The gospel for this All Saints’ Day comes from the Sermon on the Plain that Jesus preaches in Luke’s Gospel. The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel may be more familiar, but what Luke gives us appears more provocative: it is a series of blessings followed by a parallel series of woes.
Blessed are you who are poor, who are hungry, who weep now, who are hated by all. Something better awaits you when the great day comes.
But woe to you who are rich, who are full, who laugh, who are well spoken about by everybody. When the great day comes, you will find yourself desolate.
These contrasts are enough in themselves to make us uneasy. But then come some verses that must rank high on the list of bible passages all of us like to zip through as though they were not there. Jesus goes on to say; “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
There are texts from the Bible that some people would like to see carved in stone on the lawns of courthouses or posted in public school classrooms. There are texts from the Bible that people render in needlepoint and put up on the living room wall. There are texts from the Bible that are written in splendid calligraphy and appear on Christian greeting cards. But rarely, if ever, are texts such as these chosen for such display: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
And if these calls to doing good, and blessing, and prayer are not challenging enough, upsetting enough, Jesus then gets more specific. “To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer also the other; and from him who takes away your cloak, don’t withhold your coat also.”
The Church is audacious in assigning this passage to the feast of All Saints’, suggesting that radical nonviolence has something to do with the Christian life. Indeed, it does! In the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus presents the charter for God’s kingdom. But what’s really going on here?
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A contemporary scholar and teacher named Walter Wink talks about the Third Way which Jesus embodies and teaches. It is a third way beyond both passivity and conventional violence. It is an alternative to both fight and flight. This Third Way that Jesus promotes enables people to resist violence so that love prevails.
To appreciate the specifics of Jesus’ teaching, we must be aware of the social context in which he and the people around him find themselves.
First example. In that place and time, slaves are reprimanded by a slap with the back of the right hand to the right cheek of the slave. To strike an equal, however, you would use your fist and hit him, usually on the left cheek.
Now , if someone treats you as a slave and strikes you on the right cheek, and you turn to him your left cheek, that forces the hitter to treat you as an equal; it exposes the injustice of regarding you as something less. Thus it challenges the entire system of domination.
[While Luke’s version of “offer the other (cheek) also” does not distinguish between left and right, the version in Matthew does make this distinction.]
Second example. If you’re in debt to someone, that creditor might seize your coat, even though doing so is contrary to the Hebrew scriptures, and this would leave you without a covering in which to sleep. When that happens, then give your greedy creditor the shirt off your back as well even if it leaves you naked. People will, of course, be shocked to see you naked. The creditor will be deeply shamed once you explain to the general public just what happened to your clothes.
What Jesus advocates is not attacking your opponent, nor acquiescing to injustice, but that you use the circumstances of the moment to expose the injustice and disrupt the oppressor’s power over you.
But how can the ThirdWay of Jesus be lived out in circumstances that people encounter today? Here are some examples.
• A woman battered by her husband should neither attack him nor accept abuse. She should have the man arrested. This is the most loving choice available. It may also be the hardest. Domestic violence counselors report how difficult many women find it to act on this alternative, but arrest can prevent the cycle of violence from continuing.
• Or consider this story from Brazil, The lands belonging to peasant farmers were subject to illegal seizure by national and international corporations acting with the connivance of the military and local politicians. Some of the farmers were arrested and jailed in town. Their companions decided that they were no less responsible than those who had been jailed, and so hundreds of them marched to town and filled the judge’s house, demanding that they also be jailed. The judge finally sent all of them home, including the prisoners.
The Third Way of Jesus often involves the use of wit that enhances the humanity of everyone involved. Some examples.
• Once a squatter community in South Africa found their shelter infested with lice. The authorities refused to fumigate the area. So the squatters’ leadership group hauled bags of lice-infested blankets to the administrator’s office and dumped them on her floor. The squatters’ shelter was immediately fumigated.
• Some years ago, Bishop Desmond Tutu was walking by a construction site on a temporary sidewalk that was the width of only one person. A white man appeared on the other end, recognized Tutu, and said, “I don’t give way to gorillas.” Tutu stepped aside, made a deep sweeping gesture, and responded, “Ah yes, but I do.”
• The Mbuti of northeast Zaire are a peace-loving people who defuse anger through laughter. If a group of children making noise awaken a man from his nap and he shouts at them or slaps a child, all the children gather and play the adult role, shouting and slapping each other. The adult must either retreat or join in the laughter at his own behavior.
• One more anecdote. Chinese students, forbidden to demonstrate against government policy, have been known to put on masks of national leaders and carry signs with slogans such as “Support Inflation.” “Support Marital Law,” and “Support Dictatorship.”
The Church has sometimes almost forgotten this Third Way that Jesus teaches and lives out. But it has always remained alive in the hearts of great and ordinary saints whom the Spirit has inspired to love their enemies as well as their friends.
That Third Way, the active nonviolence of the Gospel, is erupting in more and more places today among people of Christian faith as well as others. This story is told with special eloquence in the book and film series entitled A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict which recounts more than a dozen instances of how societies were transformed through nonviolent action during the twentieth century.
Saints are people of contemplation and prayer. They are also agents of transformation. These two roles are not contrary, but belong together. Indeed, our prayer bears fruit to the degree that our hearts become undefended.
Staretz Silouan, an Orthodox Christian monk, said that we can judge whether a given state of contemplation is a reality or an illusion only when we return to consciousness of the world, for then, as he pointed out, if there is no love for all creatures, even one’s enemies, it is a true indication that the supposed contemplation had not been a real communion with God.
The kingdom of Christ is close at hand when, by the Spirit’s power, we work to liberate both ourselves and our opponents from the cages of conflict.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2010, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.