The Defiant Imagination

Part of facing into the empire in which we live (as Jesus taught and practiced) requires us as disciples to speak prophetically into our time. Understood as a clear, truthful assessment and articulation of present day circumstances, prophecy holds redemption, not fortune telling, as its end goal. This edge is what separates the Christ follower’s voice from that of pacifist or militant – while the intentions may be good, the motivation is different. Thus, Jesus teaches of a third way of toppling the empire in Matthew 5:38-41.

Being hit on the right cheek meant that the victim had been backhanded by a right hand (a form of degradation and an attempt to re-affirm hierarchy). Jesus taught to turn the other cheek, not to insight more abuse, but instead to level the playing field. A right handed back hand on the left cheek is impossible, the next blow would logically then be a fist (since left hands were seen as unclean and unusable in this way) but fist fighting was reserved for equal, so this option could not be persued without overturning the tables of the system. By turning the other cheek, a statement was being made that communicated, “I am a human just like you…you can’t treat me this way.”

With crooked loan interest rates ranging from 25-250%, peasants were being robbed of their ancestral lands when the payments could not be made. When someone could not repay their debt, their outer garments were confiscated and held has collateral and also a sign that the person had not fulfilled their obligations. It was to this circumstance that Jesus taught that if someone takes your outer clothes, give them your underwear as well. Publicly stripping to hand over underwear to one’s debtor communicated this statement: “You’ve robbed me of everything, so why not take the last thing I have also?” Jesus’ instruction spoke out against the unjust practices of the empire, and a naked person in a public court would’ve made that point lound and clear.

It was legal for a Roman soldier to randomly select someone to carry his pack for a mile, however, forcing someone to go a second mile was illegal and put the soldier in danger of punishment from his superiors. Thus, by the average person going farther than the legal obligation put the soldier both at risk and in a puzzled state. The oppressed has now seized the initiative and thrown a wrench in the machine.

Jesus was not advocating nonviolence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a just means of opposing the enemy in a way that holds open the possibility of the enemies becoming just also. Both sides must win.
Redemption (for all!) is the end goal, not ‘sticking it to them’.

As the church, may we have the sensibility and courage to face into the empire, and unmask it for what it really is. May we dream up new ways to be creatively defiant, and may our presence and action be prophetic. Why? God’s prerogative is for the redemption of all things, and he invites us to work hand in hand with him for the fulfillment of that end. The ‘third way’ that Jesus teaches is part of our toolbox towards that goal.

“The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” (Walter Bruggmann)

“Jesus does not encourage Jews to walk a second mile in order to build up merit in heaven, or to be pious, or to kill the soldier with kindness. He is helping an oppressed people find a way to protest and neutralize an onerous practice deposed throughout the empire. He is not giving a nonpolitical message of spiritual world transcendence. He is formulating a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity.” (Walter Wink)

“…not only is the kingdom of God the overarching theme of Jesus prophetic declaration of judgment against Roman rulers and their clients in Jerusalem, but that judgmental face of the kingdom had a constructive counterpart of deliverance, empowerment, and renewal for the people.” (Richard Horsley)

“What Jesus was to Israel, the church must now be for the world. Everything we discover about what Jesus did and said within the Judaism of his day must be thought through in terms of what it would look like for the church to do and be this for the world. If we are to shape our world, and perhaps even to implement the redemption of our world, this is how it is to be done.”
(NT Wright)