Text: Matthew 5:38-48
“A word or phrase expressing a person’s or group’s core aim or belief.” That is Webster’s definition of watchword. Watchword is an Old English word from the 15th century meaning, “to remain awake.” But around 1738 it’s meaning shifted to the current definition. Throughout the 20th century, with the great advancements in communications through technology and the birth of the digital revolution, watchwords, slogans, mottos and rallying cries became the strategy for groups and businesses to express their core aim or belief. You will remember some of them:
A Fair Day’s Wage for a Fair Day’s Work – American Unions
Power to the People – anti-establishment slogan
Think global, act local – environmental groups
Just Do It – Nike
Think Different – Apple
All You Need is Love – The Beatles
Good to the Last Drop – Maxwell House Coffee
Have it your Way – Burger King
With the coming of 21st century, yet another way to express a person’s or group’s core aim or belief has been born. Today, it’s all about the “hashtag.” “Hashtag” as defined by Dictionary.com is “a word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) and used to identify messages on a specific topic.” So in today’s world, if you or your group wants to express a core aim or belief you use “hashtag” and then your word or phrase. For example:
And since January 21st, trending at the top of the list has been #resist and #resistance.
Last weekend, I stood on a stage before some estimated 80k people and rallied them to tweet #moral resistance. #Moralresistance represents a moral movement sweeping across our nation in response to the current political climate. I see the watchword, the slogan, the rallying cry almost everywhere I go these days. On a car in the grocery store parking lot yesterday the bumper sticker read in large letters: RESIST. On a billboard driving down I-40: #Resistance. Visible everywhere on social media are the words resist and resistance. Here at church and in community groups that I am a part of the primary conversations seem to focus on strategies for how we can resist the narratives and rhetoric that call for Muslims bans, mass deportations of immigrants, border walls, and stricter law and order. The message #resistance seems critical especially so because the facts tell a different story from the one being told by our current President. According to an article in The Atlantic the U.S. crime rate is at a 25 year low, there have been no major fatal terrorist attacks carried out by refugees in the US since the Refugee Act of 1980, and attacks not perpetrated by US citizens have involved people from countries not included in the recent Muslim ban. And so, for many Americans, the watchword and action for these times is #resistance. And I’m all in, feeling good about the strategy. Resist. Fight. Resist. March. Resist. Stand Up. Resist.
And then, I began my study of the lectionary text for this week, Matthew 5. Not the first part of Matthew 5—the beautiful blessings and those powerful metaphors of salt and light. No, this week it was the last part of Matthew 5. The part that says: “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. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” Some of the most challenging words in our sacred scriptures.
Do not resist an evildoer. I read that sentence over and over. Do not resist an evildoer. But what about #resist? What about #moralresistance? What did Jesus mean, “Do not resist?” Was not his ministry one of resistance? Resisting the empire and those who controlled the empire. Resisting the authority of the church leaders—the Sadducees and Pharisees. Resisting the social norms of the day in favor of eating with sinners and reclining with women. Is not Jesus and the social gospel about resistance? So what is Jesus saying to us in Matthew 5:38-48?
Most translations have Jesus saying, “Resist not evil,” or “Do not resist an evil person.” As I said, considering that Jesus himself resisted evil wherever it reared its ugly head, and considering that Jesus calls his followers into exactly the same ministry that he is doing, this seems baffling, and contradictory to what follows. That is until we realize that Jesus is responding to the law and the injustices in the law.
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” He could have gone on. The original Exodus law (21:24-25) reads “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” The original purpose of this law was to mitigate revenge and to free the people from excessive retaliation. If someone in your family loses an eye, that does not mean you can cut off the head of the perpetrator. Nevertheless, even this level of violence–justifiable violence according to the law–is rejected by Jesus. This is the way it was, says Jesus, but I tell you: Always practice non-violence.
Walter Wink in his book, The Powers that Be writes:
Many otherwise devout Christians simply dismiss Jesus’ teachings about nonviolence out of hand as impractical idealism. And with good reason. “Turn the other cheek” has come to imply a passive, doormat- like quality that has made the Christian way seem cowardly and complicit in the face of injustice. “Resist not evil” seems to break the back of all opposition to evil and to counsel submission. “Going the second mile” has become a platitude meaning nothing more than “extend yourself” and appears to encourage collaboration with the oppressor. Jesus’ teaching, viewed this way, is impractical, masochistic, and even suicidal—an invitation to bullies and spouse-batterers to wipe up the floor with their supine Christian victims.
Jesus never displayed that kind of passivity. Whatever the source of the misunderstanding, such distortions are clearly neither in Jesus nor his teaching, which, in context, is one of the most revolutionary political statements ever uttered:
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 (Matt. 5:38-41; see also Luke 6:29).
The traditional interpretation of “do not resist an evildoer” has been nonresistance to evil—an odd conclusion, given the fact that on every occasion Jesus himself resisted evil with every fiber of his being.
Wink goes on to make the case that antistenai has to do with violence. The word is formed from anti–“against”–and stenai–“to stand.” Literally, the word means “stand against” or “withstand.” Therefore, the sentence should be translated: “Do not violently resist the evil one.” With this more accurate translation, let’s consider what Jesus is saying to us in this passage.
Whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other. “People in ancient times did not initiate action with their left hand since the left hand was considered unclean. If they were going to strike someone, they would do it with their right hand. But the physics doesn’t work. How would someone land a right hook on someone else’s right cheek? They can’t because it can’t be done. The only way to strike another person on their right cheek is by back-handing the person, which is an insult, an expression of dominance. In the first century, the people most likely to be back-handed were slaves, women, children, and people considered somehow “lesser” than their Roman overlords. Jesus does not counsel passivity in the face of insult–quite the contrary. If someone backhands you on the right cheek, lift your head back up, turn your cheek and expose the left one as well. You have dignity as a human being. Don’t let someone else take that away from you. Don’t hang your head and accept servility. Stand there with head held high. That way, you are defining your own self and not letting someone else define you as “lesser.” This is how to resist evil non-violently.”(Walter Wink, The Powers that Be)
To the one wanting to sue you and take your tunic, give to him your coat also. “The coat, or outer garment, was sometimes used by the (very) poor as collateral for a loan. If the coat was used for collateral, it had to be returned to the person by nightfall so they could sleep in it. The next morning, however, the person’s creditors could come and get it again. The situation Jesus describes is one in which a destitute peasant is getting pestered to the point of being sued for his underwear. Most of Jesus’ listeners, keep in mind, were poor and stood in danger of getting poorer. It’s not for nothing that Jesus refers often to debt. That would have been the lived experience of many in his audience. If you’re getting sued for your underwear, give up the dang coat as well, Jesus says. Walk around naked if you have to. On the other hand, nakedness was considered shameful in the ancient world. Moreover, anyone who viewed a naked person was also shamed. Giving your “coat also” is, therefore, confrontational. It says: I’m willing to strip off my clothes. I expose myself as a way of exposing the whole oppressive system.” (Walter Wink, The Powers that Be)
Jesus is using exaggeration and hyperbole to make a very important point: These laws are unjust, and God is not on the side of your oppressor.
“Give your coat also” is an expression of disgust at the system that perpetrates poverty, denies dignity, takes everything you’ve got, and encourages the ones who benefit from it to imagine themselves superior. “You can’t take my coat; I freely give it”–this is a way of asserting personal agency in the face of dehumanizing oppression.
How do we translate Matthew 5:38-48 so that it is relevant to us? What does all of this mean for those of us who are feeling called to #resist? First and foremost, it means non-violence. Our goal in resisting is to empower our democracy, not weaken it. This President was elected, not by the popular vote, but by the same system this country has used since its inception. We must accept the outcome of the election. We cannot advocate force in removing the President or his officers. We must condemn violent protests and any violence done in the name of #resist.
Second, it means that we must not be passive in the face of insulting rhetoric and policy. When Muslims are vilified, we must stand alongside our Muslim brothers and sisters and hold our heads high. When immigrants are demeaned, we must welcome immigrants to stand with us, to eat with us, to be seen with us—to be welcomed here in our church. When judicial decisions are mocked, we must speak out to support the checks and balances built into our democracy. We must define ourselves in this tumultuous time, and stand up to counter the narrative of hate that must not be normalized on our watch.
Finally, it means that we must be willing to expose ourselves as a way of exposing the oppressive system. I am very clear that protesting is not for everyone. So again I say to you this morning, find your way. How are you willing to be seen in this moment in time? Will you use your voice on Facebook to call out “alternative facts?” Will you be strategic in where you shop or invest or live so that you are mindful of your economic contribution? Will you become active in your local precinct to ensure free and fair elections? In some way, we all must expose ourselves as a way of exposing the oppressive system
This week I am giving you homework. I want you to ponder this passage, which we have all heard in one way our whole lives. I want you to read it, pray on it, meditate on it, talk about it. Find where it is calling and challenging you to step out of your bubble and resist the injustices that perpetrates poverty, denies dignity, takes from the already vulnerable, and encourages the ones who benefit from it to imagine themselves superior. You can even tweet about what you will do at #resistance. You cannot do it wrong, as long as you do something.