Yet the Sermon on the Mount seems to recommend passive acceptance of injustice and oppression. According to Matthew 5:39-41, Jesus says:
If any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well.
If any one forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
For much of Christian history, people have heard these verses as affirming political acquiescence, not active resistance. Yet King and Gandhi interpreted Jesus as justifying political action. Which interpretation was right?
Recent Jesus scholarship suggests these verses are creative non-violent strategies of protesting oppression. Such is the persuasive argument of New Testament scholar Walter Wink.
In his books "Engaging the Powers" and "The Powers That Be," Wink argues that Jesus rejected two common ways of responding to injustice: violent resistance and passive acceptance. Instead, Jesus advocated a "third way," an assertive but non-violent form of protest.
The key to understanding Wink's argument is rigorous attention to the social customs of the Jewish homeland in the first century and what these sayings would have meant in that context.
To illustrate with the saying about turning the other cheek: it specifies that the person has been struck on the right cheek. How can you be struck on the right cheek? As Wink emphasizes, you have to act this out in order to get the point: you can be struck on the right cheek only by an overhand blow with the left hand, or with a backhand blow from the right hand. (Try it).
But in that world, people did not use the left hand to strike people. It was reserved for "unseemly" uses. Thus, being struck on the right cheek meant that one had been backhanded with the right hand. Given the social customs of the day, a backhand blow was the way a superior hit an inferior, whereas one fought social equals with fists.
Perhaps the beating would not have been stopped by this. But for the superior, it would at the very least have been disconcerting: he could continue the beating only by treating the peasant as a social peer. As Wink puts it, the peasant was in effect saying, "I am your equal. I refuse to be humiliated anymore."
That is not all. The sayings about "going the second mile" and "giving your cloak to one who sues you for your coat" make a similar point: they suggest creative non-violent ways of protesting oppression.
Roman law permitted soldiers to force civilians to carry their gear for one mile, but because of abuses stringently prohibited more than one mile.
If they ask you to do that, Jesus says, go ahead; but then carry their gear a second mile. Put them in a disconcerting situation: either they risk getting in trouble, or they will have to wrestle their gear back from you.
Under civil law, a coat could be confiscated for non-payment of debt. For the poor, the coat often also served as a blanket at night. In that world, the only other garment typically worn by a peasant was an inner grament, a cloak.
So if they take your coat, Jesus says, give them your cloak as well. "Strip naked," as Wink puts it. Show them what the system is doing to you. Moreover, in that world, nakedness shamed the person who observed it.
Thus, these sayings from the Sermon on the Mount, these seemingly mild sayings, are actually potent ways of confounding and exposing injustice. King and Gandhi may not have been aware of the finer points of modern Biblical scholarship, but they were no doubt clear that Jesus was counseling a radical new way of empowering the underclass.
And so, those little verses from the Gospel of Matthew are the foundation upon which King and Gandhi built their world-moving campaigns for social justice.
Used with permission of The Search for Jesus e-course.