Thursday, April 22, 2010

Fight, Flight or Something All Together Different?

"You have heard it said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles"
Jesus, Matthew 5: 38 - 41

For the longest time I thought of this saying of Jesus to be one of the hallmark teachings regarding how we, as believers, handle conflict. I even have a recollection from my childhood of being told to "turn the other cheek" when I was being insulted by a bully in the neighbourhood; there seemed to be martyr like nobility (pride?) that went hand in hand with the "sacrifice" of having "gone the extra mile" or passively allowing some oppressive person the advantage over us. It was, after all, the good Christian thing to do.

Now I do not believe that these scriptures have anything to do with conflict "per se", but rather, talk about justice for the oppressed, taking back dignity, and standing for ones convictions. These are all transcendent themes, but broken down, the same principle of dignity could be applied to all our conflicts, whether they be conflicts on the grand scale, like pushing back against the injustice of an oppressive regime, or standing against the bullying of a beligerent neighbour.

It has been said - by all sorts of "gists" (sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, evolutionists) that humans generally have two responses to conflict/oppression - fight or flight. Typically, when we are threathened, we either put up the dukes, and meet violence with violence, or we run away; we either strike in kind or we passively submit to injustice. Jesus abhorred/s both responses.

According to Walter Wink (Catholic New Time, February 13, 2005) when the King James bible was first translated, the word "antistenai" was tranlated as "resist not evil", which basically resulted in an intrepetation of docilitiy, instead of the more truer "non violent resistance". So what DID Jesus mean when He said "do not resist the evil person"? First, it is important to note that the "evil person" refered to is one who uses violence to oppress. So, more properly, He was saying "do not retaliate against violence (or the violent oppressive person) with violence."

In every case, Jesus is referring to a regime, government, organization, or system that is violent and oppressive, and in the culture of the day, He was talking about either or all of the occupiers (Roman government and the Roman soldiers), as well as the oppressive ruling class of Jews, who lorded it over the regular folk. In other words, as Walter Wink would say, Jesus was referring to the "powers that be". And who was Jesus talking to when He spoke these words? He was talking to those who were being oppressed - the poor, women, lepers, and the regular folk who "had burdens placed on them" by the ruling classes, including the rich Jewish ruling class and the Roman occupiers. So it is in this context that these scriptures need to be understood.

So, what did He mean when He said "turn the other cheek"? And why the reference to the RIGHT cheek, which naturally leads to the "other" cheek being the LEFT. Why the specificity? Why did He not simply say "if someone hits your cheek, turn to him the one he did not hit".

First, in those days, as it is now, it is a right handed world. How does one strike one on the right cheek with the right hand? Certainly, in that culture, it would not have been with an open left palm...using the left hand was reserved for "unclean things". That is one of the reasons left handedness was so scorned in days of old. So, to use the left hand to strike someone meant you were using your unclean hand and the humility was on you, not them! Moreover, it was technically against the law to strike anyone with an open palm or closed fist; it certainly was against the law to strike an equal; the only "lawful" strike was when a superior struck his/her subordinate, and the only way permitted by law was with the back of the right hand. A backhanded slap on the right cheek...the instrument of humility and degradation.

The key is that one was only allowed to strike a subordinate (slave owner striking slave, husband striking wife, parent striking child, Roman striking Jew, rich Jew striking poor Jew, aristrocrat striking regular folk) Because of this, by backhanding someone on the right cheek you were saying "you are less than me, less than human, I have power over you, to degrade and humiliate you".

When Jesus told those who were being backhanded in this humiliating way to "turn to them the other cheek also", He basically was saying "steal their power and take it for yourself". First, the very act of "turning them the other cheek" meant that they turned their face back towards the oppressor and looked them in the eye...this is the act of an equal. Secondly, by turning the left cheek as an invitation for another strike, they were essentially saying "try again, you failed the first time, you have not achieved your intended effect, I am not humiliated, I am not degraded, you have not stolen anything from me, I do not give you power over me, and in fact, I am your equal and I dare you to strike me again".

If the oppressor was to strike again in the same backhanded manner, he would be breaking the law (something very undignified in that strict Jewish culture); so the only alternative would be to strike the offered left cheek, which meant he would have to use either an open right hand slap, or a closed right hand fist, which would have been an admission to the person whom they had backhanded that "you are now my equal". A bit of a quandary, and Jesus knew it!

So, Jesus was neither saying "fight", nor was He saying "be passive and docile". He was teaching a whole new, and revolutionary thing about taking back power, and realizing dignity. To the people of the day this teaching was radical! He was telling them YOU ARE EQUAL to all those who oppress and rule over you, and here is how you balance the power. More about that (power) when I post next on what He meant when teaching about giving up your coat, and going the extra mile. Then I'll summarize it all on how understanding power and understanding what Jesus was teaching, can translate into our day to day dealings with conflict and oppression.

Oh, this is fun!

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