Embracing new paths of creative system change away from domination societies, violence, and benefit for the few

May 25, 2017

An excerpt from a piece by Sr. Christine Schenk in the National Catholic Reporter, 17 May 2017

Domination systems have ruled Earth’s societies for millennia, almost always with violence. Only recently have worldwide non-violent movements effectively converted persons within dominator systems to values such as respect for diversity, human dignity and human rights and recognition that all voices are important to human societies. Movement leaders such as Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Leo Tolstoy, Harvey Milk, Dorothy Day, Adolfo Perez Esquivel and an array of feminist women have, in effect, launched a spiritual assault on exclusionary dominator systems be they economic, military, legislative or societal.

People who buy in to dominator systems are now — consciously or unconsciously — fighting back on a large scale.

I am among those who agree with biblical exegete Walter Wink who, in his remarkable book Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, cites the “sheer originality” of Jesus, who in Matthew 5:38-41, who advocated for nonviolent action that empowers the oppressed even as it exposes and disempowers oppression.  Here is the text:

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 [violently] 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.

Roman economic practices, especially in Galilee, were responsible for the systematic eviction of agrarian families from their ancestral lands. Israelites paid a threefold tax: to the local Herodian rulers, to Rome and to the Temple. This regressive system benefited the elite at the expense of peasant farmers and poor artisans whose labor kept the empire’s wealthy fed and clothed.

Sound familiar?

Almost everyone was always in debt. The impoverished rural peasantry periodically rose up in a series of popular rebellions that were brutally suppressed by Rome’s legions.

Jesus was practical. In the face of overwhelming military might, violence was an invitation to suicide. Plus, he knew it often turns its proponents into new oppressors.

But far from advising passivity, Jesus encourages a degraded and discouraged peasantry to retain their power and initiative while working for transformation of the dominator system. I briefly paraphrase Wink’s explanation of the Matthean text:

  1. Turn the other cheek: In the ancient world, a superior insulted an inferior with a back handed slap that landed on the insulted person’s right cheek. Jesus suggests that such a person should immediately offer the left cheek. This simultaneously rejects the intended insult and discomfits the oppressor who is now forced to either give a back handed slap with his left hand (never done because in the day before bathrooms the left hand was used for unclean purposes) or try a slap with the right hand, which is physically challenging if not impossible.
  2. Give your cloak too. Most people had at least two pieces of clothing, an inner garment which was sort of a tunic or “cloak,” and an outer garment which was like a coat. A poor person usually had only these two. The coat was often given as collateral on a loan. In Jewish law, a creditor was commanded to return it by sunset rather than deprive the poor person of nighttime cover. When Jesus suggests stripping oneself of both coat and inner garment, he is inviting the oppressed to unmask their creditor’s greed and publicly shame him by walking out of the court room stark naked. In Judaism, shame fell on the person who viewed or caused the nakedness rather than the naked person himself.
  3. Go the extra mile: There were many imperial rules forbidding Roman soldiers to force local people to carry their equipment for more than a mile. By offering to “go the extra mile” the poor person was retaining his or her own initiative and power while throwing the soldier off balance by forcing him to disobey the law if he took advantage of the offer.

Jesus’ vision was that in the reign of God, the naked would be clothed, the hungry would be fed and the blind would see (Matthew 11:5, 25:34-46). His vision has resonated for millennia in the values and aspirations of Western culture. But most of us view Jesus’ vision as a utopian other-worldly ideal without much practical consequence today.

That is where we would be wrong.

Jesus was an inspired and practical community organizer who attracted followers from all strata of society, including fishermen (Peter, James, and John), business women (Mary of Magdala), the socially prominent (Joseph of Arimathea and the “rich young man”), religious leaders (Nicodemus), and foreigners (the Canaanite woman, the Samaritan woman and the centurion from Capernaum).

He was a charismatic teacher, healer and story teller who could both articulate and model God’s alternative to the dominator system: “If you wish to be first, you must serve the needs of all” (Matthew 20:26). Jesus attracted followers who, after his death and resurrection, lived and died to advance his vision — even to the present day.

Jesus modeled creative non-violence to both resist oppression and transform dominator systems into something that more closely resembles the “reign of God.”

I believe we are at new moment on our journey into God’s just reign.  Already hundreds of thousands of justice-minded people are following the examples of Jesus, Gandhi, King, Day et al., and adopting creative non-violent means of resisting the recent, serious, assaults on human dignity and justice in the United States.

Our biggest temptation is to be passive, to normalize abnormal behavior or believe it is fruitless to resist. We must tap into that deep well of Jesus’ mysterious Spirit-energy that helps us, like Jesus, create new ways of resisting injustice and loving one another.

When we do this, we may at last see the Gospel in action in our government.

St. Joseph Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master’s degrees in nursing and theology.