Understanding Jesus’ teachings can be tricky. Most often because we did not live in his culture, and because they were originally recorded in what is now an extinct language. I have written before on the subject of the political edge of Jesus’ message that becomes clearer when we understand the historical context. In this post I try to demonstrate how five of Jesus’ well-known sayings teach non-violent resistance to the tyrannical government of empire, but are usually misunderstood outside of his historical context.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matthew 5:9)
This statement seems to commonly conjure up images of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”.
Aw, look, he’s so meek! And very mild!
I think a common misunderstanding of “peacemakers” is that if two people have a disagreement, they should just drop it and be cool! But the Greek word for peace, eirene, means not only an absence of conflict, but also a reconciled relationship that results in a condition of health, prosperity, and well-being for all parties. You can’t achieve peace by just “dropping it” if one party is involved in practices that harm another party or prevent them from arriving at a condition of health, prosperity, and well-being. In order to achieve true peace, you must find a way for all parties involved to avoid practices that harm, whether directly or indirectly. I think Thomas Merton best highlighted the problems with a misunderstanding of peace , in his book “New Seeds of Contemplation“:
To some men peace merely means the liberty to exploit other people without fear of retaliation or interference. To others peace means freedom to rob others without interruption. To still others it means the leisure to devour the goods of the earth without being compelled to interrupt their pleasures to feed those whom their greed is starving. And to practically everybody peace simply means the absence of any physical violence that might cast a shadow over lives devoted to the satisfaction of their animal appetites for comfort and pleasure. Many men like these have asked God for what they thought was “peace” and wondered why their prayer was not answered. They could not understand that it actually was answered. God left them with what they desired, for their idea of peace was only another form of war.
The point is that peace is not merely walking away from a fight and pretending everyone is “ok” with each other. Peace is removing the sources of conflict; the practices that harm each other (whether directly or indirectly).
Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. (Mark 12:17)
This statement is commonly used as a sort of proof that Jesus was for “separation of church and state” – or to put it in other words, a depoliticization of Jesus. The message many people want us to take from this teaching of Jesus was that we should not concern ourselves with political things, but concentrate on spiritual matters so we can “go to heaven” (which, by the way, is not a Biblical concept).
But there are a number of problems with this interpretation of the scenario in this passage. The larger passage shows us that the officials of the religious authority complex were looking for a way to arrest Jesus, and were planning to catch Jesus in his own words. When they asked Jesus if it was right to pay the imperial tax, they expected Jesus to answer in a way that would implicate him in treason so that he could be arrested on the spot. For Jesus to answer in the affirmative would have negated his teachings up to this point, but to answer in the negative would result in an end to his movement. So Jesus had to come up with a clever answer to get out of this trap that they had set.
When you put Jesus’s statement above into context, you find some interesting things–first of which is the fact that Jesus asks someone to bring him a denarius, the coin which would have been used for this particular tax. What’s interesting is that Jesus didn’t have a denarius of his own. Why wouldn’t Jesus have one of his own sitting in his own pocket – why would he have to ask someone to bring him one?
A Roman denarius.
A denarius bore a picture of Tiberius on the front with the inscription: “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus”. This inscription indicated the divinity of Caesar – he was to be regarded as a god in the Roman culture of the empire cult. This did not mesh well with Jewish beliefs, which included a little command that went “you shall have no other gods before me” and another command about not making graven images. To even possess this coin could be seen as idolatry to a Jew. So Jesus didn’t even have one on him!
Additionally, the way Jesus words his statement in Mark 12:17 is very interesting. He starts his statement with: “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s”. The question this statement raises is: what belongs to Caesar? In other words, some things don’t belong to him. Also, how is it that you’re giving back what already belonged to him?
The way Jesus’ statement is worded indicates that if you have received benefits from Caesar, you should pay him back according to your debt. In other words, if you want to protest the unjust taxes, you have no right to do so if you are living off of the benefits of the government. If you want to protest the unjust system, you should remove yourself completely from the system first – which we see that Jesus has done, since he possesses no money at the time he is asked this question. This idea has some interesting implications for the modern American political culture as well:
You built that?
Mohandas K. Gandhi wrote about this passage:
Jesus evaded the direct question put to him because it was a trap. He was in no way bound to answer it. He therefore asked to see the coin for taxes. And then said with withering scorn, “How can you who traffic in Caesar’s coins and thus receive what to you are benefits of Caesar’s rule refuse to pay taxes?” Jesus’ whole preaching and practice point unmistakably to noncooperation, which necessarily includes nonpayment of taxes.
The second half of the statement in Mark 12:17 is also very interesting – Jesus says to give to God what is God’s. This statement is a parallel statement – in the first half of the statement, Jesus says to give a coin which bears the image of Caesar back to Caesar. In the second half of the statement, he makes a parallel statement – the Jewish belief is that all people were made in the image of God. As the coin bears the image of Caesar, so all people bear the image of God. So what Jesus is saying in this statement is that we should give the whole of our being over to God! This was a radical message of resistance, because Jesus was saying that Caesar’s authority was limited, and God’s authority was unlimited!
Dale Glass-Hess wrote:
It is inconceivable to me that Jesus would teach that some spheres of human activity lie outside the authority of God. Are we to heed Caesar when he says to go to war or support war-making when Jesus says in other places that we shall not kill? No! My perception of this incident is that Jesus does not answer the question about the morality of paying taxes to Caesar, but that he throws it back on the people to decide.
Next I’m going to examine three statements that appear back to back within Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”, in Matthew 5:39-41.
If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew. 5:39)
Once again, the picture many seem to draw from this statement is the gentle, meek, and mild Jesus who taught us to lie down and take our beating like a good little slave. It’s as if Jesus was telling us to accept the abuse of the unjust. But when you examine the historical culture in which this statement was set, you may find that this statement had some interesting connotations.
The first question I think the reader should ask is: why does Jesus specify the right cheek? To answer that, I’d first ask: how would a person be struck on the right cheek? The answer is that there are only two ways this could happen: 1) by an overhand blow from the left hand, or 2) by a backhand blow from the right hand.
See? Right cheek, right hand.
In the Jewish culture of that time, they did not have indoor plumbing with hot water heaters and disinfectant soap like we have today. So in their culture, it was customary to reserve the right hand for eating and the left hand for “unseemly” uses. To put it in plain English – you used your left hand to wipe your butt. Thus, your left hand was considered the “unclean” hand, and to use it to strike another human being would also be considered “unclean”. In other words, if you strike someone with your left hand, it would be seen as a distasteful and vulgar act and you would be seen as morally questionable as a result.
But a backhand blow from the right hand indicated an authority structure in that culture – a master would strike his slave that way. You didn’t hit an equal with an awkward backhand blow like that – it was specifically meant to humiliate the person being struck.
So what Jesus is doing in this statement is teaching his audience how to resist abusive authority in a non-violent way – if someone puts them in a position over you and then uses their power abusively, “turn the other cheek”. In other words – force them to stop using backhand blows! Turning the other cheek forces the other party to switch to overhand blows which would have been used in a fight between equals!
As Walter Wink writes in “The Powers That Be“:
By turning the cheek, then, the “inferior” is saying, “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I won’t take it anymore.”
Jesus continues this theme of non-violent resistance in the next statement:
If anyone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak also. (Matthew. 5:40)
This statement becomes hard to understand due to weak translations. Some translations seem to indicate that the garment involved in the civil suit is the inner garment–a shirt. But this distorts the picture of non-violent resistance Jesus is painting here. In the law of that time, if someone failed to pay a debt, the creditor could sue the debtor for their coat. If you were poor, your coat also served as a blanket at night. Confiscating a poor man’s coat was essentially taking away his only method of warmth, and was an act of cruelty.
So what does Jesus say to do in this scenario? Give the creditor your cloak as well. Typically, if you were poor, this was the only other garment you wore. So to remove this would be to strip naked, and in that culture it was a shame to be exposed to the nakedness of the other human being. It should also be considered what condition the body of a poor person would be in underneath his/her clothing – it would not be a pleasing sight. So what Jesus is saying is: if someone cruelly demands your only method of warmth, publicly shame them by stripping naked in front of them and revealing what the unjust system is doing to you.
Jesus finishes this trio of non-violent resistance teachings with this:
Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. (Mt. 5:41)
Once again, without an understanding of history, this teaching sounds like Jesus is telling his audience to just be super nice to people who are trying to take advantage of you. But when you look into the history, you might find a different story.
Roman law allowed soldiers to command people from the cultures they had conquered to carry the soldiers’ packs for a mile. This was a way of asserting their dominance over the conquered people–to put them in their place. But because this law had been abused too often, the law also strictly prohibited the soldiers from requiring any more than one mile.
So what Jesus was doing was telling his audience to put these soldiers into an uncomfortable situation. This law was a way for Roman soldiers to be legally abusive. A mile take a bit of time out of your day–time that is precious to those who work in manual labor that pays on productivity; and to those who are burdened by debts they have to pay. So once again, Jesus is not merely teaching his audience to just be super nice and lie down and take your beating like a good little slave–he’s telling his audience to put these soldiers into a compromising position. If you come to the end of your mile, and you keep walking, the soldier has a choice between risking getting into big trouble, or scuffling with you in an attempt to wrestle back his gear! And this struggle would have caused enough of a fuss to call attention to the situation!
When we put these statements into their proper context, we find that they are radical ways to empower abused people without compromising integrity. So if we are seeking to be followers of Jesus, I think it would be a good idea to look for abusive situations in our modern culture, and then seek ways to empower the abused to stand up to their abusers without compromising morality.
Geoff is a Pub Theologian and a geeky/nerdy programmer with three super cute kids and an awesome wife who puts up with his quirks. He is also a Progressive Metalhead, which means he listens to loud music that’s also snobbish. Geoff reads way too many books – especially the ones he’s told not to read.