A Lutheran pastor/theologian in Nazi Germany. A Catholic laywoman and journalist in New York City. A black Baptist preacher in the American South. A Trappist monk in Kentucky. These four individuals – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thomas Merton – came from very different backgrounds and lived in very different social contexts. And yet, they were all drawn to the way of nonviolence. Indeed, they became four of the most influential advocates of Christian nonviolence in the twentieth century.
What brought them to this place? What did these four apostles of nonviolence have in common? Quite simply, it was the Sermon on the Mount.
The German Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was profoundly influenced by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In a letter to his brother Karl-Friedrich, in 1935, he wrote: “I believe I know that inwardly I shall be really clear and honest only when I have begun to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount. Here is set the only source of power capable of exploding the whole enchantment and specter [of Hitler and his rule] so that only a few burnt-out fragments are left remaining from the fireworks. The restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism which has in common with the old only the uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount in the following of Christ. I believe it is now time to call people to this.” Bonhoeffer elaborated on his views on the Sermon on the Mount in his book The Cost of Discipleship, published in 1937.
For Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, the Sermon on the Mount was nothing less than a “manifesto” calling Christians to be peacemakers. Similarly, for Martin Luther King, Jr., the Sermon on the Mount provided the basic philosophy that guided the civil rights movement. In Stride Toward Freedom, King’s account of the Montgomery bus boycott, he wrote: “From the beginning a basic philosophy guided the movement. This guiding principle has since been referred to variously as nonviolent resistance, noncooperation, and passive resistance. But in the first days of the protest none of these expressions was mentioned; the phrase most often heard was “Christian love.” It was the Sermon on the Mount, rather than a doctrine of passive resistance, that initially inspired the Negroes of Montgomery to dignified social action. It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love.”
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton, too, found Christian nonviolence to be rooted in the Sermon on the Mount, specifically in the beatitudes. In his 1967 essay “Blessed are the Meek: The Christian Roots of Non-Violence,” Merton wrote: “The great historical event, the coming of the Kingdom, is made clear and is ‘realized’ in proportion as Christians themselves live the life of the Kingdom in the circumstances of their own place and time. . . . The chief place in which this new mode of life is set forth in detail is the Sermon on the Mount. At the very beginning of this great inaugural discourse, the Lord numbers the beatitudes, which are the theological foundation of Christian nonviolence: Blessed are the poor . . . blessed are the meek (Matthew 5:3-4). . . . the meekness and humility which Christ extolled in the Sermon on the Mount . . . are the basis of true Christian nonviolence.”
In this morning’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus’ teachings about loving one’s enemies and turning the other cheek. Most Christians tend to ignore these words of Jesus, dismissing them as too impractical and idealistic to be taken seriously. Indeed, Gandhi once quipped that “the only people on earth who do not see Christ and his teachings as nonviolent are Christians.” It’s true! We tend to think of turning the other cheek as a weak and wimpy response to violence. It sounds too passive, as if we who follow Jesus are supposed to live as human doormats, allowing others to walk all over us.
I want to argue, this morning, that Jesus’ teachings about loving one’s enemies and turning the other cheek have nothing to do with being passive in the face of injustice or acquiescing to evil. Rather, they have everything to do with standing up to evil and injustice, offering a “third way” to respond to conflict other than fighting back violently or running away.
But wait a minute, doesn’t this passage begin with Jesus saying ”Do not resist an evildoer”? What about that? Well, according to Biblical scholar Walter Wink, that translation from the original Greek is misleading. The Greek word translated ‘resist’ is antistenai, which literally means to stand against. But it usually refers to warfare, where two opposing armies “stand against” each other. Antistenai refers not simply to resistance but to violent resistance. So, Jesus is speaking against violent resistance to evil. We should oppose evil, but not on its own terms. A far better translation of this verse is the Scholars Version: ”Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.”
Instead, Jesus says, “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; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” In each of these scenarios, Jesus is offering an alternative to the usual responses to conflict of fight or flight – either hitting back or running away. Jesus’ “third way,” as Walter Wink outlines it, involves standing one’s ground, seizing the moral initiative, and finding a creative alternative to violence. It means recognizing one’s own power, asserting one’s own humanity and dignity as a person, refusing to submit to or to accept the inferior position, breaking the cycle of humiliation. It means being willing to suffer rather than retaliate and to undergo the penalty of breaking unjust laws, thereby exposing the injustice of the system and depriving the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective.
Someone striking you on the right cheek, Wink points out, would have used his right hand to do so, since the left hand was used in Jesus’ day only for unclean tasks. So, Jesus is referring to someone slapping you with the back of his hand, which was a way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves. Romans did the same to Jews. It was a way of putting someone of inferior status in his or her place. Under such circumstances, for an inferior to retaliate against a superior would have been suicidal, Wink says. But by turning the other cheek, they could rob their oppressors of the power to humiliate them. By turning the other cheek they would be saying, in effect, “Try again. Hitting me with the back of your hand did not achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status (gender, race, age, wealth) does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.”
This puts the superior in a difficult position. What does he do? Does he hit the other cheek? If so, how? You can’t backhand it with your right hand. And if you use your right fist, you make yourself an equal, acknowledging the other as a peer. But the whole point of the backhanded slap was to reinforce the inequality between you. By turning the other cheek, the person of inferior status has refused to submit, seized the moral initiative, asserted his or her human dignity, and thrown the superior off-balance. That is Jesus’ third way of nonviolent engagement.
In Jesus’ second example, a debtor falling ever deeper into poverty is unable to pay his debt and so his creditor takes him to court to exact payment by legal means. All the debtor has left are his woolen outer garment, which would serve as his blanket at night, and his linen undergarment or tunic shirt. Once the creditor takes his coat, all the poor man has left is the shirt on his back. By giving the creditor his shirt as well, the debtor stands before everyone stark naked, as if to say, “Here, take everything! Now you have everything except my body. Will you take that next?” There was less shame in being naked than in viewing or causing the nakedness. So by stripping naked, the debtor turns the tables on the creditor, shaming him, and also protesting against the whole economic system that caused the poor man’s indebtedness in the first place.
A third example of Jesus’ third way is “going the second mile.” Here Jesus is referring to the right of a Roman soldier to force a civilian to carry his pack for one mile, but no further. By carrying the soldier’s pack a second mile a civilian would again be seizing the moral initiative, asserting his human dignity, and throwing the soldier off-balance.
Some people are willing to concede that Jesus’ nonviolent ethic might work at the individual level – person-to-person – but they argue that it would not work in social conflicts between groups of people, and certainly not on a national or international scale. But this argument doesn’t hold water given the long history of nonviolent social movements. Think of the movement to abolish slavery, the women’s suffrage movement, the labor movement, and the civil rights movement. The history of nonviolent struggle is long, but it’s largely forgotten. Remember the Indian Independence Movement led by Gandhi against the British. Remember the nonviolent “people power” revolution in the Philippines that brought down the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. Remember the pro-democracy movements in Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia that ousted communist regimes in 1989. Remember the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa that brought an end to white minority rule.
The recent revolution in Egypt is the latest example of the extraordinary power of nonviolent action. Yes, there was some violence in Cairo, much of it apparently instigated by agent provocateurs and security forces. But most of the time, the Egyptian crowds in Tahir Square were peaceful. They did not take up arms against the government. They did not riot in the streets. They engaged in peaceful, orderly protest. And in just 18 days they were able to topple a dictator who had been in power for 30 years! It is astounding!
Jesus’ “third way” of nonviolent action may not work in all circumstances, but the historical record shows that it is a powerful means of engaging in conflict, and can be used successfully in struggles for justice, human rights, and self-determination.
Perhaps you’ve seen this bumper sticker: “When Jesus said love your enemies, I’m pretty sure he meant don’t kill them.” Indeed! Jesus’ “third way” of nonviolent action offers us a means of confronting our enemies without killing them, without resorting to violence. Would that more Christians would recognize this and embrace Jesus’ “third way” of nonviolence.
Coretta Scott King says that: “At the dawn of the twenty-first century, we have an historic opportunity for a great global healing and renewal. If we will accept the challenge of nonviolent activism with faith, courage, and determination, we can bring this great vision of a world united in peace and harmony from a distant ideal into a glowing reality.” May it be so. Amen.