Be like God and kill ‘em with kindness, no matter what the bastards dish up. (Listen.)
‘Love your enemies,’ says Jesus. ‘Pray for those who persecute you. And when somebody slaps you around, let them do it again.’ Really?? Is this what Jesus is actually saying? Are we supposed to be nothing but doormats? You can probably guess my answer, but to understand my firm ‘No!’, let’s go back to the social context of Jesus’ sermon.
The first audience were Jewish peasants who lived under Roman military rule. They were often on the margins of Jewish society, too. They were at the bottom of the heap, and were regularly slapped, spat on, and humiliated for being Jewish and/or poor. Meanwhile, Roman taxes siphoned the wealth out of the countryside and towards the aristocracy in other cities, and many peasants ended up in debtor’s prison or even slavery.
In a situation such as this, what do you do? Do you join one of the violent guerrilla resistance movements, knowing it will only lead to your own body joining the lines of crucified bodies flanking the major highways? Do you capitulate to the daily humiliations and allow the oppressors to destroy your sense of integrity and self-worth? Or is there a third way: a way between violence and capitulation?
Well, yes. We call it the path of nonviolent resistance. This is the path of refusing to be defined by other people’s abuses, and it’s what Jesus is talking about in his sermon on the mountaintop.
First, Jesus addresses victims of violence. ‘When someone hits you on the right cheek, turn the other one also,’ he says. Now, when someone hits you on the right cheek, you’re not in a fight between equals. Instead, they’re hitting you with the back of their hand. It’s a dismissive slap, and it’s a way to diminish and humiliate you. So Jesus says, when this happens, turn your other cheek. Don’t fight back, but don’t cringe. Instead, flummox them by inviting them to punch you as an equal. You might get hurt, but you’ll destabilize the power dynamics of the encounter. You’ll show that their power and violence haven’t destroyed your self-respect.
Then Jesus addresses debtors. ‘When someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, give them your cloak, too.’ In Jesus’ time, this means you are a poor debtor and the other person is rich. They have lent you money and are taking your tunic as collateral, as provided for in Deuteronomy. But, says Jesus, give them more: give them your cloak, too.
Jesus is speaking to people who only have two garments. People then didn’t wear layers and layers of clothing. Nobody much owned a change of clothes, let alone a full wardrobe; the most they had besides cloak and tunic was a filthy ragged loincloth. So when you are sued for your tunic, says Jesus, don’t fight back. Instead, give them everything you have. Take off your other garment and show them your buttocks, in other words, moon them: because that will draw attention to their actions. It will remind them and everyone else of the law in Deuteronomy, which allows them to take the cloak, yes, but which also requires them to give it back by sundown so you don’t get cold at night. Your nakedness will expose their rapaciousness, and they’ll be handing back your clothes in no time.
Finally, Jesus addresses load bearers. ‘When someone forces you to go one mile,’ he says, ‘go also the second mile.’ The ‘someone’ here is a Roman soldier. A soldier could force a peasant to carry his pack for one mile, but for only one mile. The law was explicit: two miles was unacceptable. In other words, soldiers could oppress the peasants quite a bit, but not so much that the whole countryside would rise up in rebellion. So if you carried the pack further than the mile specified by law, there would be serious disciplinary consequences for the soldier.
So, says Jesus, ‘Go the second mile.’ Don’t resist his demand to carry his pack. Instead, carry that pack cheerfully and graciously, maybe even sing a marching song. Then keep right on carrying it for a second mile, for in doing so you’ll drain him of his power. The chances are the soldier will be hopping alongside you begging for his pack back.
Jesus knows that we live in a world of hostility, where people slap others down and humiliate them and force their burdens upon them. But in these scenarios, he’s addressing state and social violence, not family violence; and he’s definitely not saying that we should tell women to submit. Anyone who preaches this is callous and cruel, and should be ashamed of themselves.
Instead, when read in context, these stories teach that we are not to let other people’s hostility define us. Sure, we are not to retaliate. We are not to hate more intensely, punch more powerfully, or land more violent pre-emptive strikes: because then we’ll be just like our enemies. But nor should we allow the terrible things people do be the last word in our lives. We are bigger than that.
So Jesus calls us to disrupt people’s attempts to dominate. We’re invited to dream up creative and playful interactions, through which we might change the narrative. ‘You’re into domination, huh? Then watch me exercise freedom! Watch me upend the power dynamics of this relationship and flummox you by clowning around. Here, hit me like an equal. Take *all* my clothes! Let me carry your pack an extra mile.’ And you can imagine the crowds gathering and laughing as the oppressor is non-violently deflated.
But then Jesus goes further. The law of reciprocity is this: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and no more. It’s an excellent start as a non-proliferation treaty, because it sets boundaries on retaliatory violence. But Jesus tells us to go beyond this: Jesus calls for total disarmament.
He says, ‘You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:43). In other words, start by disrupting the power dynamics. Then when everything’s nice and destabilized, go on and kill ‘em with kindness. Insist on your own humanity, but also insist on theirs. Disarm them with curiosity and gentleness and playfulness and grace; deflate their hostility by showing empathy and radiating love.
It might not be effective, as the persecution of Jesus himself shows. Nevertheless, you can maintain your integrity by offering even your enemy a prayer, a blessing, a small kindness. You can be like God, in fact, who makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good; who makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust; and who showers mercy upon friend and enemy alike.
For as God’s own children, we are called to a way in which evil is undone by love. It’s the culture which Jesus himself embodies, as he hangs on the cross and forgives all those who put him there and who mock him even now; it’s the gift that he shares as his scarred body moves through the world and breathes new spirit wherever it goes. Jesus came to reconcile all things, not just the good, right, fair and true: and he does this through vulnerability and self-giving love. So be like God and kill ‘em with kindness, no matter what the bastards dish up.
Which is all very nice and pie-in-the-sky, but what does killing them with kindness actually look like? Well, I have some ideas: but now I’ve set the parameters, I think the most generative thing to do is to have a conversation. So … what do you think? When have you seen hostility and violence transformed by kindness? What does it look like? What does it take? The rest of the sermon is up to you! [The rest of the time was a congregation discussion.] Ω
Reflect: When have you seen kindness disarm hostility and violence? Is it the work of individuals, or does it need a group? What stories, skills, resources and preparation are helpful?
Charge & Blessing: Go now, and attempt the impossible. Highlight injustice with creativity, pray for those who persecute you, and greet stranger and enemy with love. Be mature, as your heavenly Parent is mature. And may God bless you with a willing heart, a courageous spirit, a wild imagination, and a pocketful of grace: that you may be conformed to the image of Christ in all that you say and do. My friends, the service of worship never ends: it must be lived. We go in peace to disrupt the world: IN THE NAME OF LOVE: AMEN.
A reflection by Alison Sampson on Matthew 5:38-48 given to Sanctuary on 19 February 2023 © Sanctuary 2023. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.
Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here. This is a land taken by force, and never ceded – which is why the Victorian Treaty Process is so important. I pay my respects to elders past and present, and all who are participating in the process. The peace of the land be with us all.
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