Passive-Aggressive Nonviolence

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.


8 comments on “Passive-Aggressive Nonviolence

  1. Jon Coutts says:

    Absolutely fascinating! Thanks for this. Much to think about (toward application).

    It is especially interesting because I have often thought of passive aggressive behavior as (at best) innocently or (at worst) insidiously ignoble. But I’ve been thinking more in terms of interpersonal relationships where it is a matter of guilt-tripping sarcasm or gossip or some such conflict-avoidance technique. So I’m intrigued to think of situations where there is a legitimate and Christ-like passive-aggressiveness, and how we might tell the difference between that and (what I consider to be) the less noble kind.

  2. Kampen says:

    I agree with Jon that there needs to be distinction between what you understand to be Christ-like passive-agressiveness and the more manipulative-for-ones-own-agenda kind that is actually fairly predominant in my Mennonite circles. In fact, I think this latter sort can be violent. Any thoughts on that? I’d like to hear you say more, for example, about the epistemological, social, economic, character of the passive-agressive non-violence.

    • Theophilus says:

      The difference I see between the kind of passive-aggressiveness I’ve described and the violent kind is a matter of teleology. The desired end of the passive-aggressiveness I perceive in Scripture is an essentially defensive mechanism meant to cow an oppressor into giving up their violence – that is to say, a “negative teleology” in which a certain end result is being resisted. But passive-aggressive techniques are often used in order to get something specific. This is a case of “positive teleology” in which a certain end result is actively sought-after and pursued. Scriptural passive-aggressiveness is therefore distinctive in its anti-compulsive nature. It defends the freedom of its practitioners without oppressing others in the process.

      • Jon Coutts says:

        Thanks for that explanation. I think one could get a lot of mileage out of it.

        But I’m still nervous about it because it leaves the door open for some ‘ends-justify-the-means’ reasoning, which is usually already a key motivator for the manipulative guilt-tripper (for example). Also, I’m not sure in Jesus’ case that it is ‘meant to cow an oppressor into giving up their violence’. That seems like it puts a desired result too much to the foreground.

        I’m more compelled by the way your answer ended, however, speaking about the ‘anti-compulsive nature’ of the passive-aggressive non-violence. “It defends the freedom of its practitioners without oppressing others in the process.” I think that’s the key.

        I feel like Jesus recommends this regardless of result, and what I thought was the strength of your post was that it showed how this giving over of the cloak would be understandable as subversive of the very ‘economy’ which the oppressor operates. The subversive takes the violence on herself and yet still does not offer the oppressor any hiding place. The response makes the wrong-doing more obvious to all, without adding to that wrongdoing. Giving the cloak as well seems like a non-violent and self-giving act which is able to rise above rather than get dragged into the covetous- and desire-based economy from which the offense originated. That is sort of what I took away from your post, anyway.

        Problem with my train of thought now is that it makes me wonder what the difference is between this and shaming, and whether such shaming would be proper or not.

        Thanks for this opportunity to think deeply about this passage!

      • Theophilus says:

        Jon, I share your discomfort with the ends-drivenness present in my explanation. But I think Jesus’ three examples restrict the means to be used along with the appropriate ends towards which they may be exercised. And sometimes the Scriptural record shows these techniques being used explicitly to elicit a response of shame. I’m thinking here about Paul’s assertions of his rights as a Roman citizen, in Acts 22 to stave off a flogging, but also in Acts 16 where he insists that the magistrates who illegally ordered him jailed should personally release him and Silas from prison. This incident in particular strikes me as accomplishing little but shaming the authorities.

      • Jon Coutts says:

        Yeah, you’re right. I wonder if there is a difference between public shaming of the active kind and the public shaming in which one amplifies the amount of shame that will be attached to the aggressor’s activity by making oneself open to even greater pain at their expense. I sense that this is exactly what you are after with your distinction between passive- and active-aggression, and I am really appreciative of the thoughts you have triggered in that regard. Thanks.

  3. phillip mutchell says:

    Assuming your reading is correct it paints the Jesus’ disciple as a spineless sneak using the power of the State to promote or defend his aims and certainly justifies Nietzsche’s opprobrium. Of course you are wrong, the point being that when one willingly accepts ‘the spoiling of your goods’ one robs the oppressor of that very power of coercion which is the thrill of power, just ask all those lower middle-class brown-shirts, well thier contemporaries anyway. The use of the law by the Christian only witnesses to a lack of faith in that God who is their ‘shield and exceedingly great reward’.

    • Theophilus says:

      Certainly, this reading suggests something other than wholesale rejection of Christian appropriation of the power of the state. However, I quibble with your assertion that Jesus’ disciple is what you characterize as a “spineless sneak.” We’re dealing with the teaching of Jesus here, and if you don’t like the legal subtext of the passage in question, I think your issue is with Jesus himself.

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