In his article, “Jesus’ Third Way”, the biblical scholar Walter Wink re-examines the passages from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that have too often been interpreted to be imperatives for passivity: “turn the other cheek”, “resist not evil”, and “go the second mile.” On the surface, these sayings certainly sound like Jesus is instructing his hearers to be like a “doormat” (as Wink describes it) when confronted with conflict. However, Wink’s brilliant exegesis of these passages that pays more attention to the context of Jesus provides an important corrective to the doormat approach to Christian discipleship. It seems clear that Jesus rejected the use of violent force to oppose the domination systems of his day (going against the methods of the Zealots), but he was no less opposed to all forms of oppression. Jesus opposes both violent retaliation and nonresistance, offering his followers a third way to deal with conflict: active nonviolent resistance that is concerned with creatively dealing with evil and violence in particular contexts. As Wink writes, “Jesus abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil.”
First of all, Wink asserts that “do not resist evil” is more accurately translated as something like, “don’t react violently against someone who is evil.” This calls for the rejection of the method of violence without demanding nonresistance. The next clarification of Jesus’ teaching is that when he says to “turn the other cheek” after being slapped on the right cheek, he is asserting this is actually a way to humiliate one’s oppressor. This is because the kind of slap Jesus describes is meant not just to injure, but also to humiliate the victim. Turning the other cheek is a way of asserting equality and humiliating the oppressor. Similarly, when Jesus commands his followers to give away their cloak to those who persecute them, or to go the second mile, it is with particular 1st century social, cultural, and political issues in mind. Properly understood, Jesus is advocating for creative nonviolent resistance in the face of very particular social situations of oppression. Wink asserts that Jesus’ third way instructs his followers to lovingly, but actively confront their oppressors in order to reveal their complicity in evil. Only this kind of resistance can change hearts and break the cycle of violence. The victims must assert their humanity and dignity, shame the oppressor, be willing to suffer instead of retaliate, and reveal the powers for what they really are.
Having also read Wink’s book “The Powers that Be”, I have considered his particular exegesis of Matthew 5 for a number of years, and have ultimately found it to be important for my own understanding of Jesus’ teachings. Although I am still working to clearly articulate my own pacifist stance, I know that it must be a socially engaged kind because of Wink’s compelling exegesis. Christian pacifists have more to offer than a prophetic critique (important as that is) – we have a vision for justice and liberation through nonviolent resistance that is too often neglected as impractical, but is in fact a distinctive contribution to the struggle for social justice. I also resonate with Wink’s call for Christian communities to rehearse nonviolence, to be schooled in creative approaches to this way of life so that they can more faithfully respond to violence and oppression when the time comes. I would add that without a principled commitment to nonviolence, the door is always left open for violent options. It seems that Wink leaves the door open for the use of violence when strategic nonviolence does not seem to be effective. I am not, however, convinced that this is consistent with the New Testament. Jesus may advocate for nonviolent resistance, but I do not think this cancels out his principled pacifism. In addition to prophetic critique, the contribution of principled pacifists to society should be creative alternatives to violence. Christian pacifists would be more ready to offer these alternatives because of an already firm commitment to nonviolence.