Jesus and Nonviolence - chapter two

For the next six weeks,  I'm going to work through Walter Wink's book, "Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way."  I hope you will join me. 

This is a very long chapter, so I hope you will bear with me.  There is so much to consider here!

Note:  If you don't have the book, you can find an exerpt from another of Wink's writings that deals with the same passages in chapter two, here.  


Beginning with those famous verses in Matthew 5:38-41, Wink tells us that King James' translators did us a disservice when they translated the passage as "Resist not evil."  

Jesus did not tell his oppressed hearers not to resist evil.  That would have been absurd.  His entire ministry is utterly at odds with such a preposterous idea.  

Instead, says Wink, the proper translation of this passage would be (for brevity's sake, I won't include his Greek translation):

"Don't strike back at evil (or, one who has done you evil) in kind."  "Do not retaliate against the violence with violence."  Jesus was no less committed to opposing evil than the anti-Roman resistance fighters.  The only difference was over the means to be used:  how one should fight evil.

We have two usual ways of dealing with evil: fight or flight.

Jesus abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil.  His is a third alternative not even touched by these options.

Jesus leaves us with three specific examples, familiar to us all, but perhaps not understood by us outside the cultural context in which Jesus was speaking.

The first is in verse 39:  "If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also."

Why the right cheek?...A blow by the right fist in that right-handed world would land on the left cheek of the opponent.  To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks.  Even to gesture with the left hand at Qumran carried the penalty of exclusion and ten days' penance.  The only way one could strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the right hand.

This, says Wink, is an unmistakable insult.

A backhand slap was the normal way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews.  We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal.  The only normal response would be cowering submission.

Jesus' audience would have been made up of people who were victims of this very thing.  So why does Jesus tell them to turn the other cheek?

Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate.  The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, "Try again.  Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect.  I deny you the power to humiliate me.  I am a human being just like you.  Your status does not alter that fact.  You cannot demean me."

Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker.  Purely logistically, what can he do?  He cannot use the backhand because the nose is in the way.  He can't use his left hand regardless.  If he hits with a fist, he makes himself an equal, acknowledging the other as a peer.  But the whole point of the back of the hand is to reinforce the caste system and its institutionalized inequality.  Even if he orders the person flogged, the point has been irrevocably made.  The oppressor has been forced, against his will, to regard the subordinate as an equal human being.  The powerful person has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other.  This response, far from admonishing passivity and cowardice, is an act of defiance. 


I won't go over Wink's explanations of the other two commands in those verses, but they are equally as powerful.   (If you'd like to read a version of them, they are posted here.)

Wink goes on to say that some may object to the idea of discomfiting or embarrassing the oppressor, but, he says, "can people who are engaged in oppressive acts repent unless they are made uncomfortable with their actions?"

There is, admittedly, the danger of using nonviolence as a tactic of revenge and humiliation.  There is also, at the opposite extreme, an equal danger of sentimentality and softness that confuses the uncompromising love of Jesus with being nice.  Loving confrontation can free both the oppressed from docility and the oppressor from sin.

The following are Wink's understanding of Jesus' third way:


  • Seize the moral initiative
  • Find a creative alternative to violence
  • Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person
  • Meet force with ridicule or humor
  • Break the cycloe of humiliation
  • Refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position
  • Expose the injustice of the system
  • Take control of the power dynamic
  • Shame the oppressor into repentance
  • Stand your ground
  • Force the Powers to make decisions for which they are not prepared
  • Recognize your own power
  • Be willing to suffer rather than to retaliate
  • Cause the oppressor to see you in a new light
  • Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective
  • Be willing to undergo the penalty for breaking unjust laws
  • Die to fear of the old order and its rules


Next, he goes on to present day examples of this in action.  

The nurses in a hospital in Saskatchewan were tired of being browbeaten, corrected in front of patients, and generally made to feel inferior by the doctors on staff.  The nurses put their heads together and came up with a plan.  They went to a sympathetic adminstrator and set up a "pink alert," which would be transmitted over the intercom the next time a doctor started abusing a nurse.  From all over the hospital, nurses who were free converged on the scene, surrounded the doctor, holding hands, and waited for him to make the first move.  He located the smallest nurse and plunged toward her.  But the circle merely gave with his charge.  He tried another nurse; same result.  It became like the childhood game of Red Rover.  The circle was like an amoeba that simply gave with his every move.  Finally he dropped his hands, acquiescing in their lesson.  That pretty much took care of that problem on out, for their circle...was ready at a moment's notice.

It is imperative that we repeat such stories and rehearse them. We need to teach ourselves and expand our imaginations if we want to have these creative responses in our daily lives.

Unfortunately, says Wink, we have turned Jesus' examples into laws, without knowing their proper context.  

Pacifists and those who reject pacifism alike have tended to regard Jesus' infinitely malleable insights as iron rules, the one group urging that they be observed inflexibly, the other treating them as impossible demands intended to break us and catapult us into the arms of grace.  The creative, ironic, playful quality of Jesus' teacing has thus been buried under an avalanche of humorless commentary. 

Wink goes on to point out that many battered wives have been counseled  to turn the other cheek, instead of acting in the spirit of Jesus' words, which would lead her to restore her own dignity and end the cycle of abuse.  

She needs to assert some sort of control in the situation and force her husband to regard her as an equal, or get out of that relationship altogether...And he needs to be helped to overcome his violence.  The most creative and loving thing she could do, at least in an American setting, might be to have him arrested.  "Turn the other cheek" is not intended as a legal requirement to be applied woodenly...but as the impetus for discovering creative alternatives that transcend the only two that we are conditioned to perceive: submission or violence, flight or fight.

And not to let himself off the hook, Wink tells a story of being bullied in high school.  He responded as he had been taught, to turn the other cheek.  Eventually the bullying stopped, but he realized that he had never loved the bully or helped him change, in fact, he hated him.  And when he was honest, he realized that turning the other cheek was easiest to do because he was afraid of confrontation.

Perhaps I had done the right thing for the wrong reason, but I suspect that creative nonviolence can never be a genuinely moral response unless we are capable of first entertaining the possibility of violence and consciously saying, "No."  Otherwise, our nonviolence may actually be a mask for cowardice.

We must not simple be interested in "avoiding violence."  We must be concerned with "realizing justice."

Nonviolence is not the final objective.  Nonviolence is a lifestyle.  The final objective is humanity.  It is life.


I look forward to hearing your thoughts!  Thanks for enduring all the way to the end.

Part one in this series can be found here.