How to Beat Up Your Enemy Without Violence

Scott L. Barton
February 23, 2014
Matthew 5:38-42

So I promised you last week that today we’d get to a really hard text, the one most of us don’t know what to do with. "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 an evildoer."

What's up with this one?  Well, unless you’ve read, or some other preacher has told you  what Walter Wink, who taught for a long time at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, has said about this, I think you're in for a surprise.  You'll never look at these verses in quite the same way again, and maybe not even at Jesus.

Long before anthropology and sociology, Jesus knew that violence often comes out of systems where groups of people are encouraged to treat other groups of people in less than human ways.  But unlike conventional wisdom about him, he gave people a way to deal, that was neither retaliation nor submission.

It relied partly, believe it or not, on humor.  Do any of you remember Archie Bunker?  Norman Lear created the popular TV show, in part, to deal with the problem of bigotry.  While laughing at the outrageous things coming out of Archie’s mouth, we were really laughing at our own prejudices and fears. We saw how trapped Archie was by his bigotry, and we loved him. Our laughter helped change the world of race and gender relations because we weren't being preached at. Maybe we gave God a chance to work.

That's what Jesus did.  He actually defused people's fears and anger, and then gave them a positive way to deal with the violence and attitudes of the time. He really wasn’t a Casper Milquetoast. He was a genius.

OK, let’s look at Jesus’ advice about turning the other cheek, giving your coat, and going a second mile.  What's wrong with what he says?  Go ahead; say it out loud. What don't you like about this passage?

Okay. Stop. Those are good reasons, but first let’s deal with a translation of "Do not resist one who is evil, or do not resist an evildoer." It's not wrong, but there's more to it than simply "resist."  The word in the Greek is antistani - anti means "against" and stani, means, "stand" - so it's to stand against somebody, resist. So far, so good. But what the translators have difficulty with is that antistani was a technical term for "warfare" in those days. It referred to the marching up of two armies in solid ranks until they collide in this deafening cacophony of steel against steel, and they suddenly stand there, stand against and disembowel each other until one side has had all it can take and they break and run. Antistani is the word that describes that bloody encounter.

So, when Jesus says, "Do not antistani an evildoer, or evil people," he's not simply saying, "Don't resist them." Actually, Jesus resisted a lot of evil.  But he's saying don't resist what’s being done to you in the same, violent way. Don't mirror it. Don't become the very thing you hate.

And I don’t think he’s giving us an abstract moral code, either.  Otherwise, he wouldn’t give examples.  It’s in the examples where we really know where he’s coming from.

Now, I've asked the Deacons to volunteer their services for a few skits; and for the first one, Bob Anderson and Shari Parsons will be the guinea pigs - I mean, the stars!

Now, Shari, as the smaller of the two of you, you get to be hit.  And Bob, you’re the aggressor. So face off with each other. Now, Bob, you want to hit this person for some reason, so pretend to show her your right hook.

Now, the problem with that hit is what?

Wrong cheek! Jesus says, "If anyone strikes you on the RIGHT cheek." What kind of a strike is it on the right cheek?

Right.  Backhanded.  So Jesus isn't talking so much about someone causing injury, he's talking about something almost bigger, something that allows injury to happen at some later time.  He's talking about an attitude that, if left to develop, if left unchallenged, will likely result in a worse kind of violence, the kind of violence that has happened to women, and black people, and gay and transgendered people, and Jews, and Irish, and Hispanics, just to name a few. A backhand is intended to humiliate. And it's always used from the top down. It's saying, "Get back where you belong; get down in the social order where you belong.”

And you're not just telling her this, yourself.  The entire system is standing behind you saying, "We'll back you up, brother.

So, Jesus isn't saying here, "Turn the other cheek and let them wipe up the floor with you," he's saying, "If they hit you on this cheek [Bob, pretend to do that, now] meaning they're saying to you, "get back to where you belong," then, offer the other also."  But what that means is, if she’s daring you to hit her on her left cheek, now she's saying that she’s your equal. She hasn't backed down with your backhand, which is what you wanted. She's saying, I'm not going to take this being put down anymore.  You can have me flogged within an inch of my life, but I've had it. I'm a child of God; I'm your equal, and I expect to be treated like it."  Now, I'm convinced Jesus didn’t want the woman to be hit on the left cheek any more than we do, or the right, for that matter.  In fact, when it comes to something like domestic violence, when she actually realizes her equality, turning the other cheek means leaving.  It’s that kind of courage, to stand up as equals to the attacker, that is how nonviolence worked in India and in South Africa and this country, too.  Not that it was easy!  Not that people didn't get hurt! But I think Jesus is talking about equality here.

Okay; thank you, volunteers!

Now, the second example Jesus gives is, "If anyone takes you to court and sues you for your outer garment, give your undergarment as well." The backdrop here is the problem of debt. If you needed collateral to get a loan, you would give your cattle or some movable property. But if you lost that, you would give your land, and now you're a landless peasant. And so, now you are destitute and you just have the clothing on your back.

Now, there was a lot of landlessness in Jesus’ day, and a wealthy class just as today, gobbling up more and more, and financed by wealthy Romans. Think about all the stories Jesus tells about laborers who haven't been hired, standing around. Why aren't they working their own land? They've lost their land. That's why they're standing around all day.  It was the number one social problem of first century Israel. So Jesus says, "Okay, look. The laws have been written by Rome, and if they take you to court, you're going to lose, every time. But here's something you can do. When they take you to court and sue you for your outer garment, give them your undergarment, as well."

Now, this is a reference to Deuteronomy 24:13, where it says, if a poor person tries to get a loan and has no other collateral, he used his cloak, or his outer garment, the one that he sleeps in at night. A poor person put this up as collateral but the creditor can't keep it overnight, so the person doesn't freeze.  The Jews were very advanced! But in the morning the debtor gives the cloak back, and the person has to work all day long in just the short working outfit, the inner garment – or undergarment. So Jesus says, "If they try to take you to court and take your outer garment, give them your undergarment, as well." Now, are you fantasizing right now? If you give them your undergarment, that means you are stark naked. And in Jewish society, curiously enough, shame wasn't just on the naked person, but on the person who sees your nakedness.  In Genesis there's the story of Noah after the flood. He gets drunk and passes out naked on the floor. His son sees him and he's cursed for looking on his father's nakedness. So, Jesus is saying, "If someone takes you to court and sues you for your outer garment, take off your undergarment, as well." And there you are, standing in court in your all-togethers, bringing shame on the creditor for having put you in this situation and then can't you imagine him marching out of court in shame and people coming from the alleys and bazaars wanting to know what happened. "My creditor got my clothes." And the creditor's marching down the street, the one who caused and first saw the debtor's nakedness, followed by 50 to 100 people, angry at him!

So let's role-play this one too. Our two volunteers are Mary and Lisa. Now, I'll be the magistrate.  And let's say Mary's the creditor and Lisa's the debtor.

-Judge to Mary: What's your problem with this woman.
-Mary: She owes me money big time.
-Judge: How long has it been?
-Mary: Well, it's been at least five years. But I haven't seen her in a long time. I just have a hard time keeping track.
-Judge: Has she given any of it back?
-Mary: No. Not one red cent.
-Judge: How come you haven't paid anything back on this loan? You've had it five years.
-Lisa: My chicken doesn't lay no eggs. My husband's looking for the pearl and can't find it. So I just don't have the money.
-Judge: I'm afraid the Bible only gives us the alternative of taking your outer garment. So give her your outer garment, and maybe this will teach you a lesson. I hope it does. There's not much else we can do. ...No, no; you don't have to take your shirt off! That really isn't necessary! You can't do that in this court! Cut, cut!  Get out of here, both of you!”

We've read or heard this story how many times, without realizing it’s a funny story!  Jesus is saying, "Look, you can't beat the system, so you've got to lampoon it. Take the momentum of the system and push it to the extreme, ride it until it becomes bizarre, ridiculous. And one of the things the powerful cannot tolerate is to be laughed at. They stand on their dignity. Jesus isn’t being the pushover we've pictured all these years. He's got some pretty hard-nosed ways to counter a system that's stacked against the poor. He's saying, "Look, there are ways you can outsmart the system and you just have to find creative ways of responding as you go."

Okay, next, going that second mile. This is all about the occupation force, whose soldiers were in the habit of forcing people to carry their packs. It was what was called the aninterria, the right of the soldier to oppress a civilian to carry his pack. This happens in any war.  My father told about doing it in Italy to a farmer with his cart, although they compensated the farmer, too.  Back in Jesus's day, the Romans remembered that the Persians had invented the idea.  But the Persians had made the Romans carry the pack till they dropped.  The Romans considered themselves more advanced, so they didn't make you carry it until you dropped.  What they did was they limited it to a mile.

Now, every road had its mile markers. The Romans would no more think of building a road without mile markers than we would think of building an interstate without them. So you always knew where you were. So Jesus says if any of the occupation troops makes you carry his pack, the meter starts ticking, and then after one mile you give him back the pack, right? But you resent it, don't you? An occupying army is really annoying.

Now, what happens if a civilian carries the pack more than one mile? Then the soldier is in trouble because it's a violation of the Roman military code. We don't know exactly what the punishment for this infraction would have been, but the kinds of things that were similar to it involved a ration of barley for two weeks, instead of wheat, or a monetary fine.

So let's role play this one. I've got a couple more volunteers here. David will stand right over there. David is the centurion, the commander of 100 men. And hari here will be a Roman soldier, and I'm going to be a Palestinian peasant. And hari, you're taking care of your pack, and we'll take it from there.

Soldier: You there, take my pack.
Peasant: Oh, look, I've got to get out there. The vines are full of grapes and ---
Soldier: You have to carry that pack.
Peasant: Well, okay. [Shoulders pack.] Man, this is heavy! [They start walking together down the aisle.] So, how long have you been here in our country?
Soldier: Oh, a couple of years now.
Peasant: I bet you're eager to go home, aren't you?
Soldier: Oh, I sure am, yep.
Peasant: Yeah, we're eager for you to go home, too. Have you heard of this guy named Jesus?
Soldier: Yeah, I heard a little bit about him. I don't know much about him, though.
Peasant: Yeah, he's going around telling people that we ought to love our enemies, and I'm trying to get what that means. I can't imagine, how can a person love an enemy?
Soldier: You're right. Enemies are enemies.
Peasant: Yeah. And he says if they treat you badly, you should pray for them. I guess I could try to pray for you. I'm not sure whether that's something I'd rather do, but I'm fascinated by it.  [Aside to
the congregation: "Now we're starting to pass the first mile marker."]
Soldier: Sounds to me like this Jesus guy's a nut.
Peasant: Yeah. You ought to come hear him sometime, though. He sure is a good speaker. And he tells these wonderful parables and stories. And he seems to be trying to suggest that it’s possible to love our enemies. Now, if I was trying to love you, I guess I would maybe carry your pack a little further than normal, just to kind of help you out. Would that be a reasonable thing to do?
Soldier: Well, it sounds like a good idea, but it's totally against the rules, and you know, we've got to enforce the rules.
Peasant: Oh, is that right? Well, here's the second mile marker.
Soldier: What? Give me the pack!!
Peasant: I'm not supposed to carry this pack but a mile, here, but, excuse me [to David], are you the centurion around here?
Centurion: Yeah; you look worn out.  [To soldier:] Hey, you’re in deep trouble soldier....  You're going to be court marshaled, and you're going to have to pay me a $500.00 fine.
Soldier: What? But, I don't get it.
Centurion: Now, you - give him his pack.
Peasant: Oh, yeah - and I certainly hope you have a nice day. Listen it was my idea to take the pack.
Soldier: Yeah, I tried to stop him.
Peasant: See, I was just trying to figure out what Jesus meant by loving your enemies. Have you heard of Jesus?

Thank you, volunteers!

[Back in the pulpit] Have you heard of Jesus?  He's misunderstood by a lot of the world.  He's not about condoning violence against you or anybody else.  He's not about letting somebody take advantage of you economically and taking all your money.  He's not about being a pushover in the face of unjust power.   He's about everybody being a child of God, and he's about finding creative ways to stand up against any evil, because you are a child of God.

And only when we all know that, will the violence really stop.