Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Body and the Blood: Part II. If someone strikes you on the right cheek...

As a follow-up to the previous post, I thought I'd post a bit of exegesis that Sennott had included in his book on the New Testament passage of Matthew 5:39. It was an interesting take on it that I had never heard before:

"Jesus's message was that of creative resistance to oppression, against a power with overwhelming military superiority-a message that drew on all of the existing Jewish sources that were part of his life. His goal was to identify ways in which the powerless of his time and place-for the most part, Jewish peasants-could challenge the economic and social and political inequalities they faced in their daily lives. The most obvious, oft-quoted, and misunderstood axiom of Jesus's idea of pacifism comes from the Gospel According to Matthew: "But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matthew 5:39). I heard this notion literally laughed at in the West Bank and Gaza, and snickered about in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, by members of all three faiths, by politicians and peaceniks and plenty of reporters. It was generally viewed as ridiculously irrelevant in this land, and impossibly idealistic in general. But what exactly Jesus meant by "turning the other cheek" in the context of his time and in the context of his land has been reexamined by theologians and biblical historians, and their reinterpretations of Jesus's message seem very relevant to the conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Israelis.

To hit someone on the right cheek assumes that the aggressor has hit the person with the back of his right hand. In the ancient customs of the land, this was considered a deep insult; this was how the powerful struck the powerless, the way a master struck his slave, or a Roman struck a Jew. But a blow administered with an open hand on the left side of the face was a blow struck at an equal. The difference between the two types of blows was actually codified in Jerusalem's local law at the time according to some historians. A backhanded slap to the right cheek of a man's peer was grounds to sue for punitive damages. The fine for a backhanded blow to a peer was 100 times the fine for a blow with a forehand. If a backhand was delivered to an underling, however, there was no fine. So when Jesus said to offer the left cheek, by this historical interpretation he wasn't prescribing a blind, masochistic pacifism. He was telling his followers, effectively, "Confront the person offending you, forcing him to face you as an equal, but do not respond with violence in return." That, in the context of Jesus's time and The social and legal codes that existed then, was a radical act of defiance. It turned the tables, forcing the striker to accept the humanity and the equality of the one he was striking, even if he was not legally (or militarily, or politically, or economically) recognized as an equal."


JohnCVermont said...

Thank you, I was not aware of the full historical context which the oft-quoted verse should view against.

Jeff said...

Hi John!

Thanks for breaking this thing in with your inaugural comments. Hopefully it will be more than a dialogue someday.

I'm not sure if he's right that most biblical scholars hold this view, but it's certainly true that He was asking us for something courageous and demanding, and was not some pastel, "are-you-running-with-me-buddy-Jesus", doormat of a Christ.

To use a martial arts metaphor, it reads kind of like a "moral aikido".