Monday, December 5, 2011

Hand Over Your Coat as Well

Jesus' radical ethic is no more vividly described than in this key passage from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-42):
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
What did Jesus really have in mind here? Let evil go unconstrained in the world?

Maybe not. Maybe what he had in mind was something more along the lines of what the social worker Julio Diaz did when he was mugged in the NYC subway. Check out the NPR story here. As Diaz demonstrates (quite literally), "handing over your coat as well" might be a bold act of unexpected--and transformative--compassion. If only more of us were like Diaz, demonstrating creative compassion so consistently that even our muggers are caught up in the web of it, blinking in wonder that such a thing is really possible.


  1. What a great story that is. I agree.

    In Jesus' words, I also think of the idea of power. If someone takes something from you, they have the power. If you give it (a cloak, the other cheek, etc.) then you have taken the power back. It's an active response instead of a reactive response.

  2. Steven--Your interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount passage, in terms of taking back power from the evildoer, is essentially the same as Walter Wink's. Have you read his ideas on what he's called "Jesus' Third Way" (a third alternative to violent resistance and capitulation)? I think the two readings--taking back power and responding with creative compassion--are probably both part of a full understanding of what is at work in Jesus' model of nonviolent responses to injustice and abuse.

  3. Thanks, Eric - I will check it out!

    And I agree - both readings are at play with the passage. Compassion is an act of identification with someone - equating that person with yourself in some way. Then being an active agent in the interaction, bringing the compassion to the fore, is about power.

    And it requires the ability to be assertive and calm - a balance that takes practice! Definitely for me at least.... I think I will read this guy's story again!

  4. Eric,

    I think the best way to understand Christ’s moral message is literally. Ethics is contingent on the end of creation, and if the end of creation is the sanctification of its personal creatures (as I think is entailed by Christianity) then Christ’s command to not resist evil says that by not resisting evil one is sanctified. So, in my understanding, Christ’s ethical teaching is indeed to let evil go unconstrained in the world. Our end, the purpose of our life, is not to put down the evil of the world, but to make ourselves like Christ.

    If putting down the evil of the world were useful then God would do it by a slight movement of His/Her little finger. But our own sanctification is something that can only be achieved by us, in freedom, within a world in which we can choose among good and evil. If God does not stop others from doing evil, what business do we have in trying to stop them? Our natural power ends at our fingertips; so let us choose to do good and leave others the freedom to choose the same. It is wrong to consider evil the enemy of God; evil is what we transcend in our path towards God.

    Having said that it seems to me very likely that God has created the world in such a way that should we follow Christ’s commands society would improve also. People have been resisting evil for millennia, and the results are not impressive. It seems that in many ways evil feeds on resistance – just look at all the “just” wars. As it is often said, evil begets evil. It sounds paradoxical, but I tend to believe that if people ignored evil and let evil had its way then the world would become a better place. For one it would not make sense to accumulate material goods over what other people possess. People would tend to create those things which evil people do not want or cannot take away, such as to have a joyful disposition, to love hard work, to discover knowledge, to make art, to help the weak and tend the sick. All the treasures of the soul are such that they cannot be taken away by evil people, indeed they can only help one earn even more. It is I think only in our current fallen and deeply unjust society where to resist evil appears to make sense.