If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him; you shall not charge him interest. If you ever take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you are to return it to him before the sun sets, for that is his only covering; it is his cloak for his body. What else shall he sleep in? And it shall come about that when he cries out to Me, I will hear him, for I am gracious.
– Exodus 22:25-27
“Had it not been the LORD who was on our side,”
Let Israel now say,
“Had it not been the LORD who was on our side
When men rose up against us,
Then they would have swallowed us alive,
When their anger was kindled against us;
Then the waters would have engulfed us,
The stream would have swept over our soul;
Then the raging waters would have swept over our soul.”
Blessed be the LORD,
Who has not given us to be torn by their teeth.
Our soul has escaped as a bird out of the snare of the trapper;
The snare is broken and we have escaped.
Our help is in the name of the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.
– Psalm 124
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 evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.
– Matthew 5:38-42
Gandhi, a Hindu, said after he studied many world religions he was most drawn to Christianity, but when he went to a Christian church they would not let him in because of the color of his skin.
Diana Butler Bass defines two different kinds of Christianity. One is “Big-C” Christianity – the corrupt Christianity that would not let Gandhi in the church because of his skin color. It is the big, institutional Church of Rome that comes with a shadow that falls on us from way back in history, all the way back to when the Church became an arm of the Roman Empire. We know it as the Church of hypocrisy, where Catholic priests sexually abuse young boys and the institution is unable to make this injustice visible and transfers the sexual abuser to another church. It is the Church that everyone is disgusted with and leaving in our country in droves. It is the Church of the Inquisition and the Crusades, the Church that did practically nothing during the Holocaust in Europe and has shown too little leadership in a world of child sexual abuse, torture, nuclear weapons, and abject poverty.
“Small-C” Christianity is what Jesus taught and what Gandhi was drawn to. It is, I believe, a radical way of life of peace and justice. I think of it as the real church that has always existed despite the corruption of the institutional madness of Big-C Christianity.
Small-C Christianity is the Christ that was resurrected and is alive and well today. Think of Small-C Christianity as the way of Jesus that includes the small c’s: compassion, creativity and courage.
I went to seminary as a UU, believing in all world religions, and while I was there and then serving my first UU church, I slowly began to convert to Christianity. Eventually, I came on over to the UCC. It was a natural place to come to, for it is the most liberal of all the mainline Protestant communities. This is not to say that I think Christianity is any better than any other religion. It is not. If you have any confusion about this, please get together with me, for we need to put an end to this idea that has caused the arrogance and ignorance of anti-Semitism, prejudice, and centuries of human suffering. I could have become a Buddhist or a pagan, or studied a little bit of all the world religions and remained a UU, but I converted, because studying the scriptures of Jesus’ third way gave me a religious foundation, a way to respond to conflict personally, and a way to respond to poverty and violence – the two most important issues we face in beloved community.
The third way is about never responding to conflict by fighting back and never fleeing or avoiding hostility or attacks. This third way of Jesus is a road map. It shows us how to discover, navigate, learn, and practice Jesus’ ways – how we make Christianity meaningful and real today.
Let’s review what we have discovered about turning the other cheek in the last few weeks of this series on Jesus’ third way. Walter Wink shows us in a world where you could not use your left hand, for it was unclean, a slap on the left cheek is about trying to humiliate, not trying to start a fistfight. Jesus says to offer your right cheek to this person who is your master or your superior in an unequal relationship, because it robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate you. The person receiving the blow is saying, “I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you, and your stature does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.”
And remember my preaching about giving someone the shirt off your back was about embarrassing. This is like turning other cheek; it is the opposite of what we thought it was about. Jesus is defiant in saying that we should never strike back but we should also never back off or stand down. Jesus is trying to teach a lesson which each of these examples. He is teaching this important truth: that no one can take away our self-respect unless we give it to them. This also does something to the one striking you, or taking away all your money, or making you do his work for him. His hatred of you may decrease and his respect for you may increase.
In our reading from Exodus, we are told of the Jewish laws that mandate that anyone who has to give up everything because of their debt cannot be refused their last garment of clothing to sleep in. So we are reminded that giving someone the shirt off your back is not about being generous, it is about unmasking the injustice – about making the injustice of indebtedness and poverty visible.
Jesus is suggesting that if someone has taken all your money unjustly, which was the state of affairs for all the peasants in occupied Palestine, then you should be prepared to stand stark-naked in front of them in order to embarrass them, to make the injustice visible, to show them the naked truth.
Let’s look today the example of walking an extra mile.
First, we need some background information, just like we did to better understand what Jesus was talking about when he said to turn the other cheek and to give them the shirt off your back. The Roman soldiers were occupiers in Israel. They could and did force the people to help them do their work like, carrying their backpacks. There was a law, in fact, that a solider could require a peasant to carry his pack only one mile but there were severe penalties under military law if a military person made a civilian carry anything for longer than one mile. There were mile markers on the roads to enforce this. “As in the two previous instances of turning your cheek and giving the shirt off your back, this is about how we can assert our human dignity in a situation that cannot at the time be changed. The rules are Caesar’s, but not how one responds to the rules – that is God’s and Caesar has no power over that.” (page 24)
“Wow, what a scene,” the solider is probably saying. “No, give me back my pack!” while trying to drag it out of the hands of the peasant who is wanting to carry it an extra mile.
Now, many of you may say we should not embarrass people in this kind of way. However, what we need to remember is that unless we make those who are treating us unjustly see what they are doing to us, they have no opportunity for repentance or change.
It’s all about motivation. If we want to punish and humiliate, we will accomplish nothing. If our motivation is to confront the injustice and make it visible, then we are engaging in Jesus’ third way. It is what I call engaged Christianity. We are not responsible for the repentance of others, but this kind of nonviolent action will change us and make us feel more self-respect, and it has the vision and possibility of doing radical teaching that may transform those oppressing us.
The entire story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is about the reality that the Roman Empire never had Jesus’ obedience. Jesus shows us that even if someone is torturing you to death, they may take your body, but they cannot take your soul and your own self-respect unless you give it to them. The Romans got Jesus’ dead body but even that turned out to be an illusion, for his teachings of love were more powerful than his material body, and he lived on. We are still experiencing his presence and that spiritual reality today. Jesus resurrected and the Christ of transformational love lives on even today here, now, as we gather together and as we try to learn the radical message of a new way of life Jesus offered.
We need to read our scripture more carefully and consider what Jesus was trying to teach those who were so powerless against the Roman Empire. Do we feel that we are powerless over institutional and corporate power? Can we relate to those first-century peasants? I think the world Jesus was teaching in is much like the world of today. We, like the peasants and slaves and Jews who were living under occupation by the Romans, often feel powerless over the evils of militarism, nationalism, sexism, ageism, poverty, torture, violence, and war. I believe the teachings of Jesus are a way of life that is extremely relevant to all of us today. We need to learn new ways to respond to those who have massive power over us and figure out, in essence, what Jesus would do.
Would Jesus be passive against 21st-century oppressive governments and institutional systems that produce poverty and violence? No I don’t think so. The small-C Christianity of the Christ, about compassion, creativity, and courage, is still alive. Jesus would respond to injustice with compassion, creativity, and courage and that’s why I am a Christian and want to study Christian scriptures to learn how to engage my whole being – body, mind, and spirit – with compassion, creativity, and courage.
Jesus started a nonviolent revolution in first-century Palestine similar to what Gandhi did in the 20th century in India. Gandhi made the world see that 350 million Indians were being oppressed by a few hundred thousand Englishmen. Gandhi lived to witness the nonviolent revolution that overthrew the British Empire and its government in his own lifetime.
Jesus did not see the overthrow of the Roman Empire but eventually it did fall. The Christian revolutionary movement became a nonviolent force for the Roman Empire to contend with in the first hundred years of Christian history.
People have been lifting up the power of love in the gospels in order to learn ways of nonviolence to make injustice visible all throughout history, because it is clearly there, there is no getting around it.
In recent history, we look to the Philippines and its inspired female leader, Corazon Aquino, who overthrew the corrupt government of Ferdinand Marcos in a nonviolent, peaceful revolution. Did you know that they did this by teaching nonviolence of Jesus in the Christian churches? Their inspiration was Jesus’ third way. How come all the Christian churches in the world are not teaching Jesus’ third way?
Similarly, in Poland and South Africa we have witnessed massive nonviolent revolutions inspired largely by the small-c Christian church. Here in our own country, the civil rights movement used Christianity as the foundation for Martin Luther King’s vision of nonviolent revolution and Jesus’ third way.
Walter Wink calculates that the many nonviolent revolutions in the world in the 20th century affected “about 3.4 billion people. And yet there are people who still insist that nonviolence doesn’t work! Gene Sharp has itemized198 different types of nonviolent actions that are a part of the historical record, yet our history books seldom mention any of them, so preoccupied are they with power politics and wars.” (Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence pages 2-3)
We need to reclaim small-c Christianity, for I believe it can save us and our world. When many talk about nonviolence, what they are really talking about is their desire to have an absence of conflict. This has nothing to do with the Good News of the gospel. Jesus, Gandhi, and Corazon Aquino knew nothing about nonviolence without conflict. First we need to give up our conflict avoidance. Conflict is a part of life. How we deal with it is what we look to Jesus, Gandhi, and Aquino to model for us. Second, we need to make the injustice visible. All three of them – Aquino, Gandhi, and Jesus – knew that first you have to make injustice visible. So often it is not even visible to those who have suffered under it for so long. They take it for granted and don’t even bother categorize it as injustice.
As Walter Wink says, it is too bad Jesus didn’t give us a dozen more examples of how to work nonviolence. But we can study Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Corazon Aquino in more recent times. One thing Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Aquino knew and taught is that there is nothing passive about nonviolence. One of the problems with nonviolent revolutions is the terminology it sounds passive, but it takes enormous discipline, energy, and creativity to respond to violence with nonviolence – to respond to injustice in a new way.
There is a scene in the movie Gandhi that makes the point dramatically. Gandhi, who often taught symbolically, just as Jesus did, chose the issue of the salt tax, a law imposed by the British that made it illegal to sell or produce salt. This created a complete British monopoly, and, since salt is necessary in everyone’s daily diet, affected everyone in India. Gandhi strategized, just as generals do in waging war, to embark on a campaign of nonviolence to make the injustice of the English laws of taxation visible. He walked 230 miles to the sea, arriving on the anniversary of one of the worst massacres in India in which the English slaughtered hundreds of men, women, and children who had gathered peacefully in a carefully planned campaign. Men stood in rows and walked forward as English soldiers beat them down. They fell, and women took them to Red Cross areas and other men kept on coming.
This is real history we can learn from. The discipline, courage, creativity, and leadership of the third way of this history are there for us to learn and emulate.
Let us be of good courage as we study the scriptures of Jesus and study the radial way of life, a third way, not of fighting back or of fleeing violence or hostility, but of engaging in compassionate, creative, and courageous responses. Of doing what Jesus would do. Let us dedicate our lives to a third way of living, where we can hold our head high without humiliation and know that the truth is the truth even if it is held only by one, and God is always on the side of truth and justice and transformation.
God will be with us as we work against our enemies and has always been on the side of justice. People will also come out of the woodwork when we stand on the side of justice against all odds. May we all have the discipline to dedicate our lives to peace with justice and Jesus radial third way of living and thank God for keeping this Christ light of justice alive in our imaginations and hearts today.