Saturday, June 16, 2007

Standing Your Ground

At Ben's place, the topic of 'turning the other cheek' was touched upon. Though not the subject of the post, it became a side issue.
I want to clarify, if I can, a take on this Biblical passage, and the one I accept as most workable in the context of the entire canon of scripture and Tradition. The comment section of a posting just isn't a suitable enough spot for me to do this so I'm doing it here.

In Matthew 5:38-41 Jesus is quoted:
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles."

Let's break this down and start at the beginning...

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."

Notice Jesus specifies the right cheek. This presumably would have to be done with the back of the right hand, as the left hand was not to be used (Except for unclean purposes. This was the custom, and still is.) Such a slap is a rebuking act, like from a master to a servant, parent to child, husband to wife, and is meant to be insulting or belittling It is not an invitation to brawl.
By offering the offender the left cheek as well, a return strike would have to be open-handed, or closed-fisted, and seen as clear challenge to a knock-down drag-out between what is now(though briefly) two societal equals.

In a class society, such as that of Biblical times, nobody of higher status would want to risk an ass whipping at the hands of one of lower status, especially one whom he had just elevated to that level, although briefly, through an act of pride.

Keeping in mind that Biblical times were violent times, where blood and gore were not just a part of daily life, but public spectacle as well. Receiving such a rebuking slap was really just a minor slight. Just to remind you where you stood.
And not an occasion to start a war over.

"And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well."

This would render you naked. Nudity itself was not a shame. Instead, the one who witnessed and created such nakedness was the one shamed. ("look what you did to me, you pig!")

"If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles."

This is a reference to a Roman law of compulsory service, which allowed a soldier to require a civilian to carry his pack, or anything else, up to one mile. And not further. By going the extra mile, the civilian is exposing the soldier to punishment for violating the law. Do this once or twice, and the soldiers would be hesitant to seek you out next time they're looking for a chump.

The lesson here is not so much one of pacifism, but of passive resistance.
Jesus isn't telling us to be wimps and sissies.
He is teaching us to take a stand for our dignity, and turn the tables on our offenders.


RW said...

Bit what if Moe is doing the slapping?

RW said...

"bit" - German for but

Gino said...

well, then the proper christian response would be a double eye-poke.

kr :)! said...

I was already smiling at the post--these comments got me laughing ;)

Gino, what's funny to me I that I always had the sense that this set of teaching was a "you win in the end"/"take the higher road" sort of teaching, not a "roll over, it's Mysteriously more laudible" teaching

I'd filed it under "God's ways are not my own," and figured in some of the shame-to-them factor ...

but I like your analyses better :)

what has long made me crazy about these was the extent to which someone in an abusive relationship, following them the way they are normally understood, not only permits but encourages their abuser. Since encouraging someone in sin/hurtful habits is clearly NOT "of God," rolling over CANNOT be what the passage means. (I am sure God honors the intention to be holy and follow His Word ... even while He wishes the person would NOT enable evil, and while He offers graces/helpers/lessons/etc. to provide doors out of the situation ... .)

Ben Worley said...

Jesus liked to put things in very absolute terms to mess with people's minds. His point was that we can't rely on ourselves. We don't have any rights before the Almighty. In the case of this teaching I think he might be saying that we mustn't be too proud or think too much of ourselves. What we have that is important comes as a gift from God, we cannot demand it as a right.

So I like your take on it Gino, but I disagree with it.

Gino said...

Jesus did deal in absolutes.
but i see a large amount of humor in some of his preaching and wonders.
an almost snickering 'that'll show em' type of attitude.

i bet he was kick to be around.

i did note: he didnt say what to do just IF the slapper took up the challenge of the other cheek. i'm going to assume he would be comfortable with the cultural norm of self defense?

apathyboy said...

I don't doubt that Jesus wanted us to stand up for ourselves. But the whole "thou shall not kill" thing seems pretty clear. Guns are designed for the sole purpose of taking a human life (I am excepting hunting rifles from this, since that's completely different.) If you say that you would kill a man who is coming after your family, you are saying that there are exceptions to every rule and that ethics are situational and not universal.

Gino said...

'thou shall not kill' is actually 'thou shall not murder' if translated correctly.

remember, the same God who said this also ordered his people into battle against other tribes.

defense of self,family,or people is not murder.

and yes, ethics are situational. many times grey areas abound, and not all confrontations are black and white.

apathyboy said...

true, murder is "to kill unlawfully." If you kill within the law it is not murder, and therefore not against the teachings of God. However the law changes based on the government (I'm sure our definition of murder is different from others). So as long as follow the law we are following the commandments. So soldiers that kill are not breaking the commandment because they are being comissioned to legally kill by our government. (Some Christians will be quick to agree when I say this of American troops and just as quick to disagree when I say this of German or Taliban troops).

Gino said...

yes, it can be messy.

much of morality is dictated by cultural norms, social/political climate.

i'm speaking from a decidely catholic perspective.
i'm sure Ben might have a different take as a lutheran, but not much different.

kr said...

someone hurting someone else, I have a responsibility to try to stop if I can; part of that responsibility is to try to stop them without killing them if that can be done

but if they won't stop, and the damage they are doing is severe or deadly, I don't think killing them is necessarily wrong (I should let them maim or kill someone else? even if one tries to justify that with after-death rewards/punishments, the "someone else" shouldn't have been left to suffer--and per my previous comment, what does this teach the bullies except they have carte blanche in this life?)

my take is that, to the extent someone thinks it is OK to impose themselves upon others, they have, to that extent, given up their humanity ... and commensurately, any protections that humanity inherently carries

that all said, I think people-killing machines/tools make it easier for individuals and for societies to think "killing" (or other violence) is a good solution (it is easier, and quicker, than working to fix/heal things). I suspect it is actually very rarely the best solution available. But I suspect it is sometimes the best solution available, life being still imperfect. (I also think killing, if it comes to it, should be consciously chosen and as quick as possible.)


apathyboy: tricky widget is, there is a set of laws that supercedes all local jusridiction. "Law" is not necessarily to be understood as as mutable as you present ...

like Gino, I am speaking from a decidedly Catholic perspective:

moral law is universal ... our reading of moral law is subject to increases in human understanding, rather than subject to actual change

(and here we all are, blogging to try to increase our human understanding ... I wonder whether this indicates an increase in our moral culture or a decrease ;) )


I figure, generally, murder is when one kills someone for benefit (including social approbation, as in tribal warfare) or because of carelessness (carelessness, particularly lethal carelessness, is a denial of the responsibility that is inherent in God's gift of humanity--"I didn't feel like being human today, it's just not that important")

denial of the gift of one's own humanity, or the gift God has given us in the humanity of any other person, is immoral--against the eternal law.

apathyboy said...

What moral law? The Catechism? I would sooner spit in my sister's face than follow the catechism. The Bible? Apparently not, because you're already taking exception to some of its rules. (Besides, if the Bible was comprehensive the Catechism would not be necessary).

There is a universal moral law, but no one knows what it is, so it has no value. One of the reasons I've rejected the Bible is because Christians can't even agree on what any of it really means.

Ben Worley said...

Would you accept it if every Christian agreed on what it means? Or would you accuse Christians of being mindless drones?

The truth is that, by and large, Christians agree that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and that by his death and resurrection he saves us from the punishment that we deserve for our sins. Maybe you reject that, but the vast majority of Christians would agree that it is the heart of the Bible and their understanding of God.

Absolute consistency might seem like a great ideal, but sin gets in the way of us ever being consistent and right. That's where God steps in.

So really Apathyboy, you could make a wonderful Christian. Don't get tripped up by how crappy we all are (all of us). Repent of your own sins and go straight to the source and you'll find something much better.

apathyboy said...

Whether or not Jesus died for our sins has no bearing on the determination between right or wrong (if it did, Christians would argue about that, too). My point is that since Christians cannot agree on what constitutes a right action or a wrong action it seems to be that the Bible is poor source for determining how to live your life. I seem to be starting something else completely, so I'll just do a seperate post on my blog (please visit. I get bored talking to people that agree with me).

I do agree that having a gun has nothing to do with whether or not you are a good or bad person and I think that my arguments for not owning a gun as Christian would only apply to fundamentalist Christians and not to the Catholic or Lutheran faiths. I do have a bad habit of lumping protestants with fundies (oh, you all look alike to me).

Gino said...

What moral law? The Catechism? I would sooner spit in my sister's face than follow the catechism.

oh, now i get it. you are , in fact a former catholic. who else would know, or even care, what a catechism is?

The Bible? Apparently not, because you're already taking exception to some of its rules.
name one of its rules i'm taking exception to.

(Besides, if the Bible was comprehensive the Catechism would not be necessary).

those who have catechisms(catholics) have never claimed the bible whas total and comprehensive.
you see, first you need to know who you are arguing with, and what they believe, before you start to find fault with it.
dont erect straw men with me.
i dont much like straw men.

i'm not even going to argue with you, but if you want to understand what its about, and come to an honest conclusion on your own, then i'm here.

Jade said...

I find this absolutely fascinating - I've never heard this passage broken down in a historical sense, it's always been used in bits and pieces as soundbites in an apparent attempt to back up someone's point, or to give an incomplete instruction on how one should behave.

And not further. By going the extra mile, the civilian is exposing the soldier to punishment for violating the law.

Is this where "go the extra mile" comes from?

RW said...

As a Quaker I am taught to not answer violence with violence and that the "suggestion" of the passage does, indeed, mean what it says without some of the hokus pokus going on. I have my doubts that I would be able to refrain from responding, especially were my family involved. But I know what I should strive for. Sometimes, often times, we fall short. Rather than shake my finger at someone else for a failing we all share, I just say I do the best I can and what happens, happens.

Gino said...

RW: so you dont believe in slugging a bully?
or are you implying there is always a peaceful way to come out on top without inviting more bullying or disrespect?

The Law Fairy said...

Huh, how interesting. I've never thought of it this way before but I have to say, I really like your take. Though I note I've never thought of Jesus as remotely wimpy -- he could take a stand and be pissed off when it was appropriate (see: the moneychangers at the temple).

Since I'm sure you've missed me, I can't resist:

Such a slap is a rebuking act, like from a master to a servant, parent to child, husband to wife, and is meant to be insulting or belittling It is not an invitation to brawl.

You've finally come around and admitted Jesus was a feminist! Huzzah!


Gino said...

yes, LF, i HAVE missed you. :)

RW said...

I'm saying probably the best way to handle it is to shame a bully, and that the passage asks us to rise above the normal; but that's not me saying I'd be able to hold off on him. I hope I'd do the "right thing" and be the "better man", but I can't guarantee it...

Andy said...

I am late to the fray. I also never thought of how this could be taken as empowering the abuser by not allowing any form of resistance. Interesting. What I had always taken away from it was a clear instance of Jesus rejecting something that had worked its way into the laws attributed to Moses and saying, "No, this does not reflect God's intention for you." I feel like you've missed a little bit how this was a radical overturning of a cultural status quo that had been used to justify vengeance and warfare. I think your attempt to link Jesus' references with specific contemporary issues (like the soldiers forcing you to carry their stuff) limits and unnecessarily restricts their ongoing application. You're sort of applying a Scalia-esque "strict constructionist" reading to the Gospel, whereas I see it as a living, vital, ongoing message that is adaptable to modern life, even a life that could not have been fathomed by a first century Palestinian (not including Jesus here, I'm sure he could pretty much grasp any concept you wanted to toss at him).

There is a parallel passage in Luke 6 that makes clear that what Jesus is requiring here is not merely passivity or even passive resistance, but active rejection of evil. Don't just not slap back, embrace the person as a friend. Do good things for those who have hurt you. Wish good things for those who wish you bad things. Do things for people without pausing to consider whether it's to your advantage or benefit. If someone steals your stuff, let them have it, let it go. So no, He's not asking for passivity at all. He's commanding us to go forth and be friendly to our enemies, to take an active role in making the world a better place.

apathyboy said...

I have to say I agree with Andy, even if moreso from a Buddhist perspective (I should add I do not claim to be a Buddhist, but it's the closest thing to religion I have). If your material goods are stolen, your anger stems not from their actions but from your unnecessary sense of attachment to physical goods. In a Christian sense, you should not allow your love of material goods to interfere with your love for all of humanity, and, by extension, each member of humanity. (If I'm off base on this, let me know. I admit that I am not by no means well versed in Theology.)

Ben Worley said...

No Apathyboy, you're right on this point. And one of the reasons that getting stuff stolen isn't a big deal is because God has promised to take care of our needs.

Gino said...

"Thou shall not steal"

Stealing is obviously a big deal, and so having your stuff stolen is obviously a big deal.

God didnt command: "thall shall not get pissed off at a thief", and by extension, in my view, endorses the concept of personal property and wealth.

i place greater weight to the 10 Commandments, than the smaller teachings/suggestions/admonitions a of 'rich man passing through a needle's eye'.

Bike Bubba said...

Interesting thoughts, Gino. Methinks I'm going to need to keep thinkin' about this.

little-cicero said...

I find it hard to argue this, because there is no other way to account for the specificity of Jesus's examples. Still, it's hard to think of Jesus as sort of a richeous trickster, like Bugs Bunny with a degree in divinity. Of course, looking at his mingling with prostitutes and tax collectors for the sake of ruffling ethical feathers, I suppose that was his nature.

To be quite honest (and hopefully non-offensive) this is not only your best post ever, it is full of insights I would have never expected from you, or just about any other blogger for that matter. I congratulate you for this triumph.

little-cicero said...

(Sorry for misspelling righteous!)

Gino said...

Jesus was one hell of a trickster.

little-cicero said...

Don't you mean one heaven of a trickster?

Stacy said...

Awesome Gino!! The comments here are fabulous and I feel like I've actually learned something. Depending on who you read, or listen preach; scripture takes on entirely different meanings. Quite frustrating. I really have nothing to add. But yes, I think Jesus would have been a blast to be around. He was not concerned about what the religious leaders thought of him, he worried about the people who needed him. One of my favorite things about him was as he was writing the sins of the Pharisees in the sand. So calmly, so under the radar; something to mimic?

Gino said...

thanks, Cicerino and Stacy:
i've had a couple great teachers, who helped me form a different way of reading the humanity into the words of scripture.

kr said...

Apathyboy:What moral law? The Catechism? I would sooner spit in my sister's face than follow the catechism. The Bible? Apparently not, because you're already taking exception to some of its rules. (Besides, if the Bible was comprehensive the Catechism would not be necessary).
Gino has already answered this one: the Bible never claims to be comprehensive (most Christians and all Jews never thought it was). I add that noone, Catholic or not, should consider either "the moral law," because, as you immediately note, There is a universal moral law, but no one knows what it is.

Your next clause, however, is purely bizarre and has no logical relation to the preceding: so it has no value.
If there is a moral law, and especially if it is universal, it matters, and it is incumbent upon any being which senses moral value to try to align themselves with it.

One of the reasons I've rejected the Bible is because Christians can't even agree on what any of it really means.
Definitely the cleanest way to try to get at the moral law is through science (presuming honest and objective science, which we've never been very good at). Catholicism calls this "The Book of Nature," and despite (yes) massive goofups regarding science over the years has since the early days considered Creation to be a good path of study toward God/the moral law/Truth. However, history suggests this path of study took perhaps more time and patience than humans were capable of, especially in times of brutal, short lives. Which lack of moral study propigated the shortness and brutality of the lives, of course.

Yes, not even Christians agree on interpreting the Bible--which doesn't of itself negate it; even if it was God's Direct Word we wouldn't necessarily understand it at first go--see "universal moral law." above ;)--and with history involved, well, of course we are confused ... I (just me, not every Bible-y person) figure the Bible at least suggests a general trend, that God intervened (repeatedly) because people were clearly not figuring out on our own (at least not fast enough) even the initial basics, like "hey, killing or hurting other people isn't really 'good,' duh."

Which is not to say you need to accept the Bible nor the Catholic Catechism. But they do reflect, respectively, 4000-ish years (BC) and 2000-ish years (AD) of prayerfully, actively trying to get in tune with Reality. We had (and have), it seems, a very very long row to hoe ...

kr said...

Oh, and Apathyboy, sorry I haven't visited your blog ... if I have time I will ... right now I try to stick to only a couple of blogs so my kids aren't too ignored ... I don't mean to diss you.

kr said...

LF--moneychangers--YAY! Another someone who doesn't think Jesus was a pacifist!

RW--bullies--yes, but shaming only works if the other person admits judgment from society. Big example of not: Saddam Hussein. Medium example of not: racist KKKer. Small example: male-chauvenist who thinks it is not only alright but "good" to control his spouse and kids (it's in the Bible, yah?).
It's like the folks who say that the suicide bombers will stop when their society shames them about it. True ... but how to get to that point? In the meantime, do people need to be filled up with nails or have half of them blown off? Shame is a better answer (conversion of course would be better yet)--but why does everyone else suffer for the sinner? As Christians, we sometimes choose consciously to do so (this passage is a major source of that choice) ... but for people who are random victims, there is not the spiritual growth aspect ... just the suffering.

kr said...

Andy--congrats on never being in a abusive relationship, then. My avoidance of physical involvment in high school meant I didn't catch any physical abuse ... but one severely emotionally abusive relationship really "helped" (sigh) me to understand all that "abuse" stuff they taught us in health classes.


And the reason I let that relationship happen? Oh, Christians are supposed to love everyone, especially those people who clearly need help and aren't loved by others. And the reason I stayed for a while? Well, if I keep 'turning the other cheek,' eventually he will stop 'hitting' me.

Gap in the logic? For that to work, he had to accept the graces God (presumably) offered him to turn around and let go of his habits. Without that choice BY HIM, all of my actions were merely rewarding his abuse behaviors.

So, yeah, I'm a little sensitive to this passage, and pretty sure it's milquetoast reading is inaccurate, as it is demonstrably destructive.

kr said...

Andy etc : "strict constructionist"

In my experience, if a reading doesn't stand up to a then-contemporary interpretation, it's not an accurate reading. Jesus was, after all, teaching those people FIRST.

This is also based out of the charismatic movement: prophecy is both 100% immediate, and 100% universal, or it is not a true prophecy.

Interstingly, that can be back-applied usefully: just because John's Revelations took place in 70 AD (or whatever), doesn't mean they weren't also about future events, or spiritual truths. (Not that I have made a study of John's Revelations ... but if they are true, they would apply to all those.)

So Gino's analysis must be taken into account. It might be wrong. But if he reads it correctly for that time, then Jesus did mean that thing, and we cannot deny that set of connotations now without denying Jesus' own meaning.

(Obviously I reacted positively from my own highly subjective viewpoint, and do not claim I "know" the answer. Just, that I like his.)

kr said...

Andy (again)--yes, love your enemies ... but loving that abuser took the form of saying "no" ... .

Andy/apathyboy/ben w: material things

God created us material, and created the world ... perhaps (depending on your theology) created the material world for us, even. Denial of the importance of material things borders on a couple fo the oldest (Christian term here) heresies (spiritual "life" being more important than material life, as if they were properly separate, or spiritual life being the only thing that matters ... no pun intended ;) ).

This fundamentally denies part of ourselves and, for those of us who believe in God as Creator) part of God's design.

Denial of reality, never a solid idea. (Pun half-intended ;). )

Gino said...

kr: :)

Andy said...

I had a response to this, but...I got lost in my own head. So I just wanted to say, great discussion!

I still think you're all wrong.

kr said...