The Third Way of a Beloved Community: Part One

by Dr. Jonathan Sparks-Franklin, Director of Third Way Peace Fellowship and UKirk

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.                                                                          ~ Matthew 5:38-41

From the sermon delivered at the Presbytery of Cincinnati’s August Gathering to introduce the theological concept and context behind the Presbytery’s New Worshipping Community in Northside, the Third Way Peace Fellowship.

I figured what better way to do this, what better way to introduce you all to Third Way, than by focusing on our name. Its’ a question I get all the time. What exactly is the Third Way and why did you choose it to define your community?

Third Way, if you didn’t know, is a reference to the way of active nonviolence taught and lived out by Jesus. It’s a concept made famous by the theologian and peace activist Walter Wink and the point of it is to emphasize the active nature of Christian nonviolence properly understood. Christian nonviolence is often tragically misunderstood as being inactive. “Do not resist the one who is evil.” For centuries Christians have conveniently interpreted this command, “do not resist,” as a justification for passivity. What is the Christian called to do in the face of evil or injustice? Nothing. Don’t get involved. Certainly don’t confront it. No. Jesus tells us to accept it and move on. He tells us to turn the other cheek.

Now, I hope I don’t need to say too much to convince you that, despite how comfortable it might make us feel, something is deeply wrong with this interpretation. How could Jesus, a prophet who spent his entire life actively resisting injustice, fighting for the poor, counsel such passive submission to it? I mean, does this sound like the teaching of a Messiah executed by empire on charges of insurrection and political revolution?  Hardly.

As is so often the case, the problem here, the source of our confusion, begins with an issue of translation. You see, the Greek term translated as “resist” in our scripture reading for today, antistenai, does not actually, or at least not simply, mean resist. No, antistenai, as Wink has brilliantly demonstrated, is a military concept in the biblical tradition. It’s a term explicitly associated with warfare, which specifically means to “resist violently.”

Thus, the proper technical translation of our text today in Matthew is not simply “do not resist the one who is evil,” a translation, I might add, made popular under King James when those in power were worried about revolt. No, the proper translation, the one we find in our earliest manuscripts, is the far more specific: “do not violently resist the one who is evil.” It’s a subtle, but huge difference. The fundamental issue for Jesus here is not whether we resist; of course we should, the entire biblical tradition, from the Exodus through the prophets, is about God’s demand for justice. No. The issue for Jesus is how we should resist and fight for this justice.

And this, my friends, is why Wink coined the concept of the Third Way. We tend to think there are only two possible options or strategies in response to evil: active violence or passive nonviolence. We either pick up the sword and fight like the Zealots, or we do nothing – we comply like the Sadducees or withdraw like the Essenes. But it is precisely this false and reductive binary approach that Jesus calls us to transcend. He calls us neither to active violence nor to passive nonviolence, but to the Third Way of active nonviolence. He calls us to be peacemakers not peacekeepers. 

The third way of Christian nonviolence, then, has nothing to do with neutrality or inaction. Jesus was not encouraging passive submission to injustice. To the contrary. He was teaching his followers, marginalized people under foreign occupation, how to confront it with revolutionary love. He was teaching dehumanized people, what Howard Thurman calls the dispossessed, how to reclaim their humanity and struggle against injustice, how to transform the world, without becoming the very thing they oppose. Do not return evil with evil, as St. Paul put it.

The command to turn the other cheek, for example, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with being a passive doormat. In biblical times, a strike on the right cheek, which is what our text specifically refers to, implied a backhand. One could only hit with their right hand, as the left hand was taboo, something used only for unclean tasks, and the only way to strike someone on the right cheek with your right hand is through a backhand. And what was the purpose of backhand? It wasn’t to harm or to injure someone. No, it was an insult, a gesture to degrade and humiliate. Masters backhanded slaves. Romans backhanded Jews.

To turn the other cheek, then, is not just to roll over and take it, and say “hit me again”. No, to turn the other cheek is a strategic act of defiance, of nonviolent resistance. No longer capable of being backhanded, the one who has turned the cheek has courageously reclaimed their dignity and demanded to be treated as an equal. The power dynamic is reversed, the oppressed now sets the terms of engagement, and the injustice of the circumstance is exposed and confronted. All of this is without a hint of reciprocal violence, without returning a single blow. This, friends, is the Third Way of Jesus and it’s the only way to break the cycle of escalatory violence and bring about true peace.

To be continued…

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