Jesus commanded the love of enemies. Does this mean that Christians are to be embrace passivity when faced with injustice and oppression?
Let's turn to some explicit statements of Jesus regarding how one should engage in a context of oppression and violence.
NIV Matthew Chapter 5
‘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.
Now, let's examine this passage closely:
**Verse 38:** "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' Jesus announces that we no longer need to keep the old testament law because a new ethic is at work. The ethical code of 'violence as a response to violence' is now over.
In the words of Gandhi, 'An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind,' or as Martin Luther King said, 'Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.'
**Verse 39:** Jesus continues by saying, according to the NIV translation, 'Do not resist the one who is evil.' There are two immediate and understandable responses to this.
Some see Jesus’ command as a call to passivity, non-resistance, and compliance in the face of evil. Others, perceiving the implications of this as functionally irrelevant to a real-world of power, protest, and politics, reject this teaching of Jesus as unworkable. Some argue that Jesus is asking us to be doormats in the face of evil and to collude with oppressors.
As American President JFK famously said in a speech, 'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.' So perhaps we should ignore the teaching of Jesus and just have Jesus as our spiritual savior so that he does not meddle in our economic or political life.
However, following a close reading of this passage, I want to encourage us to see that taking the teaching of Jesus seriously does not mean that we need to be 'doormat disciples.'
The word 'resist' as a translation is unhelpful, for the Greek word behind this is 'anti-stenei,' which means literally to be against (anti) the stand (steno). What many translators have overlooked is that 'steno' is most often used in the Greek version of the Old Testament as a technical term for warfare. It describes the way that opposing armies would line up against each other to 'take a stand' and fight with violence.
The sense then is that we should not read this passage as an encouragement towards passivity, non-resistance, and compliance in the face of evil, but rather as a command from Jesus that we are to refrain from violence even when we are faced with Herod-like oppressors.
Many scholars are in agreement with Tom Wright, a world-class biblical scholar and former Bishop of Durham, who translates the words of Jesus as 'Do not violently oppose an evildoer.'
And then Jesus mentions in quick succession three examples of how to creatively respond to different oppressive situations. Firstly, Jesus says, verse 39, if someone hits you on the right cheek, then turn to him the other.
In the time of Jesus, to strike someone on the right cheek was to hit them with the backhand. Receiving a backhanded slap implies that you are a person of inferior standing; slaves, women, and children would be treated in this way. Jesus says in that situation, you can turn the other cheek, which means, 'hit me again if need be,' but you will treat me as an equal and with dignity.
Hitting back would bring more violence, but this creative non-violent and cheeky response exposes the unjust structures of society and prepares the ethical imagination for a new way of living.
In the second example, verse 40, Jesus says, 'And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.' The context here is a poor person being dragged to court, perhaps for non-payment of a large debt. Unethical business practices and oppressive economic policies were rife in the ancient world. When the person of power, as payment for the debt, requires your inner garment as payment (and in the ancient world, you would typically wear two garments), then Jesus suggests that we give him the other, outer garment as well. If they accept the offer, you would end up standing there butt-naked in court, potentially exposing not only your nakedness to those in court but also the unjust economic structures that reduce the poor to open shame.
The third example takes place in the context of Roman military occupation. Jesus says in verse 41, 'And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.' To understand this, let's pick up Tom Wright's understanding of what is going on here:
'Roman soldiers had the right to force civilians to carry their equipment for one mile. But the law was quite strict; it forbade them to make someone go more than that. Jesus advises turning the tables on them. Don't fret, fume, or plot revenge. Copy your generous God! Go a second mile and astonish the soldier. Perhaps alarm him—what if his commanding officer found out? This illustrates a different way to be human, one that doesn't plot revenge, doesn't join the armed resistance movement, but wins God's kind of victory over violence and injustice.'
These examples (turning the other cheek, being naked in court, and going the extra mile) act as playful and powerful ideas illustrating what a creative, courageous, and non-violent response may be to situations of oppression and injustice.
As followers of Jesus, the peacemaker, we are called to be peacemakers seeking to stand non-violently against injustice and oppression. As individuals and as a community, we are being called to be the hands and feet of Jesus, speaking truth to power and challenging, where possible, the Herodian structures, systems, power, and politics of our age. For those of us who have privilege, possessions, and power, we can use our words, actions, votes, skills, and creativity to challenge injustice, oppression, and violence.
In conclusion, as peacemakers led by the Spirit of Peace, we are not to be oppressors following the way of Herodian violence to expand our own empires. Nor are we to be Christian gunslingers who justify war or violence on a personal or national level. Nor are we to be doormats who let evil triumph.
No, we are followers of Jesus empowered by the Spirit, called to think through the implications of Jesus' teaching so that we can creatively and non-violently respond to issues of injustice and violence in our own lives and in the wider world.