I’ve been reading Jesus by Marcus Borg, and some of his clarifications about Jesus’ message were revelations to me. He reminded me that Jesus spoke to the lowest classes of his day — to the poor, the prostitutes, the powerless. His advice to them was cleverly designed to allow them to fight back, without breaking the laws of either God or the government.
“But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.”
According to Borg (who attributes his interpretation to Walter Wink), in Greek “resist” usually means “resist with violence.” So Jesus was not advocating non-resistance, but peaceful resistance.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
Borg points out that to be struck on the right cheek by a right-handed person (the majority), one would have to be backhanded. In the world of Roman occupation, a backhanded slap was an insult, often given to a prisoner. If you were to receive a backhanded slap and turned your cheek, you would be forcing the person who was hitting you to then give you an overhand blow — as to an equal. Essentially, you would be forcing your persecutor to treat you as an equal.
“If anyone wants to sue and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”
Most people in Jesus’s day wore two things: a long tunic and a cloak. If you gave up both, you would be standing there naked, and nakedness shamed the person who saw it. You would, in effect, be bringing shame to the wealthy person who had sued you.
“If anyone forces you to go with him one mile, go also the second mile.”
Imperial soldiers were in the habit of forcing peasants to carry their gear. It became a problem when they forced people to travel far from their homes, and the populace rebelled. A law was passed that a soldier could only have a peasant carry his gear for one mile — any more and he would face a penalty. A peasant going with him two miles would get the soldier in trouble.
For a poor man in a no-win situation with someone from the elite class, these responses give him a way to resist peacefully and perhaps to make a public point which would be noticed by others.
In these days when we see government encroaching in so many ways that are difficult to oppose, I think it’s helpful to remember that Jesus lived in a time of inequality and foreign occupation. We, too, can find ways to fight back without resorting to hate and violence.