Back in 2002, the late theologian Walter Wink (d. 2012) ran a workshop at my current church about “militant nonviolence.” “The idea, he said, was not to be a doormat to aggressors but to turn their arrogance against them. He cited Jesus’ advice: ‘If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.'” But what does that look like?
You should read JESUS’ THIRD WAY, excerpted from Wink’s 1998 book The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium. It explains that when one has received a backhand slap, it’s done to insult, humiliate, degrade. “The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality.”
My favorite example, though involved “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” (Matthew 5:41).
It is drawn from the relatively enlightened practice of limiting to a single mile the amount of forced or impressed labor that Roman soldiers could levy on subject peoples… Whoever was found on the street could be coerced into service… The majority of the rank and file… had to depend on impressed civilians.
What we have overlooked in this passage is the fact that carrying the pack a second mile is an infraction of military code… The centurion… might fine the offending soldier, flog him, put him on a ration of barley instead of wheat, make him camp outside the fortifications, force him to stand all day before the general’s tent…
It is in this context of Roman military occupation that Jesus speaks. He does not counsel revolt. One does not “befriend” the soldier, draw him aside and drive a knife into his ribs. Jesus was surely aware of the futility of armed insurrection against Roman imperial might…
But why carry the soldier’s pack a second mile?… The question here… is how the oppressed can recover the initiative and assert their human dignity in a situation that cannot for the time being be changed. The rules are Caesar’s, but how one responds to the rules is God’s, and Caesar has no power over that.
Imagine, then, the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack, and the civilian says, “Oh, no, let me carry it another mile.” Why would he want to do that? What is he up to? Normally, soldiers have to coerce people to carry their packs, but this Jew does so cheerfully, and will not stop. Is this a provocation? Is he insulting the legionnaire’s strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to violate the rules of impressment? Will this civilian file a complaint? Create trouble?
From a situation of servile impressment, the oppressed have once more seized the initiative. They have taken back the power of choice. They have thrown the soldier off balance by depriving him of the predictability of his victim’s response. He has never dealt with such a problem before. Now he must make a decision for which nothing in his previous experience has prepared him. If he has enjoyed feeling superior to the vanquished, he will not enjoy it today. Imagine a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew to give back his pack! The humor of this scene may have escaped us, but it could scarcely have been lost on Jesus’ hearers, who must have been delighted at the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors.
Nonviolent direct action was the strategy of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. King outlined four principles of action:
1) Define your objectives.
2) Be honest and listen well.
3) Love your enemies.
4) Give your opponents a way out.
Wink specifically points to King’s fourth point: “Jesus did not advocate non-violence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a just means of opposing the enemy in such a way as to hold open the possibility of the enemy’s becoming just as well. Both sides must win. We are summoned to pray for our enemies’ transformation, and to respond to ill-treatment with a love that not only is godly but also, I am convinced, can only be found in God.”
Nonviolent direct action is Jesus’ third way.