Nonviolence 101 – Your Coat, A Longer Walk, & Love Your Enemies (part 4)

Nonviolence 101 – Your Coat, A Longer Walk, & Love Your Enemies (part 4) February 9, 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 Shirt off Your Back, and then Some!

This second scenario envisions a situation where a creditor takes a poor person to court to sue them for their shirt.  This could be kept as collateral for an unpaid debt, but the coat (cloak) was not to be taken according to Mosaic Law (Ex. 22.25-27; Deut. 24.12-13).  A coat (which in a Jewish context would be the only other piece of clothing worn by most people) would not be taken away on humanitarian grounds as it could be used to keep warm, especially at night.[1]

Debt in antiquity under Roman taxation policy was inevitable for common people.  Not only did the emperor demand payment from corrupt tax collectors who would take whatever they wanted off the top, but the rich would do whatever they could to gain control of generational property – often owned by poor Galileans.  Therefore, the rich charged anywhere from 25-200 percent interest on various ventures, eventually driving them out of their property and leaving the poor person with a large sum of debt.

This situation in the lawcourt presumes that the worst-case scenario has been reached; the only thing worth suing for is the shirt off one’s back!  But luckily, the person being sued knows that the coat cannot be taken by force.  So, what does Jesus instruct debtor do?  He tells such a person not only to give the shirt as payment but to relinquish the coat as well.  In doing so, it is not the debtor that would be shamed by the nakedness, but the creditor.  This is because in the Hebraic culture it was shameful for the person viewing the nudity, rather than for the naked party (see Genesis 9.20-27).  If a person walks out of the courtroom naked, the creditor has not only been stricken with shame because of injustice, but has transferred such to all who will see the debtor without dress.  This debtor has now exposed the evils of an unjust debt and tax system, and of the creditor who sued in the first place.  Rather than live powerlessly or resort to violent revolution, the oppressed can expose the cruelty of the system by shaming it publicly.[2]

Just One Mile – and No Further

It is commonly known that in the first century Roman soldiers had the right to force a subjugated person to carry his equipment for up to one mile.  Law mandated that such soldiers could not have someone carry anything beyond that measure.  Imagine being such a person.  What about the work that you need to get done simply to survive, and now this arrogant soldier demands that you do his work for him?  Jesus’ instructions for the peasant to go the second mile is absurd by first century standards.  This impoverished Jewish person who is being taken advantage of has now turned the tables.  How will the soldier respond to this Jewish peasant that keeps walking?  And, what is the point of going the second mile in the first place?  Well, to go a second mile could potentially get the soldier into trouble with his commanding officer, the centurion.  Punishment for this extra mile of injustice may include being fined, having food rationed, flogging, or a reprimand; nevertheless, the soldier would be scared of the potential consequences.  He may even beg the subversive Jew to put down the pack… what a hilarious scene that could have been!  In such a scenario, the powerless have seized the upper hand in the situation and forced their persecutors to recognize the inhumanity of their ways.[3]

In the above predicament a person chooses to be creative over against retaliation.  A policy that was used to remind Jews of their subjugation has been subverted to demonstrate their human dignity.  Jesus offers a renewed approach to living fully human, one that refuses to join violent revolution movements, to follow a radical revolutionary on a road to the cross.[4]

Love your Enemies

All of the above examples of nonviolent resistance must be rooted in love for enemies (v. 44).  This is not a love for only God, but a love for the very people who inflict both physical and social pain.  One may wonder if the above examples are actually loving, for they seem to be quite confrontational.  But if Jesus is indeed our model for what love looks like, then we must recognize that “his concept of love is apparently not at the level of simply being nice to people and of allowing error to go unchallenged.”[5] Rather, his love for his enemies, such as the scribes and Pharisees, was not without rebuke.  So in the cases of the turned cheek, the naked man, and the extra mile, there is indeed the infusion of love for the enemy.  This is because “Jesus is not advocating nonviolence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a just means of opposing the enemy in a way that holds open the possibility of the enemy’s becoming just also.”[6] In other words, this kind of love extends the possibility of an enemy discovering his or her sin, thus repenting and becoming a friend.  But even if this kind of best-case scenario does not come to fruition, one will not have resorted to the pattern of violence that oppressive systems of empire employ.  Rather, the one being oppressed has risen above injustice.  This is nonviolent resistance.[7]

PS – How do you love someone and shoot them?  My answer… it is impossible! (More on the practical questions coming soon!)

[1]. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 221.

[2]. Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, 103-5.

[3]. Ibid., 106-8.

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

[5]. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 226.

[6]. Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, 110.

[7]. Ibid., 110-11.

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  • Regarding "The Shirt Off Your Back, And Then Some", Richard Horsley says pretty much the same thing:

    "'If someone sues you for your cloak, let him take your shirt as well.' The implications, of course, is that the debtor would be standing start naked, embarrassing the creditor in front of the whole village (Jesus had a sense of humor!)." – Jesus and the Powers, p.139

    In Review:

  • sic. "start" meant "stark"

  • Amy

    So often, opponents to pacifism/non-violent resistance/whatever term floats your boat resort to worst-case-scenarios of immediate personal threats to life and limb, implying that the obvious response to attack is justifiable self-defense with potential lethality to the attacker. I'm not really sure how to answer those arguments satisfactorally, so don't hear my comment as allowing evil and violence to prevail against the innocent. At the same time, I would like to see the discussion move beyond those simplistic rebuttals…that is my caveat/introduction to the following comment:

    It seems to me that these three injunctions, represented by "your coat, a longer walk, and love your enemies," are examples of dying to oneself. Like it or not, discipleship to Christ requires conscious and intentional submission to death, even death at the hands of evil persons and systems. We cling to the notion that preservation of our own life at any cost is our human right, and perhaps it is, but our divine responsibility is to die to our human rights. Read what Paul says about death. He doesn't merely tolerate the many deaths to self that come along with discipleship, he fairly welcomes and rejoices in them–recognizing that they are the demonstration of his oneness of mind, purpose, and future with Christ. To be Christlike is to turn the tables on death through refusing to succumb to becoming agents of death ourselves. Death (i.e., the ultimate alienation) can have no victory if we coopt it's power as a means for deepening our intimate identification with Christ.

    Again, do not misunderstand me as suggesting in any way that we promote death in the world. In no way are we to be agents of death. Quite the opposite. We are to disempower death, removing its sting, by making it our unwitting ally in discipleship.

    If we kill anything, we kill death, with the only weapon which weilds true power over it: Shalom. Therefore, we must promote shalom in everything we do, affirming fullness of life as the original intent of God for all of creation (including our enemies), while disarming the power of death when it threatens to overwhelm us against our will.

    Do not resist the Emporer with lightsaber drawn, imbibing power from the very source that you seek to destroy, lest you become more machine than human. Rather, remove your mask of defense, to look at your human enemy-kin face to face, and ask God to make you weak enough to succumb to discipleship to the one who fights evil with a righteous embrace.

    May we grow toward agreement with Paul the Apostle:

    "I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel … It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain" (Philippians 1:12 & 20-21).

  • It is commonly known that in the first century Roman soldiers had the right to force a subjugated person to carry his equipment for up to one mile. Law mandated that such soldiers could not have someone carry anything beyond that measure.

    I fear this may be an urban myth as I tried in vain to verify this from contemporary historical sources. Has anyone seen any citation of this other than modern authors saying that it is so?

  • Amy

    I can't believe no one had anything pithy to say about my star wars reference. How disappointing