Thursday, March 6, 2014

Blessed Are the Passive Resisters

March 2, 2014
Isaiah 29:17-24
Matthew 5:5

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

What is the first image that comes into your head when you hear the word “meek?”  When I was looking for images to use in worship, I found a lot of cartoon mice.  I’ve heard meekness compared to being a doormat, someone that other people walk all over.  Meek is not the same as weak.  Although, if you look the word up, these are some of the definitions you’ll find:
1.     enduring injury with patience and without resistance, synonym: mild
2.     deficient in spirit or courage, synonym: submissive
3.     not violent or strong, synonym: moderate
I can’t think why anyone would want to be meek, even if the reward were to inherit the earth.  I did find a photo of a bit of graffiti that said, “I’m meek!  And I’m here for my inheritance.”

The Christian tradition, as seen in other modern translations of Matthew’s gospel, interprets the word “meek” as humble, teachable, gentle, free of pride, those who trust God and do not try to get their own way, or those who claim nothing.

          If we want to know what Jesus means, we have to understand that the Hebrew word that was translated first from Hebrew into Greek in the Septuagint 200 years before Christ, and later into English.  If we go back to the Hebrew scripture that Jesus is referring to, the 61st chapter of Isaiah, we find the word “meek” in the King James Version, but other translations read “poor,” “afflicted,” and “oppressed.”  How does it change our understanding if we read, “Blessed are the poor, afflicted, and oppressed because they will inherit the earth”?  What does it mean to someone who lives in an occupied country, or someone who lives in abject poverty, whose family land has been lost to heavy taxation by both the occupying force and the temple, to hear that he or she is blessed by God and invited to claim his or her inheritance.  Just how was that possible? 

          John the Baptist preached repentance as a way of reclaiming the Kingdom of God.  When he was pressed to explain what he meant, he replied,
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
John spoke to those in power, asking them to repent of unjust practices.  Jesus preached to the oppressed and taught them how to resist unjust practices without resorting to violence.  The earth and its resources belong to all of us, our very existence depends on it.  Later in his sermon, Jesus will describe ways of resistance that mirror John’s. 
“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 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. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Again, the phrase that is often translated as “Do not resist an evildoer” is better interpreted as, “Do not fight back against.”  Theologian Walter Wink in his series of books about engaging the powers, demonstrates that each of the means of resistance that Jesus suggests is an act of dignity without resort to violence that reveals to the oppressor and any observers the injustice and evil of oppression.  For instance, if all you have left that is of value is your coat and someone is willing to sue to get that as well, take off your cloak and stand naked as a witness to the depravity of greed.  If someone strikes you on the right cheek, it is a demonstration of contempt, a backhanded strike of owner to slave, one with power over one in subservience.  Do not cower, Jesus say, but “Offer the left cheek,” the one that is struck in a battle of equals. 

I found one definition of meekness that speaks to this dynamic of resistance: “Absolute power under perfect control.”  Meekness claims its power and dignity and resists without resorting to violence.  Absolute power under perfect control describes the self-control and assurance that made the civil rights movement so powerful.  The sight of force used on dignified marchers appalled the nation.  Those who marched and preached and sat in and boycotted, used non-violent ways to resist discrimination and oppression.  They were beacons of meekness as they claimed their inheritance. 

          There are other examples of meekness, non-violent resistance, in other parts of the world.  “Soul City” a TV soap opera in South Africa and community-based activities modeled constructive ways for communities and individuals to end [violence against women].  In one “Soul City” TV episode first screened in 1999, neighbors protested against the violent behavior of a husband by beating their pots and pans near the character’s house. Within weeks, pot-banging to stop partner abuse was reported in several communities in South Africa (Lacayo & Singhal, 2008. Pop Culture with a Purpose! Using edutainment media for social change).[1]

          There is a hymn that calls Jesus “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”  That’s the image of meekness that most of us have learned.   Jesus was gentle and non-violent, but his resistance to Roman occupation cost him his life.  He was understood by Rome as a resister, but because all of his actions were kind even as he resisted, the brutality of Roman rule was revealed to mock its self-proclaimed Pax Romana, Roman peace.  Meekness requires courage and self-control in the face of oppression and evil.  It is a means of non-violent resistance in the service of dignity and justice that can be passive or active, but is always non-violent.  Paraphrasing Ghandi, meekness is the non-violent sword that blesses the one who uses it and the one against whom it is used to make possible the Kingdom of Heaven.  Both the oppressed and the oppressor must be transformed to make the Kingdom of God possible. 

[1]UN Women: Campaigns for Behaviour Change,, March 2, 2014.

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