Nonviolence 101 – Activating the Nonviolent Imagination (part 3)

Nonviolence 101 – Activating the Nonviolent Imagination (part 3) February 8, 2011

The following is part of a fairly long series on the theology and practice of nonviolence.  If you would like to read all of the posts, you can do so here.


The Nonviolent Imagination

If a command to not use violent force is indeed how Jesus opens up this section of the sermon, then it provides the proper framework into which we can read the illustrations of the following verses.  In what comes after Jesus’ words about resisting with violence, are three images that are meant to stimulate the imagination for resisting evil.  These would be familiar to a Jewish peasant in the first century as they all pertain to their circumstance of being a subjugated people; both under the religious elitists and the Roman Empire.[1]

Although R.T. France wrongly places this passage only in the category of “personal ethics,”[2] he rightly understands that Christ’s teachings are not mere idealism.  He says that, “instead of… dismissing Jesus’ teaching as starry-eyed utopianism, a proper response to this challenging section is to ask in what practical ways Jesus’ radical principles can be set to work in our very different world.”[3] The following three examples will without a doubt beckon us to dream up new ways of appropriating Jesus’ call to nonviolence in our day.  Notice that each example is about restoring the victim’s honor and thus, humanity, through creative subversion.  Each will expose the social structures of the day as unjust and will seek to appeal to the humanity of the lowly.

Turn the Other Cheek

The call to turn the other cheek, when placed in its historical context, needs to be understood within the grid of an honor-shame society. A slap to the right cheek can only mean what our culture has often called a backhand slap.[4] Especially if the oppressor was one of the Jewish elite, it could be almost guaranteed that the strike to the right cheek did not come from the closed fist of the left hand, for the use of such led to uncleanliness for ten days.  It is therefore the logical conclusion that this was a slap with the backside of the hand.[5] In the code of Hammurabi, it is noted that this form of shaming the other would demand a double penalty if the victim took the offender to court (m. B. Qam. 8.6).  Not only is this a physical act of violence, but it is a form of dehumanization.  The victim in this situation has been robbed of his or her honor, having been treated like an inferior.[6] This is exactly how “masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews.”[7]

Is there a solution to this shameful dilemma?  Jesus says that the remedy in this situation is not to hit the offender back or to cower in fear; but to turn the cheek the other direction.  In doing so, the victim essentially says: “hit me again if you like, but now as an equal, not as an inferior.”[8] An equal demands to be hit with a closed fist, which could be thought of as similar to an old fashioned cowboy saying, “hit me like a man!”  This may certainly lead to worse consequences than just another smack to the face, but the power of this kind of nonviolent subversion should not be taken lightly.  Imagine if several lowly Jews responded with such defiance.  After initially enduring floggings or worse, the power that was held over them by their oppressor has been stripped away.  A small social revolution has now been made possible by appealing to a third way approach to the situation.[9]


[1]. Willard M. Swartley, Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2006), 61-62.

[2]. R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007), 217ff.

[3]. Ibid., 218.

[4]. Ibid., 220.

[5]. Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, 101.

[6]. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 220-221.

[7]. Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, 101.

[8]. Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 52.

[9]. Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, 101-3.

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  • Doreen Mannion

    From one seminarian to another, great explanation of "turn the other cheek" in context! Appreciate it!

    • Kurt

      Thanks Doreen! More to come. As you know, context is more important than the generation prior realized!

  • Darrin

    Just one question: where is it recorded that a closed fist strike with the left hand led to a 10-day period of uncleanliness? Thanks for the post!

    • Kurt

      I will have to look that one back up. I am pretty sure it is in the Torah or it is part of the 'oral law' of the Pharisees.

  • Lawrence Garcia

    Great work. Moreover, it is interesting how the reception of such violence actually serves as a mechanism to bring in the kingdom, in essence, making the first—last and the last—first. Since you rightly placed this in its honor/shame context, the one receiving the “equalizing” slap is by way of suffering being exalted. Surely, in its narrative context Jesus in a sideways fashion is describing what he will undergo in Jerusalem, only to be exulted by the resurrection. Enjoyed this blog very much.

    • Kurt

      Well said Lawrence! I am loving your additional voice to my site! Feel free to subscribe via email above as this is the easiest way to stay up to date (no spam, I promise!!!). Also, if you are on FB, I would love to be friends there as well!

  • Lawrence Garcia

    We are already freinds on fb, only its under "Larry Garcia." And I signed up to recieve the blogs, I also have several friends who would make great converstaion partners on your blogs, so I am going to recommend them to recieve your blog.

    • Kurt

      OOOOOOHHHH… I was wondering about that 🙂 I searched your full name and couldn't find you!

      How funny.

      Well, I would love to have any of your friends as part of the online community that has formed here. They are also all welcome to add me as friends on FB if they would like to. I love this online networking thing with like-minded Jesus Followers!!!! Thanks again!

  • Mike Ward

    Turning the other cheek does not force the hitter to strike him with a clsoed fist the second time. As you yourself point out if the oppressor interprets turning the other cheek as a an act of defiance, he won’t punch him but probably have him flogged.
    This turns the whole passage upside down since instead of sacrificing ones own pride/freedom/desire for retaliation in favor of peace, Jesus is now commanding his followers to esculate the conflict.
    This conclusion, “After initially enduring floggings or worse, the power that was held over them by their oppressor has been stripped away,” is simply a non-sequitur. Many slaves in the antebellum South endured repeated beatings. It never made them free. It was a war that did that.

  • Corryneilknight

    I think it all comes down to faith, knowing who God is, and believing his promises. If someone threatens your life or someone you love or even a stranger, you can defend life with violence/force, or you can believe that God raises the dead. If character means anything to you at all, the option to be non-violent is definitely one to consider. In the moment we often feel “something has to be done” right now. But does it? If someone kills you or a loved one, what has been lost? If God raises the dead, if Christ is raised from the dead, then nothing. Death is but a temporary change in relationships and circumstances. God undoes it all. Its no big deal.

    If someone wants to take your things, your food, your clothes, whatever, who provides? Who fed 5000 out of thin air? Or, do we really even believe that actually happened? Whatever is taken from you, can God not provide? But I think we don’t believe that or else we wouldn’t be plagued with the “What if” questions. And of course, it happens in “the real world,” whatever that is. But I am sure those 5000 fed people felt like for a moment they weren’t living in “the real world” any longer at least for a moment perhaps.

    I read stories of Jesus passing through mobs of angry people ready to stone him and throw him over a cliff. Imagine if someone said to him just before, “What if…?” or “What are you gonna do, Jesus?” (and maybe they did), what would he have said? Maybe, “Oh, Ye of little faith.”

    Of course, a bad thing happened to Jesus too. But, only when it was the appointed time, only when God allowed it. And does God love or care about me less than his Son? I have to believe that he doesn’t. So, why shouldn’t I expect the same from God through faith that Jesus expected through faith?

    I think we haven’t given much thought to this alternate reality that comes through faith and that is revealed in the life of Jesus. I think, though we call ourselves christians or whatever, we think that stuff is a little fanciful.

    It can never proven to a single one of you, that reality as it is experienced through faith in the God Jesus revealed to us will be like it was for him. You will believe what you want to believe about God. But without faith it is impossible to please him. You must believe that he IS. You have to believe in that more than money, your job, your marriage, your friends, the news, your education, your trendy looks, or whatever. God exists. He will not, however, be a circus act for us who want a little “seeing is believing” sideshow to convince us. And you must know him as Jesus did, someone who rewards (doesn’t disappoint) those who diligently seek him.

    This is God that we are talking about. Everything thing we think to take into our own hands he will take into his, if we let him. We don’t even have to ask “What if?” But if someone does, you say, “Be still and know that He is God.”

    I haven’t been sick since I trusted Jesus and trusted the God he revealed to me. No one has threatened my life. The cops have released me when I drove without license and they could have taken me to jail. You become untouchable until god allows you to be touched. And he has told before hand that some of us will be harmed. And some of you may know in your heart that he is telling you that you will be harmed. But God raises the dead and is a shield to those who trust him.

    Believe in God. Know his love for you. And trust in his goodness and his promises.Call on the Name of Jesus daily and all your fears will vanish. Thoughts of violence and resistance will fade from your mind.