“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.” (Matthew 5:38-41 NIV)
These words of Jesus have provoked many thoughtful responses, and many responses that are less than thoughtful. What Christ was teaching was that His followers are not the type of people who insist on personal respect, or their rights, or getting their way, or being heard. Rather His followers will be people of compassion, characterized by sympathy and empathy, not selfishness or self-centeredness.
These are the “Politics of Compassion” – caring for others, seeing others as our fellow human beings, forgiving offences against us, and acting in compassion toward them. Today much of the liberal left has been dominated by the “Politics of Identity” which takes one issue – how we identify as individuals – and makes it the most important issue. The Politics of Identity are based on the interests and perspectives of minority groups that we identify with. They run the gamut: race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, occupation, generation, geography, education, rural or urban, etc.
Identity Politics takes issues that exist but are less important than shared humanity, and make them the center of everything. Compassion Politics sees everyone as human first, and as such is worthy of compassion, respect, and consideration. This is what Christ taught His followers.
Slap on the Cheek
The slap on the right cheek was the slap of insult – the backhanded slap. This means that followers of Christ will not react to every insult, that they will stand for God and not for their own reputation. Paul taught that the life of God in the believer is an entirely new reality; “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). We are not our own, and can endure insults for the sake of Christ.
But what about self-defence, or the defence of weaker and more vulnerable people? Exodus 22:2-3 gave the Israelites the right to use deadly force in self-defence against a night-time intruder, but not against a day-time one. The idea is no more force than necessary, but one does have the right to protect one’s self and his family against a violent person. And Christ said to His followers on the night of his arrest:
He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:36-38)
Two swords were enough for defence. He was not trying to start a military operation.
Shirt and Coat
In the original language this referred to the outer coat and the lighter shirt underneath. One’s coat was considered an inalienable possession by the Law (Exodus 22:26). It was everyone’s right to have one and to keep it under all conditions. But Christ taught that His followers would not insist on their rights, but even be willing to give them up for others.
Are there limits here? In the Old Testament Law, the workers’ rights were protected, and if someone injured a man so that he could not work, then he would have to pay reasonable compensation. So the right to life and the right to continue to live and exist is protected by God – especially in light of our responsibility to provide for our families.
Going the extra mile
This was a reference to the abusive military practice that allowed roman soldiers to compel common citizens to carry their equipment upon command, but only for one mile. It was abusive and humiliating, but Christ taught that His followers would not go just one but willing to go two. They will do more than is required even when it is within their rights to say no.
This teaches us to have hope for those seemingly lost people who think they are our betters. It teaches us not to stereo-type the abusers based on race or status or any other thing. There is yet hope for all people, and His followers, even when they are dealing with someone who considers himself superior, will see the potential in all people.
Give to the one who asks
Another seemingly contradictory command, that we should not form the habit of saying no to those who ask for help, or for alms. This teaches us not to disrespect those who are seemingly our inferiors socially. All people, rich and poor, will stand naked before God to be judged, and as such, none should be dismissed as a non-entity.
Clearly in the history of the New Testament church we can see both the high points and the low points of Christian compassion – instances when it was a wonderful testimony to the love Christians have for one another, and instances, especially in Thessalonica, where it was taken advantage of by non-believers. But we cannot forget this command, but should be predisposed to help others.
But not allowing abuse
There are many challenges in understanding this passage, mainly because we see teachings and instances in scripture where people seemingly acted in a different spirit. For example, Christ was struck by a someone during his trial before the High Priest, and He responded:
Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” (John 18:23)
And when Paul was commanded to be struck by Ananias, he responded:
Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” (Acts 23:3)
Then when he was told that Ananias was the high priest, he immediately replied that he did not know that he was the high priest, for the scripture says not to speak evil against “ruler of your people” or the high priest. But both of them responded to injustices against themselves.
But here is the key, I believe, to understanding their actions. In both instances they responded not only to the insult that they had received but because the action violated the law of God. In other words, they and the abuse they suffered were not the main issue, but they emphasized justice and the teachings of God. It is true that when we speak up against our own abuse, we speak for other as well.
The goal is God’s Kingdom
The passion and the goal of our lives is to point people to Christ, and not toward ourselves. Christ taught us to pray, “Your Kingdom come!” and not “My rights respected!” Without the Beatitudes this teaching can be misunderstood and misrepresented. Poverty of spirit, mourning for the wounds sin has given this world, meekly bowing before God, hungering for his righteousness, being merciful to others, committing ourselves to remain pure in our hearts, seeking to make peace, and enduring persecution and disrespect for the glory of God – these are the essential attitudes that must come first.
Only when our hearts are right will these commands make sense in our lives.