Monday, April 26, 2010

In which Jesus is a fucking radical.

By the way, my posting volume has been down -- and will likely continue to be so -- because I now have a teaching job, so I've been scrambling to salvage the year for my kids, some of whom have now had three math teachers and two long-term subs.

Let's talk about Jesus, okay? The Sermon on the Mount (or the Plain, depending on whether you trust Matthew or Luke). He says:
If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Matthew 5:39-41)
Now, I'd always been a little uncomfortable with this. Because the thing is, I'm all down with not fighting back -- that part makes sense to me. But can't you at least block? Isn't some kind of nonviolent resistance okay?

Then I heard new interpretations of these verses that blew my fucking mind.

First, turning the other cheek. Here's what Wikipedia says on the subject:
A literal interpretation of the passages, in which the command refers specifically to a manual strike against the side of a person's face, can be supported by reference to historical and other factors.[1] At the time of Jesus, striking someone deemed to be of a lower class with the back of the hand was used to assert authority and dominance.[2] If the persecuted person "turned the other cheek," the discipliner was faced with a dilemma. The left hand was used for unclean purposes, so a back-hand strike on the opposite cheek would not be performed.[3] The other alternative would be a slap with the open hand as a challenge or to punch the person, but this was seen as a statement of equality. Thus, by turning the other cheek the persecuted was in effect demanding equality.
It goes on to talk about the coat/cloak thing, in the context of Deuteronomy 24:
10 When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, do not go into his house to get what he is offering as a pledge. 11 Stay outside and let the man to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you. 12 If the man is poor, do not go to sleep with his pledge in your possession. 13 Return his cloak to him by sunset so that he may sleep in it.
See, if someone sues you and tries to take your tunic, they're not allowed to take your cloak. So by giving it to them, you're putting them in violation of Hebrew law. Furthermore, Shine Thomas points out that if you give him your cloak, you're probably naked -- and your nudity brings shame on the viewer, not on the naked person.

And it turns out that Roman soldiers were allowed to make you carry their stuff for a mile, but no further. So if you carried it for two miles, they were again violating the law.

All of these are a foundation not so much for a tradition of civil disobedience as for one of uncivil obedience. All of them involve allowing (even perhaps facilitating) wrongdoing, but changing the context of that wrongdoing so that the perpetrator feels uncomfortable about it. And there's definitely no civility in it: there's a kind of challenging hostility in the turning of the other cheek that I find really compelling.

Here are the two modern parallels to this kind of behavior that jump into my mind. Neither of them were things I would ever have dreamed of pointing to as Christian examples before this Sunday morning.

One of them is this account of the death of Che Guevara -- particularly the refusal to kneel to be shot, and his comment, "Know this now, you are killing a man." The other is the "Please, Lou, Please" scene from Fight Club -- and, come to think of it, the scene where Edward Norton beats the shit out of himself to blackmail his boss.

What we see here is a very confrontational Jesus -- rather than being a pitiable figure who was willing to suffer because of his unwillingness to use force, we see a figure who urged his followers to use their own suffering as a weapon. The Passion of the Christ image of a Jesus who passively suffered at the hands of his tormentors masks the fact that there are few things more unsettling than someone who, when you hit them, says, "Yeah, hit me again, but this time hit me like you mean it."

I'm also reminded of the reports that people gave of how they were affected by participation in the Milgram experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment. People consistently talked about how they'd changed for the better when they saw the kind of cruelty they were capable of. They were forced to confront a side of themselves that they hadn't been ready to deal with, and they realized that there was a good chance other people wouldn't stop them from doing terrible things. These realizations forced them to accept greater responsibility for their destructive impulses, and made them less likely to allow those urges to take over in the future.

Notice, also, that all of these were ways of confronting forms of violence that were socially sanctioned: backhanding a slave, wife, or child; taking someone's most urgent necessities in lieu of debt repayment; and conscripting civilian labor for military purposes. All of them were about confronting oppressors with the reality of their injustices, which could otherwise be masked behind the formal sanction for them.

Now I'm just picturing someone losing their house to foreclosure, walking into the bank that now owns their house, and stripping down and handing over their clothes. Fucking brilliant.

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