Jesus says these bizarre words in reference to how we are invited to respond when someone treats us or another in a disparaging way. Say what?! RESIST STRONGLY is the first thing my brain wants to do when someone minimizes my humanity. Ah…so what am I supposed to do if I don’t RESIST, Jesus? Go forth to the land of Bible commentaries…
“Resist” is translated from the Greek word antistenai, which implies violence, or rising up in a military response. Jesus says, Listen, there is a better way than fighting back—and it doesn’t mean being a willing victim of abuse, either. Be a Conscientious Objector of the most creative kind and allow your foe to see your own humanity, instead.
What comes to mind immediately is my own part in the evil of racism and the creative way I was invited to see it by a woman of color. I was part of a voluntary discussion at seminary about real-life racist incidents students had experienced that year on campus. I was just as upset as anyone else that the campus didn’t feel safe for all, and I wanted to see what was going on in other classrooms (because I was sure none of these incidents had happened in front of me…hahaha. Sweet naivete).
One incident at a time, those of us in attendance helped to re-enact the scenarios. The scenario I helped with involved a white male professor who only called on the white students in his class to answer. We were asked to consider how we as students might help this inequality be remedied and I quipped, “But what if the professor just doesn’t realize what he’s doing—he’s probably not some kind of white supremacist…” The professor leading the discussion looked at me hard over the top of her glasses, and then, rather than engaging my response, said, “I’m going to challenge that line of thinking…” and she moved to another student as if I had said nothing at all.
WHAT? What just happened? What did I do? I felt embarrassed and hurt—and of course defensive—because my compassionate white progressive identity had just been challenged. “I’m NOT one of THOSE white people,” I wanted to shout. “I’m on YOUR side!” (Good grief, little ego. How long will it take for you to grow up).
The fact is, she had gently “resisted the evildoing” embedded in my ignorant comment so well, without any enmity, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. It took another year or so before I could fully unpack what had happened in that conversation and own my complicit behavior in a racist society. This memory is coming back to me now that I’m facilitating a book discussion in Chelsea designed to help me and others uncover even more of our own “evil-doing.” This stuff is hard work for those of us who think that somehow we are above and beyond evil.
But as a white person, I have the OPTION of actively engaging with racism or not. People of color live it every day without option as to whether or not they want to deal. Author Paul Kivel of Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice says,
“The only way to treat all people with dignity and justice is to recognize that racism has a profound negative effect upon all of our lives. Noticing color helps to counteract that effect. Instead of being color neutral, we need to notice much more acutely and insightfully exactly the difference that color makes in the way people are treated. Just as it’s not useful to label ourselves racist, it is not useful to label each other. White people have committed some very brutal acts in the name of whiteness. We may want to separate ourselves from them by claiming that they are racist and we are not. But because racism operates institutionally, to the benefit of all white people, we are connected to the acts of other white people.”
After Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer,” in Matthew 5:39, he goes on to say, “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.”
These lines require A LOT of work with a good biblical commentator like Walter Wink in Engaging the Powers, but in a nut shell Jesus is saying to be creatively nonviolent in pointing out to your oppressor the folly of her way by allowing the humiliation to fall on HER. Like when the professor just left me hanging out to dry all alone in the class discussion so I could learn something new about myself. Jesus’ message could go something like this in 21st century English (quoted from Understanding Difficult Scriptures in a Difficult Way, Matthew, Sheila, and Dennis Linn, Paulist Press, 48. 2001.)
“Break the cycle of violence and begin by refusing to let yourself be abused. Do it as best you can under the circumstances, even if only by standing up straight and speaking the truth as they lead you to the cross. Sometimes that’s all you can do—but do something. Don’t just take it.”
I like that. It’s hard work to resist nonviolently—and to be creatively resisted in class—but what the heck are we here for if not to learn and grow into more conscious human beings?