Sermon on the Mount–Transforming Initaitives

Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, particularly the sections in the last half of Matthew 5 that speak about “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies,” has been a point of inspiration, ridicule, and confusion.  Any serious Biblically-based Christian peacemaking will have to deal well with what Jesus said.

For our experiential Bible study tool box on this topic you can go to my Bible Study Manual on Conflict Transformation, available for free download on this website.  Also, in Chapter 1 of Christian Peacemaking: From Heritage to Hope I explore these teachings in detail.  You can download that book for free on this website to get a solid background.

In our toolbox we dramatize the three examples Jesus gives for taking action that Glen Stassen called “transforming initiatives”:  turn the other cheek, give the additional garment, and go the second mile.  But first I do a brief analysis of violence and responses to violence, which is also explored more fully in Christian Peacemaking.

Violence begins with the Violence of Oppressive Power, someone who can make others do what they don’t want to do.  In Jesus day that Oppressive Power was Rome.  In response you can have Counter-Violence (the Zealots in Jesus’ day as well as Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane), Collaboration (the Sadducees, Herod, tax-collectors, and Judas in Jesus’ day), Withdrawal (the Essenes and Mary & Joseph with infant Jesus), Unengaged Piety (the Pharisees), and Transforming Initiatives (Jesus).

Then we go through the examples Jesus gave of the kind of action he called people to take.

TI slapWhen you act out turning the other cheek, note that the “right cheek” is being struck, which indicates a backhand slap.  In Jesus’ day that was what social superiors did to social inferiors.  When you act out turning the other cheek it is immediately apparent that the person slapped is not getting into an inferior posture but is still standing confronting the supposed superior, but not in a threatening way.  No attack is made, but the person doesn’t back down either.  This is a nonviolent rejection of the superior/inferior status.



TI shirt 1TI shirt 2When you act out giving the garment, the key is that the setting is in court–a person is “sued” for their garment.  The background is the collateral legislation regarding loans taken out by the poor in Exodus 22.25-27 and Deuteronomy 24.10-13.  A poor person is giving the cloak as collateral to a rich person, making a formal document that was kept in the courts.  Giving the second garment then is stripping naked.  I act this out by actually taking off my shirts.  By then people are laughing, sometimes with embarrassment–but they will never forget the teaching!  They key to this is understanding where the shame of nakedness rests in Jewish society–not on the naked person, but rather on the one who causes the nakedness (Amos 2.7-8, Micah 2.8) and the one who witnesses the nakedness and does nothing (Genesis 9.20-25).  This act actually exposes the evil of the economic exploitation going on putting the shame on the rich landowner demanding the garment as a pledge and on the system watching this exploitation as “business as usual.”

TI pack 1Going the second mile takes the enforced portage by the Roman soldiers which was limited to one mile and makes is an act of voluntary service, kindness.  The one going the second mile is refusing the victim identity and instead chooses an identity of being a “gift giver,” while at the same time putting the Roman soldier outside the law.  In acting out the situation be sure to have a good backpack to use as the soldier forcing someone to carry it a mile with them.

All of these specific examples are set in a particular cultural context.  So to take Jesus seriously we need to see what these actions did in his cultural context and translate the same principles into our own contexts.  In Jesus cultural context these examples show 1) breaking of the expectations of the oppressor, not following the victim script; 2) standing up for one’s humanity; 3) affirming the humanity of the other, even the enemy; 4) exposing or rejecting the evil; and 5) opening the door to repentance and change.

Obviously one key limitation in this tool is a woman shouldn’t take off her shirt as that would create a sexualized situation for most people, undercutting the teaching.  So what should a female facilitator do?  She could ask for a male co-facilitator or participant to volunteer to demonstrate.  She could use a story form, not dramatized but asking for people to use their imagination–what happens?  My wife did this teaching for a group of women.  She did take off her jacket and blouse, wearing a shift underneath, stopping there.  The women loved it, getting the impact of the teaching while preserving a measure of modesty!

Sermon on mt