Changing Perspectives: Committed to Non-Violence

In three short verses in Matthew chapter five, Jesus provides instruction on how to assert your own sense of dignity when others attempt to strip it away. He told us how to maintain our humanity when other seek to humiliate us.

When we understand the context – the culture and laws of the original audience, it changes our perspective. We can take off the western lenses we normally use to read scripture and view it from the standpoint of someone living under the oppression of Roman occupation. I can no longer see this passage as a lesson in humility, instead I see it as a call for justice. Jesus never intended us to be doormats. Jesus never wanted us to passively suffer abuse. He knew we would be mocked and persecuted, but he wanted us to know that we could still insist others show us respect. He knew people would treat us like crap, but he continually reminded us that we were worth more – that we had inherent value as adopted children in God’s family.

So, he gave three pieces of instruction. If someone insults you as unworthy, dare them to treat you like an equal. If someone tries to make you experience shame, make them feel ashamed. If someone uses the law to burden you, use that law to your advantage. These are acts of generosity, but they are also acts of rebellion. They force your abuser to see your humanity and regret their cruelty.

If you see me as an equal, maybe you won’t slap me again. If you’re embarrassed to see me naked, maybe next time you won’t take my clothes. If you don’t want to me to carry your pack for two miles, maybe you won’t force me to carry it at all. Maybe, if you see me as a human being, you will treat me like one. Maybe, if you see my dignity, you will respect me.

At the end, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. He gives us options to avoid the harm our enemies want to cause us, then he tells us to love them and pray for them. This whole passage is soaked in grace. How much better could this world be if we showed love and grace to those who oppose and mistreat us? How much stronger would we be if we held the boundaries to say, “you can’t treat me like this” but still hope our enemies experience blessings? What could we achieve if we looked at our opponents and said, “I won’t let you hurt me, but I want the best for you.”

Nowhere in this sermon does Jesus suggest we act with vengeance. He does not instruct us to repay violence with violence. Jewish law allowed an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. But Jesus insists such measures are counterproductive. Instead, he says, “don’t resist.”

When faced with oppression or abuse, we think there are only two options: fight back or let it happen. Jesus shows us there is a third option: challenge it. Don’t fight against them, show them so much grace that their actions seem absurd. Don’t resist an evil person, subvert them. You can’t control them. Instead, let their behavior lead them to their ruin, you don’t have to go down with them. What Jesus advises we do in the face of adversity is passive. It’s non-violent. It is more rewarding than suffering in silence and it is far more effective than revenge.

A slight change in perspective. And suddenly, I see Jesus’ words as something so much more audacious, more daring, more dangerous, more rebellious, more subversive, more powerful, and more beautiful than I ever have before.

I also believe this message is more essential now than ever before in American history. As the government seeks to restrict our freedoms, we need to demand they see our dignity. Under threat of foreign and homegrown terrorism, we must demonstrate our humanity. To combat school bullying, we should empower and protect the powerless. With a populace struggling through drug addiction and mental health issues, grace is needed in abundance. During protests opposing racial discrimination and police brutality, we need a little peaceful subversion.

None of the challenges facing our country can be solved with violence. Thankfully, Jesus gave us three non-violent methods to subvert the powers that be: turning the other cheek, giving the shirt off our backs, and going the extra mile.

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