“Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Matthew 5:39-41
We tend to think that power requires money. Lots of it. Or political clout, which these days often goes hand in hand. Or, we associate power with raw physical strength and the ability to retaliate with violence. A big defense arsenal. The most cutting-edge in military technology. Or, a paddle on the behind of a misbehaving child.
But what if real power were actually very different from all these things?
The story goes that during the years of apartheid in South Africa, white Afrikaner soldiers with bulldozers came upon a squatters’ village of poor black South African women. The soldiers told the women they had a few minutes to evacuate before the bulldozers would come in and demolish their homes. The women had to think quickly. Their men were away- many of them at work. Any effort to resist with violence would be foolish. What were they to do? Stand by as their homes crumpled in the merciless claws of the bulldozers?
They knew about Dutch Afrikaners’ strict moral puritanism. So they did the one thing they could think to do in the moment. They stripped right down to their underwear- and then they took these off, too. They got buck naked, with the result being that the men turned and ran and the squatters’ village remained standing. All thanks to a few bare, naked ladies.
Real power looks a bit like this. Real power resists the easier, more natural impulse to take up arms and strike back at a wrongdoer. “You heard it was said, ‘an eye for an eye,’” Jesus tells us in the preceding verse.
Real power charts a different course: “But I tell you,” Jesus says, “do not resist an evil person. But…” Which is not to say “be a pushover.” Jesus isn’t looking for a few trusty doormats.
The harder way, one that rejects acquiescence to violence, be it in the form of giving in or taking up arms, is to insist on our humanity before one who would seek to dehumanize us. To insist not with words but with actions, so that we essentially poke fun at or shine a light on our enemy’s oppressive tactics. So that we ridicule the ridiculousness of those who mistreat us.
To hit someone on the cheek in Jesus’ time was to treat them as less than an equal. Like a servant. So to turn one’s cheek would be in essence to send a clear message: “if you want to hit me, do it like an equal.”
To take someone’s coat would have been in some cases to take someone’s only outerwear, so that all they had was their underwear in the form of the cloak. To give the cloak as well would have been to strip down naked in front of one’s oppressor- as if to say, much like the bare, naked ladies of the squatters’ village, “Would you rob me of everything, even the clothes on my back?”
In Jesus’ day, Roman soldiers often asked civilian passersby to carry their packs. One mile was the limit. A second mile was illegal. To offer to go the second mile would have been to critique that society’s glorification of empire and conquest over all else.
These subversions of worldly power belong to a great big divine conspiracy to remake the world. When Jesus could turn stones into bread or wow the crowds with his miraculous, superhero powers, He in his humanity chooses instead to depend on God for nourishment and give God alone the glory. When Jesus could rain down lethal thunderbolts or launch divine, drone attacks on those who crucify Him, He instead allows His enemies to pin him up on a cross. Bleeding to love us. Like a bare, naked sign that reads: “This is what we do to God around here.”
Jesus endures this humiliation in order to let us in on a new way of being human. A mode of existence that relies on God for new life rather than on our own cockeyed efforts. That reinforces how loved we really are as those made “in the image of God,” and empowers us to share that message with one another and the world. And here Jesus is not just inviting but admonishing us to take part in the great conspiracy.
But how do we practice real power in our context? How might we incarnate it in our relationships at home and in the public sphere? What might it look like as a way of life?
When one partner cheats on his or her partner, the aggrieved partner’s “turning of the other cheek” might mean preparing a five-course, candlelit dinner date for their spouse and his or her new love interest. When homeowners face the prospect of foreclosing to banks whose predatory lending policies caused the problem in the first place, “giving up one’s coat” might mean handing over not just one’s house but everything in it. Including the coy fish, lava lamp and full-size replica of Elvis. Maybe even throwing in one’s clothes. When an exploitative manager demands longer work hours from employees, “going the second mile” might mean offering to go without meals and no overtime pay, and then publicizing the offer with local media outlets.
These forms of resistance point to a whole, new way of being human and engaging the world. One that does not simply reinforce the status quo or trade in the same corrupt currencies of money, political power and violence, but rather calls them into question, by subverting and shining a light on the injustice. Or, by caricaturing the exploitation, thereby laughing at it- so as to deflate it of its power.
Jesus’ death on the cross? Were it not so tragic, it could just as well be God’s laugh. A “joke’s on you” moment in the history of the world, with Christ’s resurrection as the punch line. In this sense, when we play our part in the divine conspiracy, we become fellow comedians taking cues from a Master of stand-up comedy.
And, I’m sure those women in the squatters’ village shared some good laughs as they pulled up their pants and buttoned up their shirts.