February 23, 2014
Psalm 119: 33-40
“When the great lord passes, the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts” – Ethiopian Proverb*
Several commentators have pointed out that the Gospel reading for this week, from the Sermon on the Mount, has suffered from a history of bad translations and interpretations. Jesus’ exhortation to “… not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:39) has all to often been interpreted as exhorting Christians to be servile doormats in the face of oppression. Countless victims of spousal abuse have had this verse shoved in their faces as evidence that they should simply submit and “give their pain to Jesus”.
Commentator John Petty makes the case that the Greek verb used for “do not resist” (antistenai) actually means “do not resist violently“. The Scripture is not exhorting pure passivity, but rather resistance that is non-violent. Petty also explains how the verse recommending turning the other cheek is actually a recipe for clever, non-violent resistance:
People in ancient times did not initiate action with their left hand since the left hand was considered unclean. If they were going to strike someone, they would do it with their right hand … The only way to strike another person on their right cheek is by back-handing the person, which is an insult, an expression of dominance. In the first century, the people most likely to be back-handed were slaves, women, children, and people considered somehow “lesser” than their Roman overlords.
David Ewart demonstrates that if an underling were backhanded across the right cheek with the right hand, and responded by turning and offering the left cheek, the overlord would be completely thrown off balance (physically and mentally), because the public beating of a servant had to be done according to expected protocol. Anything outside of the accepted “script” (the servant is back-handed across the right cheek) would show the overlord to be out of control of the situation – and would make him look ridiculous. The underling is, in effect, staging comic performance art which exposes the overlord as a stupid thug.
Likewise, when Jesus exhorts His listeners to give their cloak, too, if sued for their coat, He is setting the stage for more comic performance art. Because the coat was often the only item that a peasant owned, other than his underwear (his cloak), offering his underwear would (literally) expose the obscenity of the powerful suing the powerless for the little they own, and would subject the plaintiff to acute public embarrassment (Ibid.). Finally, offering to carry a Roman soldier’s 70-pound pack a second mile (after being legally conscripted to bear it one mile), would not only make a comic scene of exaggerated compliance, but would also greatly embarrass the soldier if the person bearing the pack slowed down the march due to his exhaustion. Under the glare of his commander, the soldier would be running back to pick up his own pack!
People in positions of powerlessness throughout the centuries have long found ingenious ways to put up “cheeky resistance” to their tormentors. In one example from Cold War Czechoslovakia, author Milan Kundera gives an autobiographical account of comic resistance put up by the inmates of a penal battalion for political prisoners:[He] describes a relay race pitting the camp guards, who had organized it, against the prisoners. The prisoners, knowing that they were expected to lose, spoiled the performance by … acting an elaborate pantomime of excess effort. By exaggerating their compliance to the point of mockery, they openly showed their contempt for the proceedings while making it difficult for the guards to take action against them (Scott, James C. 1990. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp.139).
In another example, cultures where spirit possession is accepted often find this practice used by oppressed women to resist maltreatment by their husbands and male relatives:… a woman seized by a spirit can openly make known her grievances against her husband and male relatives, curse them, make demands, and, in general, violate the powerful norms of male dominance. She may, while possessed, cease work, be given gifts, and generally be treated indulgently. Because it is not she who is acting, but rather the spirit that has seized her, she cannot be held personally responsible for her words. (Ibid.)
In post-modern culture, the Internet has been a great boon to cheeky resistors across the world. When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the passage of an oppressive “anti Gay propaganda” law, just before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the following picture of Putin (right) in spectacular drag promptly appeared and went viral across the internet. In another instance, a pizza parlor in Arizona – where a law enabling businesses to refuse service to LGBT people on religious grounds recently passed – posted a photo of a sign in its shop saying “We reserve the right to refuse service to state legislators”.
Some may argue that cheeky resistance is not truly loving your enemy, in the spirit of today’s Gospel reading. I would argue that yes, actually, it is – but it is tough love. It is love that deflates the ego of the oppressor so that a genuine relationship of equality might be possible. In a relationship of fear and domination, there can be no love. It is only when the emperor is shown to have no clothes and is brought down to size that he can be human (and lovable) again.
*(in Scott, James C., Op.cit)