Monday, April 11, 2011

Matthew 5.30: Non-violent Resistance? Creative, counter-cultural, and radical approach?

"But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." (Matthew 5.39)
Many have interpreted this passage as Jesus' creative and counter-cultural way to respond to oppressor. Some say that what Jesus was teaching here is radical.

Hence many have attributed this apparent creative, counter-cultural, and radical response as the third way: the non-violent resistance.

We shall examine how this interpretation has been validated by some of its most ardent advocates through the award winning book by Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee.
"In Jesus' culture, "to be struck on the right cheek was to be given a hostile, backhanded insult" with the back of the right hand. In that culture, it was forbidden to touch or strike anyone with the left hand; the left hand was for dirty things (Stassen, Just Peacemaking, 64-65, 68-69). To turn the other cheek was to surprise the insulter, saying nonviolently, "you are treating me as an unequal, but I need to be treated as an equal." Jesus is saying: if you are slapped on the cheek of inferiority, turn the cheek of equal dignity (Garland, Reading Matthew, 73ff.; Luz, Matthew 1-7, 327-29; Stassen, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives, 63-70; Stassen, "Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount"; Wink, Engaging the Powers, 175-177)."
(Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context [USA: IVP Press, 2003], p.138-139)
The four premises of this interpretation:
(a) It is forbidden to touch or strike anyone with left hand because the left hand is for dirty things.

(b) Therefore in order to strike someone's right cheek, one has to slap with the back of the right hand instead of the palm of the left hand.

(c) Strike a person's right cheek is a symbol of humiliation or insult.

(d) Subsequent offering of the left cheek after the right side is slapped is understood in that culture that the victim is demanding to be an equal with the insulter.
Stassen & Gushee quoted from these sources to make their four premises:
1) Glen H. Stassen, Just Peacemaking, 63-65, 68-70.
2) David E. Garland, Reading Matthew, 73ff.
3) Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, 327-329.
4) Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, 175-177.

Such interpretation has gained popularity. N. T. Wright quoted the same understanding in a 2001 BBC1 documentary:
"Often in the Sermon on the Mount we come upon saying which puzzle us initially because it sounds as if Jesus is saying just be a doormat and let people walk all over you, turning the other cheek is one example, but that is not what is it all about. If I give someone a blow on the right cheek it will be with the back of my right hand and many scholars have suggests that that is a demeaning, dismissive sort of thing to do which is what you'd do to a slave or child or, alas in that culture, a woman. So that to say okay now hit the other cheek is a way of saying hit me again if you want but this time do it so that we are equals. It is a way of reaffirming one's own dignity often with a kind of rye humor at the expense of the bully who is putting you down."
(Directed by Jean-Claude Bragard, Son of God, Part 2: The Mission, 2001, BBC1, 38.15 to 39.04min)
We shall see how each of these sources validate Stassen's and Gushee's four premises (a, b, c, and d). I'll quote only the specific section that has immediate relevance.

1) Glen H. Stassen, Just Peacemaking:
"Turn the other cheek. In the customs of that day, when someone gave a slap on the right cheek, it meant an insult by a superior who was taking you as inferior (Job 16.10; Ps 3.7; Lam 3.30; 1 Esd 4.30). To turn the other cheek was to stand up and affirm your own dignity as an equal human person, but without violence. It seized the initiative. In the custom then, the insulter would either have to recognize your dignity as an equal person by striking you on the left cheek or would have to back off. This was not a strategy of passivity but an initiative that asserted your dignity and confronted the other person nonviolently with his or her antihuman behavior (this is nicely explained by Walter Wink, Violence and Nonviolence, pp.15ff)."
(Glen H. Stassen, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace [USA: WJK Press, 1992], p.64-65. Bold original.)
Stassen pointed out to 4 passages from the biblical times:
Job 16.10: People open their mouths to jeer at me; they strike my cheek in scorn and unite together against me.

Psalm 3.7: Arise, Lord! Deliver me, my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked.

Lamentations 3.30: Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace.

1 Esdras 4.30: ...and [the king's concubine] take the crown from the king's head and put it on her own, and slap the king with her left hand.
Job, Psalm, and Lamentations do not say anything about (a), (b), and (d). These three passages point out that striking is scornful, destructive, and disgracing. These may back Stassen's and Gushee's point (c).

1 Esdras does not explicitly say anything about (a), (b), (c), and (d). Given that this passage talks about the power of women over men, probably Stassen understands this passage to mean that the king was so enticed by his concubine that he couldn't react appropriately even when his was humiliated in the worst way, being slapped by left hand that is meant only for dirty things. The problem is that we have no evidence of (a) which this interpretation presupposes.

The biblical passages that Stassen referred to do not establish his interpretation. He pointed to Walter Wink's work, which we will discuss below. This means that the main reliance of Stassen's interpretation of Matthew 5.39 is Walter Wink's interpretation.

2) David Garland, Reading Matthew:
"To be struck on the right cheek implies that a person has been slapped with the back of the hand. Jesus is therefore not simply urging his disciples to turn the other cheek when someone aims to blow at them but when someone assaults them with insulting violence. Such as calculated indignity is considered to be at least four times as injurious in the Mishnaic discussion on indemnities for violence:
If a man cuffed his fellow he must pay him a sela [four zuz; a zuz was approximately a day's wage]. R. Judah says in the name of R. Jose the Galilean: One hundred zuz. If he slapped him he must pay 200 zuz. If [he struck him] with the back of his hand he must pay him 400 zuz. (Mishna Baba Qamma 8.6)
[...] By turning the other cheek, for example, the victim "robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate." The oppressor must decide whether or not to slap the person again, but this time not as one would slap a slave with the back of the hand but as one would an equal. Wink contends that turning the cheek "seizes the initiative from the oppressor, overcomes fear, and reclaims the power of choice, all the while maintaining the humanity of the oppressor" (W. Wink, "We Have Met the enemy," Sojourners 15, no.11 [1986]: 15; see also "Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus' Nonviolent Way," RevExp 89 [1992]: 197-214)."
(David E. Garland, Reading Matthew: a literary and theological commentary [USA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2001], p.72-74)
The Mishna Baba Qamma 8.6 that Garland quoted points out the severity of slapping someone backhandedly. This probably supports (b) and (c). Garland does not argue much other than directly refer to the works of Walter Wink.

3) Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7:
The portion of 327-329 in Luz's commentary that Stassen and Gushee quoted does not talk about how the Matthew 5.39 can be interpreted within its cultural setting to mean what the two of them wrote it to mean. So I shall discuss the portion where Luz engages specifically with Matthew 5.39 than the portion Stassen and Gushee have highlighted.
"A slap in the face (v.39b) was considered as an expression of hate and insult; the insult and not the pain stands in the foreground (Isa. 50.6; Lam. 3.30). The addition of right, which perhaps comes from the evangelist to make it more precise, could mean an especially vehement insult. The slap on the right cheek is not the ordinary thing; for that one either has to be left-handed or slap with the back of the hand (B. Qam. 8.6, 1 Esd. 4.30). But it is more probably that it was made more precise arbitrarily for rhetorical reasons. No special situation is in view. It is neither the issue that a master beats his slave or the oppressor the oppressed nor the waiver of legal retribution for insults nor slaps on the cheek which the disciples receive during the mission ("as heretics"), but rather any kind of violent altercation possible in everyday life. Slaps are so widespread that it is unnecessary to awaken special reminiscences of the servant of God os Isa. 50.6, who was beaten."
(Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Continental Commentary [USA: Augsburg fortress, 1989], p.325)
Luz's commentary only supports (b) and (c). There is no evidence that show (a) and (d). Hence Luz's work contribute little to the interpretation that Stassen and Gushee insist.

4) Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers:
"Turn the Other Cheek. "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." Why the right cheek? A blow by the right fist in the right-handed world would land on the left cheek of the opponent. An open-handed slap would also strike the left cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. Even to gesture with the left hand at Qumran carried the penalty of ten days' penance. The only way one could naturally strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand. We are dealing here with insult, not a fistfight. The intention is clearly not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. One normally did not strike a peer thus, and if one did the fine was exorbitant. The mishnaic tractate Baba Kamma specifies the various fines for striking an equal: for slugging with a fist, 4 zuz (a zuz was a day's wage); for slapping, 200 zuz; but "if [he struck him] with the back of his hand he must pay him 400 zuz." But damages for indignity were not paid to slaves who were struck (8.1-7).

A backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would invite retribution. The only normal response would be cowering submission.

Part of the confusion surrounding these sayings arises from the failure to ask who Jesus' audience was. In all three of the examples in Matt. 5.39b-41, Jesus' listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor, but their victims (if anyone strikes you... wants to sue you... forces you to go one mile..."). There were among his hearers people who were subjected to these very indignities, forced to stifle outrage at their dehumanizing treatment by the hierarchical system of class, race, gender, age, and status, and as a result of imperial occupation.

Why then does he counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, "Try again. Your fist blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter the fact. You cannot demean me."

Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the strike. Purely logistically, how would he hit the other cheek now turned to him? He cannot backhand it with his right hand (one only need try this to see the problem). If he hits with a fist, he makes the other his equal, acknowledging him as a peer. But the point of the back of the hand is to reinforce institutionalized inequality. Even if the superior orders ther person flogged for such "cheeky" behaviour (this is certainly no way to avoid conflict!), the point has been irrevocably made. He has been given notice that this underling is in fact a human being. In that world of honor and shaming, he has been rendered impotent to instill shame in a subordinate. He has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. As Gandhi taught, "The first principle of nonviolent action is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating.""
(Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination [USA: Augsburg Fortress, 1992], 175-177. Emphasis original.)
No evident for (a) and (d). Wink simply assumes without evidence that left hand was used for unclean task and so not appropriate to humiliate people by slapping them. But if the purpose is to humiliate, shouldn't one use the dirty hand to strike the other person? That would be extra-humiliating.

Wink also assumes without evidence that Jesus' listeners were victims. Jesus was giving hypothetical situations ("If anyone strikes/sues/forces you...") rather than identifying his listeners as real victims of events that have already occurred. And the 'anyone' in this passage means that Jesus' teaching is not confined to "dehumanizing treatment carried out within a hierarchical system."

As conclusion, there is no coherent evidence to support the cultural setting that generates the symbol of 'non-violent resistance' that so many contemporary scholars want it to mean, building on Wink's proposal. Such hermeneutical exercise is driven more by other concern rather than what the text says. As Malcolm Brown observed, "Wink's point is to distance Jesus from the charge of passivity and to stress that pacifism, properly understood, is not inert. He wants to make this move because, on other scriptural grounds, he sees Jesus' resistance to oppression and injustice as the 'bigger story', and so the limp passivity implied in most interpretations of Matthew 5 must be wrong." (Malcolm Brown, Tension in Christian Ethics: An Introduction [UK: SPCK, 2010], p.219).


Alex Tang said...

Thank you for this exegesis of Matthe 5:30. I believe this is the basis of the non-violence movement.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Alex, thank you for your interest and reading. You believe that Matthew 5.39 is THE basis?

As you're aware, my sources are only limited to four or five people. Have you come across anyone else who argue from this passage as the basis of non-violence movement?

Alex Tang said...

I also read a long time ago that offering your left cheek disllow a right hand back slap. The right handed opponent can only hit you with a open palm which is considered assault under Roman laws.

Also the extra mile. A Roman legionaire can as the local to carry his kit for one mile. Two miles is an offence.

Jesus' response is to get their oppressors in trouble under Roman laws.

I have been trying to find who wrote that since but is not able to. Any idea?

Sze Zeng said...

That's new to me, Alex. Have not read this interpretation before.

It seems that people have been trying ways to interpret this passage to make sense of it.

If my post is correct, then we have only two ways:

1) Matt 5.39 is talking about pacifism. Hence we should be pacifists. (But neither is pacifist ideal since it can be evil when it directly enables harm to be inflicted on ourselves or those around us).

2) We still don't know how to understand it. Hence we should not try to build our political theology/christian ethics/pastoral theology on this passage.

SHWong said...

I read all 3 interpretations from Wright, the slapping, the tunic thing, and the carrying. Since all point towards the same direction of active resistance, I support the conclusions of Wright.

Maiorem said...

Are you aware of Tekton Education and Apologetics Ministries?

reasonable said...

I suspect in this instance (W)right is wrong (along with others who argued similarly as him) :p

The immediate context of the passage is to encourage a response that is radically opposite to "eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth".

Also, the text reads explicitly "do not resist" - which may really be encouraging non-resistance rather than encouraging resistance that is of a non-violent type.

The broader context also encourages radical behaviours that are radically different from the reasonable norms.

Non-resistance is more radical than non-violent resistance.

The text explicitly says "do not resist him who is evil".

Perhaps this has some relationship with the tradition preserved in the book of Hebrews where it talked about leaving vengeance to God ("vengeance is Mine" etc).


reasonable said...

I have some thought regarding the following idea heard/read by Alex Tang and I quote here: "Also the extra mile. A Roman legionaire can as the local to carry his kit for one mile. Two miles is an offence. Jesus' response is to get their oppressors in trouble under Roman laws."

Instead of the perspective just quoted, Jesus' teaching about going the extra mile is probably more appropriately understood this way:

The locals are obliged to go one mile with the Roman soldiers, but Jesus was not telling the people to use creative means to get their oppressors into trouble, but to exhort them to BEHAVE RADICALLY DIFFERENT FROM THOSE WHO SEEK JUSTICE/FAIRNESS (eye for eye) by doing what is beyond their legal obligation, to go beyond "duty". Such an interpretation fits better with the whole "Sermon on the Mount" context which is filled with teachings exhorting radical behaviour.

Such an interpretation goes well with the explicit reported teaching of Jesus "do NOT resist him who is evil".

First, Jesus started off by saying "do NOT RESIST him who is evil" and then he used 3 illustrations to illustrate that teaching: turn the other cheek, giving away more than what another person forcefully want to take from you and going the extra mile. All these have the common feature of giving more than

The reasonable norm would be to to resist evil and seek justice (it is a reasonable expectation/behaviour to seek justice, but Jesus was radical: he exhorted people to be RADICALLY GRACIOUS instead of seeking justice and instead of resisting evil persons; he taught his listeners to graciously give to evil people what they do not deserved e.g. the extra mile). Jesus seemed to want to teach something radically different from such the reasonable norm of resisting evil. Hence he told his audience NOT TO SEEK EYE FOR EYE OR TOOTH FOR TOOTH (which is justice), but instead they should do this: NOT TO RESIST HIM WHO IS EVIL.

Give to what the evil person wants, and give the evil person more than what he wants. If he wants your shirt, give him the shirt but offer also the coat to him. If he wants you to go one mile, go another mile with him.

Tentatively I suspect the above (RADICAL NON-RESISTANCE) is a more probable reflection of Jesus' intention then the idea that Jesus was teaching creative non-violent resistance.

reasonable said...


One more problem with "A Roman legionaire can as the local to carry his kit for one mile. Two miles is an offence. Jesus' response is to get their oppressors in trouble under Roman laws."

If the oppressed subject voluntarily offer to go the extra mile, then the Roman soldier would not have broken any law due to the voluntary nature of the case. So if this was intended by Jesus as a creative means to get the Roman oppressor into trouble, then it fails. Unless Jesus expected the oppressed subject to lie to accuse the Roman soldier forcing him to go the second mile. But Jesus would not have expected the oppressed subject to lie for such a purpose as it contradicts what Jesus taught (e.g. within the Sermon on the Mount: let your yes be yes and your no be no).

Sze Zeng has pointed out the problem of treating the slapping example as a creative non-violent resistance: if the left hand is indeed too unclean and therefore unfit to slap people, and if the slapper, as claimed by various scholars, really intended to humiliate by using the back of the right hand to slap the right cheek of the oppressed subject, then the oppressor must as well use his left hand to slap the right cheek.

I do not think Jesus was thinking into such details. Jesus was just using the slapping example to illustrate what he just said: "do not resist him who is evil".

Until better evidence shows otherwise, I submit that Jesus was probably not teaching Creative Non-Violent Resistance but instead he was teaching Radical Non-resistance.

"do not resist him who is evil" - Jesus


reasonable said...

How Radical Was Jesus:

You have heard An Eye for an Eye.

But I tell you, if someone forces you and removed your left eye, offer him your right eye too.

You have heard A Tooth for A Tooth.

But I tell you, if someone removed a tooth from you, offer him another tooth too.

(The above probably expresses or reflects what Jesus taught in another manner)

Give him what he does not deserved; give beyond what he demanded.

Do not resist him who is evil!

(some people may disagree with Jesus but the issue here is to try to discern what Jesus taught, regardless of whether he taught correctly)

Martin Yee said...

Just read this great post. Thanks. For most Lutherans, we see the Sermon on the Mount as Law. It basically "kills" us to make us alive. Jesus is radicalizing the Law to "terrorise" those who are comfortable in thinking that they have got what it takes to fulfill the Law's demands on their own without Christ. The Law drives us to look to the Cross. Thus I will agree more with "reasonable" about this speaking of non-resistance which is more radical than non-violent resistance.