Princeton University Religious Life

Return To No One Evil For Evil

The Rev. James H. Adams III ‘61
Princeton University Chapel
May 29, 2011
Matthew 5:38-48; Romans 12:14-21

INTRODUCTION

            Most people who read the Bible assume that their values, learned from parents, schools, and culture are the same as the values of the Bible. This assumption is wrong. The cultural values of the Bible come from what is called by sociologists a "pre-industrial society." We do not live in that kind of society.

            Galilee, in the time of Jesus, was a pre-industrial society. It was a world in which five percent of the population ruled the other ninety-five percent. The upper class consisted of governors, priests, bankers, the military, etc. The rest were peasants, artisans and others. There was no middle class. There was no hope of what we call "upward mobility."

            Literacy among the lower class was limited to enough Hebrew to read the Scriptures. They did not write Hebrew; they did not read or write Latin or Greek. Except for an occasional pilgrimage to Jerusalem, they did not wander far from home. Most never went more than five miles from their villages. There were no vacations.

            There were strict rules of honor and hospitality particularly among the peasant class. The right hand was clean and one ate with it. The left hand was unclean because one wiped oneself with it. Natural left-handers had to conform to this expectation or face being ostracized. 

            Courts were a sham favoring the dominant class and judges were assumed to be open to purchase. The Roman Empire asked only that people keep the peace and pay their taxes. Those who fought back found themselves hanging from crosses if captured or dead from encounters with soldiers who fought the bandits.

            If this were a sociology course I could go on. It is, instead a sermon which only requires some awareness of the culture gap between 21st century Princeton and first century Galilee.

 

TURNING THE OTHER CHEEK

            Most of us are familiar with a series of sayings from the Sermon on the Mount. "Turn the other cheek," "If your neighbor takes your cloak, give him your cloak as well," and "Go the second mile." We think they demand a passive acceptance of evil. They do not. Walter Wink, a Professor of Bible at Auburn Seminary in New York, has explained the real meaning of these passages in his book Engaging the Powers (Augsberg Fortress 1992) and I borrow from his work.

            First, "turn the other cheek." Jesus' audience would have understood the meaning of the phrase "If anyone strike you on the right cheek..." They knew that if they had a fist fight with a neighbor they would probably be hit on the face in several ways. We see this kind of fight in western movies which show bar room brawls. These would have been like fights between equals in the Galilee. 

            What Jesus was talking about, as his audience knew, was being struck by a superior a member of the dominant five percent. It would have been a back-handed slap with the right hand against your right cheek. This was the way a superior asserted his status. Jesus was specific about being struck on the right cheek. Fighting back was not an option. The superior (a judge, money lender, or landlord) would not have used his fist because that would have been treating you as an equal. He would not have hit you on the left side of your face. Consequently, if you turned your face to the right, "turning the other cheek" you could avoid being struck again. If the assailant tried hitting you again on the right he would risk bloodying your nose and getting blood on himself. That would have made him unclean. Social mores forbade him from hitting your left cheek with his left hand.

            Jesus was not therefore suggesting passive acceptance of the blow but a form of passive resistance. It was non-violent (violence was a losing option), creative and, hopefully, effective. The audience would have known that "turning the other cheek" was not an invitation to being hit on the other side of the face. It was, instead, presenting a problem for the superior whose options had become limited.

            Second, your coat and your cloak. The coat was your outer garment, the cloak your inner garment. Jesus envisioned a common situation. A peasant in need of cash would borrow from a money lender and give his coat as security for the loan. The ancient rules said that if you did this the lender had to return the garment in the evening because it was also the peasant's blanket and his might freeze to death without it. In the morning the borrower would take it back to the money lender. (Think mafia money lenders rather than the Bank of America.) After a certain time, if the peasant could not repay the loan, the money lender would take him to court so he could claim the garment as his own. When the court ruled in his favor the peasant no longer had his protection against the elements. Cold, sickness and eventual death were often the future of one without his coat.

            What Jesus suggested was that the peasant says to the court and money lender, "You are sentencing me to certain death. You might as well have my cloak as well. Here it is." Offering the coat left the borrower naked and the audience would be shamed by this display (Hebrews shunned nakedness as shameful for all). Hopefully, the judge and the lender would relent. Even if they did not they would be shamed by the man's nakedness, a fact which would have been reported over the whole countryside. It was a non-violent and creative form of revenge. Would it have worked? We do not know but it would have been worth a try since the borrower was in a losing situation whatever he did.

            Third, "Go the second mile." This referred to a common occurrence which would have been familiar to the Galilean peasant. Roman law said a Roman soldier could compel a peasant to carry his pack for one mile--but no further. It was a reminder of the oppression of the Empire.

            Jesus' suggestion was that after the mile has been walked the peasant insists on going further. This would have two positive results. The first was that the peasant reclaimed his dignity, lost by the oppressive demand of the soldier. The peasant says, "This mile I walk because I choose to do so." The second possible result was that the soldier's commander would see the peasant walking the second mile. Since he could not envision anyone volunteering he would confront and chastise the soldier for abusing his right. The soldier might wind up on KP or latrine duty that night as punishment and the peasant would exact his revenge that way.

            Creative, non-violent resistance.

 

THE REAL MEANING OF JESUS' COUNSEL

            What Jesus was suggesting to his audience was that they begin to think about creative ways to resist oppression by forces beyond their control. Violence would not work. But non-violent resistance to evil might be possible if the peasants began to use their imaginations. Would any of these suggestions have been effective more than once? We do not know but the best answer is "probably not."   This is why we cannot take these suggestions as universal rules. The real counsel was that the audience, including ourselves becomes more creative in their resistance to evil.

            Christians have experienced a great deal of criticism about the apparently wimpy attitude of "turning the other cheek." We are accused of passively accepting evil which only encourages bullies and oppressors. But this was not Jesus' advice to first century Galilean peasants. Jesus was advising non-violent, creative resistance to evil. He was suggesting an option for people who thought they had no options.

            Beyond that, Jesus knew that violent resistance to evil is a never-ending cycle only leading to continuous death often through several generations. The opening of the play Romeo and Juliet is only one of thousands of examples.

 

CONTEMPORARY EXAMPLES

            In our own time we know the history of several practitioners of non-violent resistance to evil. The best known names are Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. They had wonderful success with a non-violent resistance to evil.

            On a lesser scale, Professor Wink, has gathered a chapter's worth of other examples. I would like to offer two of these. 

            First, Romania in the Nazi era. In 1944 rumors were swirling all over Europe about death camps for Jews. In a particular city in Romania Jews were told to pack their belongings and report to the railroad station on a given Monday for "resettlement." The Catholic bishop in the city heard both the announcement and the rumors. At Sunday mass he announced to his congregation that he was going to the station on Monday to protest and invited his congregants to join him. On Monday morning the bishop and his congregation sat down on the tracks so that the train could not move without injuring or killing several dozen or several hundred Christians. The authorities could not convince them to move so the finally told the Jews to return home. There was never a second call for resettlement and the Jews of that town were saved. Passive, non-violent, creative resistance to evil.

            Second, a school bus somewhere in the U.S. A boy with a serious sinus problem had a continuously runny nose. The class bully tormented him unrelentingly. One day the student blew his nose into his hand walked back on the bus toward his tormentor. He extended the hand full of snot and said, "I'd like to shake the hand of the toughest kid in the class." The tormentor recoiled in disgust. Finally the first student wiped his hand on his handkerchief and returned to his seat to be tormented no more by the bully. Passive, non-violent resistance to evil.

 

CONTEMPORARY CHALLENGES

            Probably none of us has experienced a back-handed slap from an invulnerable superior. We have had no experience similar to the man losing his cloak in court. Nor do foreign soldiers tramp our interstates, occasionally compelling us to help out. So the specifics of Jesus' counsel no longer apply.

            What we can learn from the specifics of Jesus' counsel is that we are not expected to be wimps. We are, however, counseled to be continuously creative in our resistance to evil. The counsel is that we resist evil but avoid violence wherever possible. 

            Americans today are faced with a number of enemies unafraid of violence. They include terrorists, drug lords, nations seeking atomic weapons and others. Is passive resistance a viable option when dealing with such people? If it is, we have not yet figured out how to do it nor can we work out what Jesus' advice might have been. What we have learned, however, is that returning violence for violence, evil for evil, has a limited result.         

            In our personal lives we often encounter evil in many forms such as greed and discrimination. We might want to strike out at these evils and the people who perpetrate them. Jesus' counsel can be remembered in these situations. "Do not return evil for evil." Rather, use your imagination to resist in creative ways. You might be surprised at the results. It certainly costs little to try and trying does not make you a wimp.

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