You have heard 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)
Jesus’ prohibition on retribution in the Sermon on the Mount has received various defences against charges that it encourages passivity. Perhaps most frequently, the admonition to “turn the other cheek” is said to be the victim’s invitation to the aggressor to “man up” and strike the victim in such a way that indicates a degree of respect, that is, not with the back of the hand. As someone unqualified to comment on how the cultural practices of the ancient Near East might inform the interpretation of Scripture, however, I have noticed something else about these admonishments. Each one is not merely an act of nonresistance, but also an invitation to the aggressor to continue their actions with ways that leave them susceptible to legal prosecution.
The admonition to “turn the other cheek” would seem to invite further assault against the victim. But this might well have consequences for the aggressor. Should the victim be killed by the second strike, the aggressor would obviously be on the hook for murder. But even if the victim was injured severely enough to prevent him or her from working, the aggressor would be responsible for making up the wages lost by the victim during coalescence, as well as covering any medical or other costs incurred during the victim’s recovery, as per Exodus 21:18-19.
The case of the coat and the cloak also involves putting the aggressor on the wrong side of the law. Suing somebody for an article of clothing is a rather strange practice on the surface of it. However, when dealing with subsistence farmers such as were common among Jesus’ audience, it makes sense to think that the coat was being treated as security for a financial sum, rather than an end in itself. According to the terms of the suit, the plaintiff might have kept the defendant’s coat until the defendant had repaid his or her debt to the plaintiff. The defendant likely possessed very few liquid assets if most of his or her wealth was tied up in land or commercial apparatus. The coat would then be held by the plaintiff as collateral until the defendant was able to repay the plaintiff in cash. Accepting a person’s cloak (rather than a coat) as security was subject to strict conditions under Jewish law (Exodus 22:26-27 and Deuteronomy 24:12-13, 17). If the plaintiff accepted the defendant’s cloak, he or she would be forced to visit the defendant every day in the morning and the evening so that the defendant could sleep in the cloak at night. Again, Jesus’ suggested response threatens the aggressor with legal liability.
The matter of going the extra mile, as is well established, refers to the Roman practice of impressment, or angaria, in which civilians could be forced to carry soldiers’ equipment for a certain distance, generally believed to be a mile and no more. An example of this is found in the Passion account, when Simon of Cyrene is impressed to carry the cross of Jesus (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26). The Roman government made some attempt to punish soldiers who abused their powers of impressment, in an effort to contain the popular displeasure spawned by the practice. [source] As a result, someone who went the extra mile would undermine Roman efforts to make themselves out to be tolerable rulers, and therefore put the soldier in question at some risk of punishment.
The common thread tying these three examples of nonresistance together is that they are really only superficially non-resistant. In fact, all three are passive-aggressive moves, egging the aggressors on to extend their actions to reprehensible, illegal levels. The inclusion of the third example suggests that this isn’t just a response to Jewish law and culture in particular, but rather to legal and social systems in general. This passive-aggressive pattern of nonresistance appears elsewhere in the New Testament, too. Paul cites Proverbs 25:21-22 in his exhortations to Christians to refrain from avenging themselves, saying that by treating their enemies well they “will heap burning coals on their heads” (Romans 12:20). Whether this is a reference to shame or damnation doesn’t matter; either interpretation is still transparently passive-aggressive.
Even Jesus’ death and resurrection bears marks of the passive-aggressive. Jesus’ cryptic answers to the interrogating authorities and his non-response to many of the questions asked of him are classic traits of passive-aggressive behaviour. Moreover, the whole business of letting his enemies kill him, and then shrugging off and subverting their murderous attacks on him by rising from the dead, is perhaps the most theatrically outrageous passive-aggressive response to oppression ever recorded.
Perhaps this suggests a model for people looking to practice resistance to injustice without recourse to violence.