December 2008

There is a school of biblical study which reads many of Jesus' most famous and apparently submissive aphorisms as sophisticated Xanatos Gambits for the exploited to use against their exploiters, without resorting to violence. Walter Wink, in his book Engaging the Powers cites three such examples:

  • Give the undergarment (giving the shirt off your back). In Jesus' time, a creditor could sue a debtor for the debtor's outer garment if they had no other means of paying. Obviously, a person would have to be very poor if they could only afford to pay off their debts with their outer robes. Now Jesus, viewing poverty as an unjust, socially created phenomenon, counseled resistance. If any of his poor followers we sued for their outer garment, he advised them to give it and their undergarment to their creditor. This would be shaming for them, but even more so to the creditor, the cause of their nakedness, and would illustrate the injustice of a system which humiliated its victims in such a fasion.

  • Walk the extra mile. Under Roman law, Roman soldiers were allowed to order citizen to carry their (very heavy) packs for them while marching, but only for one mile. The penalties for soldiers who forced citizens to carry the packs further than one mile were stiff. Jesus told his followers that if a soldier forced them to carry his pack for a mile, they should offer to carry further. This leaves the soldier in a bit of a dilemma. He doesn't know how to respond.

  • Jesus said "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." In the Middle East, the left hand was never used for touching another person. Therefore, the only way someone could strike you on the right cheek was with a backhanded blow, as from a superior to an inferior, rather than a slap or punch, which was reserved for equals. Jesus, radical egalitarian that he was, wanted his followers to resist such attempts to "put them in their place." By turning the left cheek on the aggressor, a victim forced them either to deliver a punch or slap, acknowledging them as equals, or to use the left hand, which would be deeply shaming, or to back off. In any eventually, the victim has resisted being labeled an inferior.