Radical Rights The Christian's right is not to retaliate but humiliation
The Australian Human Rights Commission has a striking vision: "Human rights: everyone, everywhere, every day". It is inspiring in its simplicity and audacious in its complexity; it speaks volumes about our society's underlying perspective on human rights. We are a rights-obsessed country, and so it is no surprise that the government is in serious discussions to create a bill of rights for all Australians.
Arguably the right that we as Australians are most obsessed with is our right to retaliation, our right to respond when we are being treated unfairly, to remedy our situation when injustice has been done to us: "an eye for an eye".
Retaliation is enshrined in Article 8 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law". It's a good thing isn't it? It shows that we are a somebody; we're not a nobody. If we are violated we deserve to have that remedied. We are taught to demand our rights in our schools, in our universities, in our workplaces — "he crossed me and he got what was coming to him!" We sometimes call it "tough justice", but it's essentially "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", nothing more than perfectly logical, rational and just retaliation.
Jesus has a different perspective on our right to retaliation. In Matthew 5:38-42 He teaches that members of the Kingdom of Heaven are not to have anything to do with retaliation. In what is probably one of the most debated and misunderstood statements of His entire preaching career He says, "do not resist an evil person". Do you feel uncomfortable when you hear this? Do not resist an evil person! Doesn't Jesus know that the only thing evil needs to succeed, is for good people to do nothing? Yet Jesus is outrageously frank members of the Kingdom of Heaven are called not to retaliate when evil people persecute them.
Jesus is calling members of His kingdom to be completely counter-cultural in the way we respond to persecution, and He illustrates what this looks like by presenting three scenarios in which evil people do evil things.
The first scenario is striking to say the least. An evil person has come up to you and struck you on the right cheek. Jesus identifies the right cheek for a reason. In a right-handed culture, if someone is to slap you on the right cheek, he is not going to use his left hand, he's going to use the back of his right hand. He is giving you a back-handed slap which is a stinging insult and something of great shame. People who received back-handed slaps in Jesus' day were children and slaves. It was a public slur against your honour, a statement of inferiority.
Now we can pretend that sticks and stones can break our bones but words will never hurt us, but we know that nothing is more cutting and devastating than a direct, humiliating, public insult that robs us of our dignity and leaves us feeling worthless. What then does Jesus command us to do in this situation? He says: "Turn the other cheek", forsake our right to retaliation and invite further insult.
This is something we all need to know, we will all be publicly insulted for being members of Jesus' kingdom. This will happen in people talking about us behind our backs, calling us "self-righteous" because we won't join in with certain behaviours, calling us "judgmental" because we believe certain things are absolute truths. If you are a member of the kingdom of heaven, you will receive back handed slaps, it's a promise, and when you do be aware that you are being called to turn the other cheek.
This is also something that we need to understand in order to be faithful evangelicals, submitting to and being guided by what the Scriptures say. A large portion of the church in the Western world has already jumped ship on faithfully preaching the Bible and has joined with the surrounding secular culture to strike us on our right cheek, calling us "fundamentalist", "intolerant", "sexist" and "backward". What is our response? It's to turn the other cheek. We are not to stop nor to cower, nor to give in, but to continue being faithful members of Jesus' kingdom, and in that way invite more insult. We rest in the knowledge that it is the Lord's right to make the judgment; we do not make it ourselves.
The second scenario sees a person suing us and taking from us our tunic. In Jesus' day someone would have three or four tunics but only one cloak. The tunic was a lighter garment that you would wear next to your skin, kind of like a first century version of underwear. The cloak however was your outer garment, and it was heavier, like a blanket. At night you would use your cloak to keep warm, and then when day dawned you would put it on and go on your way. But you only had one cloak.
Under Jewish law if you owed someone money and you couldn't pay, they could sue you for your tunic to make up the difference. Your cloak, however, was yours, always. Legally, no one could take it from you (Ex. 22:26, Deut. 24:13).
What Jesus is saying is that we need not only to forsake our right to retaliation, but we are not to claim even our basic legal rights. Our churches are full of people who stand on their rights and clutch on to their privileges. But Jesus says here that members of the kingdom of Heaven are to think not of their rights but of how they can forsake their rights to serve others. He is calling us to be completely counter-cultural, not having a bill of rights but a bill of responsibilities, taking our needs off our agenda and replacing them with the needs of others. We need to be other person-centred and self-sacrificial to the point where it will hurt us in a similar way it would have hurt the early Christians to give away their only means of staying warm at night; we need to learn to give up not only our tunic, but our cloak as well.
In the third scenario a Roman soldier commandeers us to carry his luggage for a mile. The Jews were never wealthy enough to pay the amount in tax that the Roman senate would have liked. To make up the difference a Roman soldier could force a Jewish peasant to carry his pack for a mile, but only a mile. To go a second mile meant aiding and assisting the foreign occupying force. Realistically it meant becoming a traitor in the eyes of those around you.
But what does this mean for us? It means that we aid and assist those who persecute and oppress us. I think this is where the sting of Jesus' teaching in non-retaliation is strongest. This teaches us that here and now in the kingdom of this world there is no victory for members of Jesus' kingdom. We are called to forsake our rights, forsake our honour, possessions, and time, to take up our cross and suffer in this lifetime. This makes me feel really uncomfortable; it goes against all our society's thinking on our rights. But the command is to trust Jesus and to reject the constant pressures to clutch our rights; let us instead fight evil with good.
The final thing Jesus says is: "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." It is a statement that is the natural outworking in our lives if we are to live counter-culturally: turning the other cheek, giving our cloaks and going the extra mile. Although Jesus is using the illustration of giving money to a beggar, we need to understand that this is not a hard and fast rule, money can often be a harmful thing to give to people who are in need. Having said that we should also not immediately jump to the conclusion that all homeless beggars will use the money for booze and drugs; that is simply a false assumption.
It calls for wisdom to assess the situation each time. But we have to give something! Whether that something is money, food, time or a listening ear, we need to be aware that the only thing a member of Jesus' kingdom cannot do, is to do nothing. When we walk by a homeless person and we don't do anything, we have failed to follow Jesus' command. We have let our rights and our desires direct us. If we live the life of the kingdom of heaven then we should desire to give to all who ask of us.
This raises the obvious question: "how?" What Jesus is teaching here is so hard, so radically opposite to everything we have been taught and believe. If you're asking that question, then you are asking the right question. There are three things that will help us answer this question:
First, every time you find yourself in a position where you have been persecuted or injustice has been done to you, exercise your wisdom. Jesus is giving illustrations here to teach His principle of counter-cultural non-retaliation. Don't take them as legalistic requirements. When Peter and John are told by the religious authorities to stop preaching the gospel (Acts 4:1-22), Peter and John could not obey these authorities for in doing so they would be disobeying God. They had to obey God before men. They kept their resolve, but they did not retaliate. We too need to exercise wisdom in living this out in our lives.
Second, Christ has not left us alone to do this by ourselves. The only way to truly live this out is by humbly relying on God and resting in His promises for us. Yes Jesus tells us to give our tunic and our cloak, but He also says in Matthew 6 that the Lord who clothes the flowers of the field knows that we will need a cloak. Yes Jesus says give to all who ask you, but He also says that when we ask we shall receive, when we seek we shall find and when we knock the door will be open unto us. In God's promises, we find His gracious provision that allows us to live this life of the Kingdom.
Third, Jesus Himself walked this road; He turned the other cheek when the soldiers and the Jews mocked him; He gave up his rights and He gave up his tunic and his cloak to watch the soldiers casting lots for them; He aided his murderers, He healed the soldier's ear in the garden and prayed "Father forgive them for they know not what they doing"; and to the thief being crucified with Him, He gave him the right to walk in Paradise that day. We who follow the Lord Jesus follow in His footsteps; we follow Him when He tells us in this life to take up our cross. Jesus did not retaliate while being murdered on the cross; we don't retaliate when we are persecuted. And when He is finally revealed in all His glory to the entire world, so that all will see that the cross was not defeat but was victory, so shall we who are united with Him be revealed in glory to the entire world. Then we will claim the victory of the Kingdom.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.