a subject people, even in the Promised Land.
On quick deployments, soldiers would force anyone to carry their backpacks. At a time when the majority of the army had to depend upon civilians to carry their back packs, including whole villages, going the second mile had consequences for the soldiers.
Jesus here does not counsel armed revolt, which would have been suicide. He does not offer retaliation. What he says is “go the second mile.” Since going the second mile was an infraction of Roman military code, the offer to go the second mile not only startles the soldier but also places him in jeopardy because there are laws penalizing such service. In an oppressive situation, going the second mile shifts the advantage to the oppressed person forced to carry the bag – where he now seizes the initiative which potentially embarrasses the soldier.
“Aw come on, let me carry your bag a second mile, third mile or fourth mile, man.” If the solider feels superior to the vanquished citizen he will not feel it today. The tables have been turned on him but in a nonviolent way. He has registered his protest but in a humorous, ironic manner. He does not grab the soldier and take his life. He uses humor and satire to register his protest against a system of oppression that demeans and humiliates people. (Wink)
The point is that this passage of scripture has entirely different meaning when we analyze it from a different perspective. Jesus here was teaching the third way; a means of protesting and resisting evil and oppression – injustice in a system of domination – without destroying one’s opponent and losing one’s soul and surrendering one’s dignity. This scripture and its interpretation is the foundation of those various movements of social justice and positive change. It is keeping humanity and dignity amid unjust circumstances.
And that’s what happened in the Civil Rights Movement in America and that’s what happened in the Independence movement in India and other nonviolent movements throughout the world. They were movements that inspired the masses to fight back with dignity without losing their souls and their humanity. It was a way of eradicating evil without becoming evil in the process.
King and Gandhi, following the teachings of Jesus, advocated this third way. They understood the power and might of those systems of domination – and what could crush their opponents like flies – in the societies that they sought to change. They understood that fighting violently against systems of domination would surely mean their suicide and annihilation. So the peasant populations had to find ways to fight back with dignity without losing their souls even if they lost their lives. They found ways to keep their dignity in a system that had closed off their options for life and vitality.
Jesus in this scripture is telling us that there are other dignified ways of getting our points across that respect life and which seek to transform our enemies into our friends. Turning the other cheek, walking out of court naked, going the second mile in carrying the backpacks of those who force us into service are less venomous ways of protest. It is the way of love, truth and justice. It is soul force that brings harmony out of chaos, good out of evil, gain out of loss, joy out of suffering, love out of hatred, and justice out of injustice. King and Gandhi understood this and this particular scripture was cornerstone for the development of a social and spiritual philosophy that allowed those that were dominated and alienated and marginalized to stand up with dignity and to fight back in their own way without losing their own souls.
The goal is to use this evergreen approach to human dignity. No matter what the weather, evergreens are always green. External changes in weather never affect their outer glow or show and that’s what King and Gandhi and Jesus teach us. No matter how difficult life is, we can overcome our problems both individually and collectively. No matter how painful and unjust our circumstances we can overcome them with dignity and integrity. No matter how problematic and impossible life may be, we can do the impossible and surmount the insurmountable. But we must learn how to do this each day right where we live; not with malice or hatred, but with the strength and dignity that compelled Nelson Mandela to transcend all racial hatred and bitterness and become a force for good and positive change in human history. This third way is a higher way; a way of peace and justice whose moral imperatives still value the personhood of those who might treat us wrongly.
No matter how overwhelming our little lives seem in comparison to those big Goliaths, we can overcome. We can turn the other cheek and still have dignity. We can give our inner garment after rendering our outer garments and still have equality. We can still go the second or third mile and keep intact our humanity, so that the world can become a better place and our adversaries can grasp this too and change positively.
It means breaking the various cycles of humiliation with humor, ridicule, and outwitting the enemy by exposing the injustices of the system. That’s what Jesus advocated during a time of Roman occupation, what King advocated in the cauldron of racial injustice and what Gandhi propagated during a time of British domination. (Wink)
This is what it means and this is what it is all about; to keep the mission going and to keep the juices flowing so that all people, every man, woman, boy and girl on this earth, can experience the blessings and peace of the kingdom of God on earth so that it might be as it is in heaven. That was the value of Jesus’ teachings and that was the value of King’s and Gandhi’s struggles for nonviolent change and progress. You can see to it that every living soul is treated justly and is given respect and is accorded an opportunity to be full human beings in community with you.
God bless the legacy of Martin Luther King and other nonviolent advocates of human freedom. God bless the creators and messengers of a prophetic, love centered, justice seeking, Exodus-centered faith that inspires freedom, justice and nonviolent social change – in a world so desperately in need of such approaches for lasting peace.
Turning the other cheek is a dignified expression of a tradition of faithful protest that recognizes the sovereignty of all human dignity and the inherent majesty of all human beings and personality. We need today more voices for change and peace. We need more people who understand the power and value of dignified, nonviolent protest and its capacity to renew and restore the power of a human community dedicated to the common good of all humanity.
God bless you all! God bless Detroit! God bless America!