Jesus and Nonviolent Resistance

Jesus and Nonviolent Resistance June 16, 2019

I was asked a while back about the notion that Matthew’s Gospel presents a “third way” between passivity on the one hand and violent resistance on the other. This viewpoint gets mentioned from time to time, but still seems not to be as widely known as it deserves.

I have long suggested that a backhanded slap would be something reflecting a power difference, rather like the way a lord might strike a servant in an episode of Downton Abbey. But I could not think of  a clear example from the time of Jesus, and so I worried that I might be engaging in anachronism. And so I was grateful to have the text below (Mishnah Baba Kamma 8:6) drawn to my attention as I was reading Roman Montero’s new book on the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus’s Manifesto:

If a man cuffed or [punched] his fellow he must pay him a sela [4 zuz]. Rabbi Judah says in the name of Rabbi 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.

Let me also share my blurb for that book, now that it is out:

Montero’s book is not simply another exposition of the ‘sermon’ of Jesus, but an exploration of how Jesus’ ethical teachings compare and contrast with those of major influential figures from the Greek world like Aristotle and Plato, as well as their connections to Israel’s ethical traditions as articulated by figures such as Isaiah and the rabbis of the Mishnah. The result is a powerful historical portrait of Jesus as a teacher in conversation with his contemporaries (as well as the past and longstanding cultural values), offering a radical vision for a community that has love as the ‘central organizing principle’ of its values and its practices.

Also related to this topic:

The Difference between a Pacifist and a Passivist

A fellow Patheos blogger looked at the meaning of turning the other cheek in context. So too did Phil Long.

Eric Reitan offered suggestions on how to fight hate, with a “do” list and a “don’t” list. Let me provide an excerpt from each. First, a “don’t”:

Do not create false equivalences between the hate in the heart of anti-Semites and the reactive hate of those who have been brutalized by anti-Semitism. The call not to fight hate with hate is a reminder of how best to fight the evil of those who swim in the waters of hate. It isn’t a tool to re-victimize those who have been splashed by these waters.

And now a “do”:

Fight hate by recognizing its seeds in your own heart: the disdain, the condescension, the dismissal of others based on where they’re from or what they look like or what they believe or how they respond to the struggles of life. Forgive yourself for those seeds. Forgive others for those seeds.

Click through to read the whole thing. Also relevant to this topic:

Bishop Curry, Luke and Acts, and “Christianity Lite”

A Wrinkle in Time and the Gospel of the Third Way

Scientific study of nonviolent resistance made the news:

Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, confirms that civil disobedience is not only the moral choice; it is also the most powerful way of shaping world politics – by a long way.

Looking at hundreds of campaigns over the last century, Chenoweth found that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent campaigns. And although the exact dynamics will depend on many factors, she has shown it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change.

For more on this from Harvard: Why non-violent resistance beats violent force when it comes to bringing about lasting social change

Commonweal had a piece about traditional disobedience. Richard Beck wrote about our problems with the Sermon on the Mount. Episcopal Cafe had a piece on the beatitudes.

Keith Giles writes:

I invite you to read through the Gospels and underline all the times Jesus tells someone “Your sins are forgiven.” Then, take note of how quickly Jesus says this; usually before they’ve even opened their mouth to ask him anything at all.

Here’s the reality: Jesus forgives everyone. All the time. Therefore, God also forgives everyone. All the time.

How does Jesus respond to our sins? He forgives. Completely. Automatically. One hundred percent.

Jesus never waited for anyone to repent. Jesus never asked anyone to confess. Jesus never did anything but forgive everyone he met; every single time.

We are forgiven.

And, knowing that we are so completely and effortlessly forgiven is what empowers us to freely and extravagantly forgive those who harm us.

What Jesus Reveals To Us About Forgiveness

Stop Waiting For Jesus To Return To Fix Everything


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  • I wonder about the applicability of the Mishnah Bava Kamma passage to Jesus’ example.

    It certainly shows that there is a social understanding among the Jews that being slapped with the back of the hand is more dishonorable than being slapped with the front of the hand, and the passage makes that explicit: “This is the general rule: all is in accordance with the person’s honor.” So, as far as that goes, I think that part of it is well-established.

    However, this law is grounded in the identity of Israel. This passage further explains, “Even the poor in Israel are regarded as free people who have lost their possessions, as they are the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” The MBK does not regard non-Jews has having the same regard. For instance, in 8:5, “If a man wounded his Canaanite slave, he is not liable to any of the five counts.” This is why the regulation about slapping specifies “his fellow.” It’s about how Jews treat other Jews.

    I guess you could use this to interpret Jesus’ instructions to Israel as essentially forcing the Romans to add to their lawful offenses against the Jews, thus incurring a greater judgement at God’s hands. Because they are mistreating Jews, specifically, anything you do that would put them in the position of offering greater offense is just racking up penalties for them. Obviously, Romans are not bound by Torah, even in the views of first century Judaism, but causing dishonor on Israel would certainly incur judgement from God. The theme would fit first century Judaism pretty well, I think.

    But I also wonder if this isn’t making a bit too much out of what was intended to be a simple illustration to demonstrate that Israel should not lash out against their oppressors. I mean, if someone turns their cheek, you can forehand slap them with the other hand. I’m not sure Jesus is trying to make a subtle point that depends on which side of the hand someone is being slapped with – a point that would need to extend in some form to the other illustrations as well (taking a shirt or walking a mile). I think Jesus knew that violent resistance against Roman oppression was in the air and Israel would get stomped, so he urged his followers to endure patiently under that persecution because the kingdom of God was imminent. The mourning are about to be comforted. The meek are about to inherit the land. The poor are about to see the kingdom.

    I tend to think of the Sermon as a cohesive text around the idea of how Israel should behave and what they should look like in light of present oppression and an imminent reversal of their fortunes. I’m not sure what we’re seeing is a general critique of the concept of empire.

    Likewise, the historically-conditioned nature of the Sermon means that it’s our responsibility to interpret how such a Sermon may speak to our own people groups and circumstances who are far removed from that time.

    • Isn’t the point in the Talmud that even the poor should not be disrespected, as for instance through a backhanded slap, because they too are Israelites?

      • Michael Wilson

        Apparently only poor Israelites, foreign slaves can be disrespected all you like.

      • Right. No Israelite should backhand slap another Israelite because it dishonors them, no matter what their station is in life. All Israelites are heirs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who have been temporarily dispossessed.

        I think this establishes the principle that Israelites would have viewed a backhand slap as dishonorable. So, your take is definitely not anachronistic, and I think the passage succeeds in establishing that.

        But I question whether or not (or how much) this factors into Jesus’ instructions to Israel for responding to Roman oppressors, whether the significance of a backhand slap is anachronistic or not. I’m not convinced that Jesus is trying to engineer a backhand slap with his instructions.

        I think Jesus’ point is, “If someone slaps you, don’t resist them, but cooperate,” using perhaps a hyperbolic illustration to do so, similarly with offering more clothing if someone takes your cloak or walking two miles if someone forces you to go with them. In light of the imminent eschatological restructuring of the world, there’s no reason to strike back against Rome and all sorts of reasons not to.

        This has the advantage, I believe, of making the Sermon cohesive. Rather than beginning as a list of general propositions of hope followed by teachings on nonviolence (or critiques of certain power structures), it’s a list of things Jesus believes are about to happen in the very near future and, as a result, here’s how the community should conduct themselves.

        I think this is only a problem if we see Jesus’ illustrations here as being universal dictums (dicta?) for everyone’s behavior in all circumstances at all times. We all find the idea of cooperating with oppressors very unattractive, and we also know Jesus has a serious problem with oppressors, so we try to find a way in which Jesus is not instructing -us- to be submissive to oppressors.

        I don’t interpret the Sermon on the Mount/Plain that way, though. That sermon is not primarily for us. It’s for a first century Israel under Rome whose king has come and whose extant power structures are about to be overturned by God. That doesn’t mean the Sermon has nothing to say to us, today, of course, but we have to thoughtfully transpose it into our context.

        • I think that it is Matthew who turns Jesus’ teaching into a model for non-violent resistance. It is the Sermon on the Mount specifically that specifies it to be a backhanded slap on the right cheek to which one responds by turning the other. Such elements are there in each of the three scenarios, only in Matthew but not in Luke.

          • Matthew does say it’s a slap to the right cheek, but does not specify whether it’s a forehand or backhand slap.

            I agree that we could extrapolate from this a model for non-violent resistance. Certainly Jesus’ intention is that his followers do not violently resist, take vengeance, etc., and this is how he instructs them to behave. If we thought it good and wise, we could also say this is a good model for anyone suffering under an oppressive regime to follow or at least a good principle to be upheld.

            This is a circumstance, though, where I think theological tension has been the mother of invention. We don’t want a Jesus who is violent, but we also don’t want a Jesus who submits passively to oppression, and we are acutely interested in this issue because we have a lot of oppression in our world, and we want to resist it, but we don’t want to be violent.

            So, I want to be clear, I don’t think it’s illegitimate to look at Jesus’ teachings and, in applying them to our current context, we decide this offers a good model for non-violent resistance. I’m just not sure Jesus had in mind that he was providing a good model for non-violent resistance, and, consequently, I’m not sure it’s necessary to construct an argument based on which side of the hand is being used in Jesus’ hypothetical example.

            It could very well be entirely correct that Jesus is depending on his audience envisioning specific sides of the hand involved in the slap and that means something important to his point. I just, at this time, don’t see how that’s necessary for what he’s doing.

          • John MacDonald

            Simon Peter doesn’t seem to be under a spirit of nonviolence when he cuts the guy’s ear off, and Jesus doesn’t seem to be very turn-the-other-cheeky during the Temple Tantrum.

          • I think Jesus is less non-violent than we might like, although that’s probably a good description of his overall perspective.

          • The options for slapping someone on the right cheek are to use one’s left hand (the cultural connotations of which I’m sure you’re aware of) or a backhanded slap.

          • Yes. The question is just how important that factor is to Jesus’ thought in the Sermon. Obviously we differ on the level of import we assign it, and I was just sharing my own thoughts. That doesn’t mean I’m correct, of course.

          • Nor is it clear that I’m correct – I’ve gone back and forth on this myself! It is the convergence of this as a possible interpretation only in relation to details unique to Matthew across all three scenarios that has caused me to lean in the direction I do.