Faithful Activism

 

Should Christians participate in resistance movements? It is not a new question, but it has assumed a particular urgency for many of us in the current political climate. A day does not go by—an hour does not go by—when I am not invited to a rally, or an action, or to call my senator or sign a petition. I feel strongly about many causes. But what role does my faith play in my activism?

There is a whole spectrum of potential attitudes a Christian can take. On the one end of the spectrum is withdrawal from all political or personal action. On the other end, armed resistance. There are examples of both of these in history, and many options in between. All are undertaken with a sincere attitude of Christian faith and commitment to the gospel of Jesus. I myself have never resorted to physical violence, although I have participated in a number of demonstrations and actions that led to violence. I do not believe the violent result to be consistent with my understanding of faith. However, recognizing that I cannot control all outcomes or others’ reactions, I continue to believe that my participation is in itself faithful. I see the gospel as a call to enlarge the circle of human rights and dignity. The work of Jesus was, and continues to be, the work of justice, healing, and the building of God’s kingdom here on earth. In the ongoing discussion about the appropriate Christian response, one of the most often cited passages is Matthew 5:38- 42. “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer… But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. ”I am not a biblical scholar, but I do want to raise up several points about this passage, so often quoted when suggesting that Christians not engage in resistance.[1]

The emphasis here is on the individual— do not resist the evildoer (singular). This does not address the issue of a larger power or institution that possesses him or causes her to act in a way we perceive as evil. Jesus is reminding us to engage the humanity of the one with whom we disagree. This attitude is the opposite of that most often encountered in political causes or outright warfare. It is human nature to seek to dehumanize those with whom we disagree. I remember my father telling me how, when he served in the army during WWII, he was encouraged to refer to the Japanese using crude, racist characterizations. But we do not need to go back in history nor resort to such extreme examples. Our own current political climate is rife with them. What if we take the time to speak with someone from the other side, listen deeply, acknowledge the human concerns at the root of their beliefs and attitudes? Then, we encounter a real person. Then, we have a glimpse of this “other” as God might see them. Then in fact, we resist the evil system that encourages this othering, not the human person who stands before us. That process of patient, one-on-one engagement, I call Christian resistance.

I would also point out that Jesus was living in a time and place of occupation, and speaking to an occupied people. The examples of behavior he encourages in this passage are pertinent to persons deemed inferior in that occupied culture. Struck on the cheek? This was the common form of reprimand used by a master to a slave, a Roman to a Jew, a parent to a child, a husband to a wife. Recently, when I was studying this passage with a group, we tried acting out the cheek-striking. What we discovered was this: to strike on the right cheek, using the right hand, the striker must use the back of the hand (the left hand in that time was reserved for unclean activities such as toileting). The back of the hand was used for an inferior. By turning the other cheek, the one deemed inferior makes it impossible for the striker to use the backhanded slap. Instead, the striker must resort to a fist—a blow that would, paradoxically, elevate the person he is striking to equal status. Again, this forces a one-on-one relationship that recognizes the humanity of each person involved. Again, I call this Christian resistance.

The other examples used by Jesus here— voluntarily walking a second mile, giving a cloak when a coat is demanded—are, similarly, drawn from the behaviors required by a slave in relationship with a Roman solider. In each of these cases, the slave’s action is a clever way to elevate herself to the level of equality with the soldier, capable of giving the gift of a second mile, or a cloak. Both the slave and the soldier are thereby freed of the oppressive system that degrades the humanity of both. I am reminded here of Martin Luther King’s remarks in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” This was written in the context of King’s comments to white Christian leaders who were critical of his movement and counseling patience. A different time, a different set of oppressors and oppressed, and yet, not really so very different. All of the examples in this passage from Matthew’s gospel point to the truly radical message of Jesus in a world dominated by state oppression, patriarchy and military might. He is calling on his listeners not only just to resist these systems, but to resist by engaging the human dignity and worth of every individual who is a part of the system, whether slave or master, Roman or Jew, man or woman. These forms of resistance are a reflection of that most radical message of all—that each of us is loved and valued and worthy in the eyes of God. No exceptions.

Is our world today much different from that of Jesus’ time? In some ways, perhaps. But in most ways, unfortunately, no. Our world is still dominated by state oppression, patriarchy, racism, and military might. From a young age we learn to “other” those who seem different from ourselves; our politics feed on fear and greed. The dominions and dark powers continue their insidious work, seeking to dehumanize us and turn us against one another. But the message of Jesus stands in stark contrast to these forces. His message of love and human dignity is the ultimate form of resistance against them. And I believe we Christians, his disciples, are called to do the same. Resist the evil powers by not resisting the individual person before us in this moment. Instead, reach out and see them as another beloved child of God.

 

Endnotes

1. Wink, Walter. The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millenium. New York: Doubleday, 1999.

 

Joyce is an Episcopal priest, mother, and campus chaplain at Swarthmore. Her chief claim to fame is having once memorized the names of all the Patristic heresies as well as the vegetable preferences of her children in alphabetical order.

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