But I say to you, 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. Matthew 5:39-40
For some reason, I have been mulling over these Matthew verses and pondering what they mean in this time of unrest. Searching to make sense of the passage, I found many interpretations about it and its preceding verse, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'" While learning that the Old Testament famous words are prescribing not revenge but a limitation of revenge so as not to escalate violence, I grappled with common understandings and misunderstandings of the 39th and 40th verses. Some hear Jesus' words as a call to pacifism, an admonition to endure, or a savvy manner of dealing with a personal insult or injury by turning away from the legal vindication prescribed in Deuteronomy. After all, you cannot use your unclean left hand to strike again, or see the nudity of a person whose coat and cloak you take, because both acts are against the law!
The passage still did not make sense. Obviously the key was in the word "resist," as we can cite plenty of occasions when Jesus resisted in the face of evil: among them, saying no to the temptations in his forty days in the desert; casting out demons by naming them, thus exposing them; or denouncing the selling of merchandise at the Temple, sacrifices that could not be brought but bought at high price on the spot, thus robbing the pilgrims and filling the coffers of the priests. In the Greek text the word for "resist," antistenai, means "to stand against," to react violently to an offense. And if we are to reject revenge, standing passively is not the needed answer either. Jesus does not end his sentence at "Do not resist an evildoer." He continues with "but," carving a breach for another path. The Greek word stenai, "to stand," appears in Ephesians 6:13, when Paul admonishes the people to "put on the whole armor of God" and to "stand firm." By standing firm against an opponent, by affirming our opposition in a non-violent way, we defy evil and change the discourse. In his book The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millenium, Walter Wink discusses this passage and calls it "Jesus' third way." "Jesus," he writes, "is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms. We are not to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition." As followers of Jesus believing in social justice, how do we stand firm when we see evil?
On May 27th, George Floyd's awful death, taped by a bystander, struck a chord and resonated around the world. Protests of black and white people under the banner of Black Lives Matter took place in cities and towns over the country. But the death of black people at the hands of police or vigilantes is nothing new, despite the fifty years since the end of segregation. I recall a discussion several years ago at Theology on Tap where Pastor Beverly was explaining "the talk" black parents had to have with their growing sons. I cannot forget Trayvon Martin, 17, and his hoodie; Tamir Rice, 12, and his toy gun; Stephon Clark, 22, and his cell phone in his grandmother's backyard; Freddie Gray, 25, hands and feet shackled and tossed to death in a police van.
Evil is ever present in history. Think of the Nazi Final Solution, the four-year Cambodian Killing Fields, the 100-day Rwanda genocide, all pre-meditated crimes. In each situation, the leaders were trying to eliminate part of the population in cold blood. But we cannot compare the evil of destructive regimes with America's unique situation. The crimes committed in other nations were addressed after the defeat of the enemy, but not here. Having been born in another country, I learned American history bit by bit on my own. In the South I was intrigued by the War of Secession, as we call it in France. How could people, sometimes relatives, or officers who had attended the same school or learned war tactics on the same battlefields fight against each other? I had heard of the KKK, but didn't know what black codes meant, and wondered who this Jim Crow could be! I was appalled when I realized the short time it took to replace slavery with the evil of segregation; how the Supreme Court's decisions allowed and cemented the flood of Jim Crow laws; and how not just the South but the whole nation was incapable of "dealing" with the presence of black people and offended at the idea of sharing the wealth of the country with them. It was not a matter of being pro-slavery anymore, it was the belief that white people were superior to black people. So how do we stand firm for justice in a country that at every turn doubled down and refined the well-oiled machine of redlining and gerrymandering, creating jarring disparities in housing, bad mortgage offers, cash bail and fines for petty traffic violations, leading slowly but surely to incarceration? How can we pretend the social problems of black America are self-inflicted, when white America is the one who put in place everything to keep the black America from becoming her equal?
In order to stand firm in the face of evil, we have to identify where the injustice came from. In his article published on Medium "Slavery Is Not America's Original Sin, and to Think So Misses the Point," Sam Heath quotes the following words from Wendell Berry's book The Hidden Wound: " [T]he root of our racial problem in America is not racism. The root is in our inordinate desire to be superior.... It seems likely, then, that what we now call racism came about as a justification of slavery after the fact, not as its cause."
Before God, there is no hiding, no self-justification. When on the side of evil, we don't name the sin, we deny it, because we are busy justifying our behavior. Repentance is not part of the equation. When we lay down our anger, our bullying, our weapons, and we admit evil whether present outside or inside of us, we can now repent and stand firm for good. Maybe in a non-violent protest. Maybe in sharing our coat, our dinner. Maybe in genuinely seeking the neighbor in the former stranger.
So do not respond violently to an Evildoer. But if anyone wounds your brother or sister, take Jesus' third way, stand firm with them, use your voice for them, share radical love with them. Amen.