A friend of mine loaned me a book recently, Jesus and Nonviolence: A third way by Walter Wink. Wink’s belief is that Jesus advocated standing up for oneself against oppression, but not in traditionally powerful ways: rather in dignified loving ways. Jesus gave three examples of nonviolent confrontations of oppressors:
1. “If someone gives you a backhand slap on the left cheek, turn to him the right cheek also, [so they can slap that one, too].” Wink says that this is not a rigid rule, but a principle of creatively confronting one’s oppressor(s) in love, nonviolence and dignity.
Wink contrasts violent overthrows of evil governments with peaceful overthrows and follows up years later, showing how the peaceful overthrows of governments resulted in relatively peaceful democracies, whereas violent overthrows resulted in repressive regimes (the Russian and Chinese revolutions are the biggest examples of violent overthrows, but he also mentions the peaceful overthrow of the Ferdinand Marcos regime in the Philippines, and the Solidarity Movement in Poland that resulted in the unraveling of Soviet control of the eastern bloc nations). Wink also notes that in power based governments there is a large group of bureaucrats who want to maintain the status quo, who are not believers in the system, but just want to get what they can out of it, resulting in corruption and general malaise. Wink states that in 1989-90 fourteen nations underwent nonviolent revolution, all of them successful, except China, and all of them nonviolent except Romania, involving 1.7 billion people. Gene Sharp lists 198 nonviolent actions that have changed history. (Wink, 2003, p. 2)
Recently I called the police department in my town to give them some anonymous information about a hit-and-run accident. Unfortunately I did not reckon for the fact that, as a police department, they give the orders, they don’t take them, and taking anonymous information was not on their agenda. My friend told me they filter out anyone interested in building a positive rapport with the public before they can enter police training academy. My friend applied, and was rebuked for bringing a notepad: “Put that away. You won’t be needing that.” He didn’t make it into the police academy. He now has a master’s degree in counseling. People who rely on power politics have no interest in building trust with unpowerful people.
Wink gives the example of Saskatchewan nurses upset at doctors haranguing them, until they decided to give a signal over the intercom and any available nurses would surround the doctor and hold hands until he stopped verbally abusing them. When the doctor tried to escape they just kept holding their hands. He had to stand there until he stopped his behavior. The haranguing stopped completely. No violence. No power plays. Just a dignified confrontation.
Occupy Wall Street tried nonviolent resistance a few years ago, and some would say they were not very successful: the same Wall Street companies do almost the same things, except that the mortgage loan practices are more conservative to avoid another recession. But the same people run the SEC and the Fed as before. Almost all of the bigwigs were bailed out of the recession. Almost nobody was fined or jailed for selling what they knew was junk. Nothing has changed. Except that one could see that the Occupy Wall Street protesters were deeply feared by Wall Street, seen by brutal roundups and violent reactions from the police toward the protesters. Why would they react so strongly toward people that were just a bunch of hippies camping out in parks? Yes, they were irritating: one couldn’t sit in the park because it was full of messy tents, but violent roundups? tear gas? Occupy Wall Street showed that Wall Street is vulnerable, not to losing money, but to losing face. And that is what Jesus advocated: turn the other cheek also. It confronts the abuser in a dignified fashion: I’m not afraid of your abuse, are you afraid of me accepting your abuse?
2. “If a Roman soldier commands you to carry his 70 lb. pack one mile, carry it two miles.” Can you imagine the soldier demanding his pack back after a mile, and the Jewish man saying, “No, no, let me carry it one more mile.” Solider: “No, put the pack down.” “No, no, I’ll carry it.” “Stop!” Suddenly, after a life time of humiliation from Roman soldiers, the Jewish man has seized the initiative; he has the upper hand now.
Wink states that nonviolence as advocated by Jesus is motivated by love: not passive compliance with all the unjust rules of an oppressor, but a creative nonviolent loving confrontation of the oppressor. When Martin Luther King was organizing a march, word came to the crowd that was organizing that black people lined up to register to vote on the city hall steps in Selma, Alabama, had been surrounded by horse riding police led by Sheriff Jim Clark, ordered to disperse, but prevented from dispersing, and then beaten with whips. Many in the crowd wanted to retaliate with violence, but a song leader stood up and started a call and response song they were familiar with: “Do you love Jesus?” “Yes, we love Jesus.” “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, Lord.” After leading the song and naming the leaders of the movement, the song leader sang out: “Do you love Sheriff Jim Clark?” There was a shocked hesitation, then, “Certainly, Lord.” They laughed and sang it out. Unless we love our oppressors, we cannot confront them in dignity and nonviolence the way Jesus commanded. The protesters hearts were free, the oppressors hearts were embittered and weighed down.
3. Wink translates Jesus saying as: “If a debt collector demands your cloak-blanket, give him your underwear also, and walk away naked.” Wink sees Jesus as a humorist. But this was taken literally in Johannesburg (where I spent half of my childhood). The white government wanted to move the residents of Sophiatown, a black shanty town, to Soweto, a high crime district, and they couldn’t seem to get people to move, so they sent in young white soldiers to bulldoze the shanty town in the middle of the morning when most of the people were away at work. The few women at home in their tin shacks were given five minutes to collect their things. The women rushed out, lined up in front of the bulldozers, and not knowing what else to do, stripped to the waist, standing naked breasted in a line in front of their homes. The women’s shameful nakedness became a dignified nonviolent confrontation of their oppressors: “Here we are, with no weapons and no power, here to defend our homes that we live in.”
Today on the news I listened to the story of a nurse who empowered women in a Muslim country to stand up to their husbands who were beating them. She called the Imam (priest) who told her that it was the wife’s fault; so she asked if the Imam would meet her and the wife at the husbands’ house so he could talk to her. He agreed. She brought a newspaper reporter. The Imam would rebuke the husband in front of the newspaper reporter, because he didn’t want to look bad, the nurse praised the wisdom of the Imam and everyone went home happy. She did this repeatedly, a loving nonviolent confrontation of an oppressor.
As I read Walter Wink’s book, I am deeply sad when I realize that the fundamentalist southern American sect named after Christ, that I was raised in, had very little to do with the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount. I am upset that I was fooled into thinking we had the truth, when the truth is so much greater than the navel-gazing, gnat straining that we were taught. I feel a sense of urgency, a need to act on behalf of the oppressed in obedience to Jesus.