The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
The Third Way
What is happening here? Seriously, what is happening? Turn the other cheek? Give your cloak as well? Go the second mile? What kind of advice is this?
Given the options of fight or flight, it seems that Jesus is casting a strong vote for flight – just flight a little too late. Were one to follow this advice they would fly away with tired legs, a pummeled face, and no clothes. Generally, you want to do the flight, if that is the option you choose, before you are hit in the face.
What is happening here? Seriously. This is a dangerous passage. One might even be so bold to suggest that Jesus' advice to an impressionable crowd is irresponsible. Do you have any idea how many people – mostly women and children – throughout history have been abused under these instructions? Told to turn the other cheek. Told not to resist their abusers. Instructed in the name of Jesus to quietly and passively absorb endless violence – as if that was some sanctified behavior. Do you have any idea how many pastors have advised battered women to take their beatings, citing chapter and verse: Matthew 5:39?
What is happening here? In a sense understanding the Bible is always us trying to look back in time. The challenge of that of course is that, so goes the L. P. Hartley quote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” And so often the Bible is read divorced of its historical context, as if there is no interpretation required, as if Jesus and his crowds existed solely in some timeless vacuum. Studying the Bible is hard work; it is a whole lot easier to simply read the red letters and twist and turn them to support all of one's biases and bad behaviors. Like we do with the news.
It's stunning to think about how long and how often this passage has been used to justify abuse and oppression and violence, how often Jesus' plea for creative non-violent resistance has been misused and misappropriated. Because that is what this is: Jesus is presenting, in the Sermon on the Mount, a third way. It is definitely not fight. But it is also not some passive flight. This is not avoidance or cowardice. Jesus is giving his crowd of occupied, oppressed, abused followers a third way: a way of non-violence that condemns our fight; a way of resistance that challenges our passive silence in the face of injustice. Jesus challenges his listeners, present company included, to have the guts to choose another way: the way of creative non-violent resistance.
But the truth is: without understanding something of Jesus' context, it is almost impossible to get that from this text some two-thousand years later and some seven-thousand miles away. But without taking that journey, this text can easily be used to justify horrors that are in direct opposition to Jesus' original intention.
So what is happening here? Well, let's take for example Jesus' command: if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. This has become something of a generic motivational catchphrase - “go the extra mile.” But there is, of course, much more to it. In the Roman Empire, the Empire in which Jesus and his audience lived, a Roman soldier was permitted to force an occupied person, in this case a Jew, once again Jesus and his audience, to carry his pack for one mile. The soldier was permitted to do this because, well, the Jews were less important than Roman soldiers and important people tell less important people what to do. That is how this world most often works.
To the Roman soldier, and to the Empire, that Jew might as well have been an animal, a donkey, a beast of burden – not a really person. This was a way to publicly humiliate, to belittle, to dehumanize, to strip another person of their dignity. It was like a white person sending a black person to the back of the bus. It was a way that the one with power could use that privilege to make another person feel less than human – to embarrass and belittle them. It was one of those small ways that the one with power keeps that power.
So of course, the Jews listening to Jesus would hate the practice and despise the soldiers who exploited them. It was a practice that promoted dehumanization by all the involved parties – both oppressor and oppressed were dehumanized in the process, seen, on the one hand, as monsters or, on the other, as animals. And yet Jesus tells his followers to keep carrying the pack – to continue to voluntarily do something humiliating, something dehumanizing. Now why would Jesus do this? Well, there was a limitation to what the soldier could require. A soldier could only require one mile of one person; to do otherwise might earn the soldier a punishment. And so carrying the extra mile was a form of non-violent resistance. It was clever and subversive in a way that did not require one to take up arms or passively accept abuse.
But in the context of Jesus' sermon, I think there is more to it. Because Jesus doesn't command his followers to shame their enemies. Jesus requires his followers to love their enemies.
By choosing to carry the pack an extra mile, the one being humiliated asserts his or her humanity – denies the oppressor's attempt to dehumanize – stubbornly claims dignity in the face of indignity. Walter Wink says, “[Jesus] is formulating a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity.”1 It is a powerful action; it is the subversive work of love; the enemy's salvation depends on his ability to recognize their common humanity. That can only happen in the second mile – when the walk becomes a choice – an act of defiant and unexpected kindness. In that extra mile, both the oppressor and the oppressed become more human by the power of love – love showed to an enemy. Only by the power of perfect love can one look into the face of the “enemy” and see a human being – equally in need of, and worthy of, God's grace.
That doesn't happen when the only choices are fight or flight. It only happens through creative non-violent resistance – the third way, the way of Jesus, the way of love. And Jesus did not just talk it; he lived it. Touching the unclean clean. Raising the dead. Freeing the tortured. Eating with the despised. His ministry challenged, resisted all of the ways in which people are denied their human dignity. He was not violent; but he was not passive. And when Jesus was confronted with the cross, again he didn't fight or flight. When Jesus was on the cross what he chose was love: Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing. From his cross, he looked at those who mocked him, who drove the nails through his wrists and rather than see enemies, he saw the image of God. Even on the cross, Jesus chose the way of love.
It was the only way to break the cycle of violence, the only way to defend the image of God. Non-violent resistance, soaked through with love, is the most courageous and most difficult action one can take in this violent world – foolishness to the violent, radical to the resigned.
Martin Luther King, Jr., who lived his life and ministry out of this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, famously said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Guns can't do that. Bombs can't do that. Force can't do that. Love is an amazing miracle – a miracle we so often take for granted. And it changes both the giver and the receiver. In an encounter with love nothing stays the same. When I love another human being – when I see in that other the face of God – that other person becomes more human – more human because they are loved. When I love another human being – when I risk my heart for another person – I am transformed as well. I become more like my Heavenly Parent – a little closer to the perfection to which Jesus calls us in today's Gospel.
So, what is happening here? Jesus is calling us to imagine a world beyond fight or flight, to have the courage to choose the third way, the way of love, to as Thomas Merton so eloquently put it, to “Be human in this most inhuman of ages; [to] guard the image of humanity for it is the image of God.”