In the passage known as the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus said:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let them have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
For most Americans this sounds rather passive, as though Jesus is telling us to let ourselves be abused, but champions of nonviolent resistance like Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this passage very differently.
In the face of evil and oppression most people think there are two alternatives: aggressive and violent resistance, or passive acceptance. This, of course, has led to Christianity baptizing centuries of war-mongering and to Christians acquiescing to various holocausts.
In my opinion though, Jesus was offering a third way. In a 2005 article entitled “Christian Nonviolence,” Walter Wink wrote:
Can people engaged in oppressive acts repent unless they are made uncomfortable? There is, admittedly, the danger of using nonviolence as a tactic of revenge and humiliation. There is also, at the opposite extreme, an equal danger of sentimentality and softness that confuses the uncompromising love of Jesus with being nice. Loving confrontation can free both the oppressed from docility and the oppressor from sin.
Dr. Wink goes on to say:
Even if nonviolent action does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor, it does affect those committed to it. As Martin Luther King, Jr. attested, it gives them new self-respect and calls on strength and courage they did not know they had. To those with power, Jesus’ advice to the powerless may seem paltry. But to those whose lifelong pattern has been to cringe, bow, and scrape before their masters, to those who have internalized their role as inferiors, this small step is momentous.
You see, in the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus is speaking to oppressed people who are virtually powerless. To them, Jesus is saying, “When someone who has the power to take your life strikes you on one cheek, don’t play the role of victim. Take charge and offer them the other.” Jesus is advocating that we live out of a place of spiritual power that is ultimately greater than violence.
Rev. Michael Piazza