Jesus' Third Way of Nonviolent Resistence

Compiled from the works of Walter Wink*.

"Loving your Enemy" = enabling them to see their sin AND offering them the opportunity to change ['repent' originally meant to turn, to change direction]. Jesus urged us all to love our enemies and this site attempts to show us how to do that, when faced with injustice and oppression.

Faced with oppression or aggression or injustice or violence,
we usually or naturally respond in one of 2 ways - FIGHT or FLIGHT
In the FIGHT mode, we retaliate, get back, seek revenge, or we want an eye-for-an-eye plus punishment.
In the FLIGHT mode, we run, escape, ignore, never speak to them again, or avoid facing the challenge. One of the failings of this is that it can leave them thinking that they were right in the first place and that they have won, conquered, succeeded and that they should deal with others like that in the future

Your oppressors operate on the same principle that you use: You can't beat success - the fact that something works reinforces its use the next time. These are the two ways we deal with violence, oppression, injustice and neither of them is LOVING - neither of them is Jesus' way. There is a third way - Jesus' way of creative, loving, NON-VIOLENT RESISTANCE.

a blue dot   The Good News   a blue dot   Modern Day Examples   a blue dot   References   a blue dot

Jesus did not leave us many clues as to how to deal with violence and injustice from others - he usually was telling us how to be peaceful and just to others or how not to oppress or be violent to others - but we do have two accounts (in Matthew 5 and Luke 6) that describe Jesus' third and loving way. Jesus' third way of creative, loving, non-violent resistance is clearly the only way to love your enemies and it's the way to bring the reign of God's love and peace into our world and personal lives.

The reason that this may all be news to you is that for centuries the church has interpreted/preached 'passive' behaviour in the face of power and worldly (or church) authority. Many church leaders have been seduced into a conspiracy of teaching that you should bear with abuse or your being used by those with power over you. It has taught that you should 'go the second mile' and endure a marriage that is killing your spirit. It has taught that you should tolerate abuse and 'turn the other cheek'. As a result, many sinful behaviours have been ignored if not sanctioned in the service of avoiding conflict and exposing abuse. Jesus did not teach 'peace at any price'.

I think GOD damns these misinterpretations. They defy our Hebrew vision of a GOD who protected the oppressed, the poor, the widows and children. How can we read the many sections of our Hebrew Scriptures and still see Jesus saying that if someone hits you just 'turn the other cheek' so they can hit you again and hang in there in the face of abuse. Such an interpretation may have suited the male-dominated world of the past because it could be used to support the family when abuse was present from a father but it should not now or ever be tolerated. There is a more reasonable interpretation that seems to me to be much more consistent with the whole teachings of Jesus.

Jesus never taught passivity in the face of evil. Jesus also never taught that violence is the appropriate response to evil.

What makes much more sense is to find a meaning that meshes with all the other passages that call us to love our enemies and do good to them that misuse us. You do them no good by reflecting back their violence; that is what is meant by resisting evil - being so resistant that we act as a brick wall and bounce the evil back - retaliate in a like manner.
You do them no good by fleeing and letting them think that they've won
YOU LOVE YOUR ENEMY when you show them how they are being unjust and when you give them the opportunity to grow and learn from that experience and to be open to God's grace to change their violent and unjust and oppressive ways.

Nothing can be assumed when you read the Bible. It contains the word of God, but you have to dig it out for yourself - you have to read between the lines and set the words in the context of the time so that you hear what is being said the way the writer and the listeners meant it and heard it to mean at the time it was spoken.

Let me demonstrate this and describe the social situation at the time and what this word picture would have meant to those who heard it in the first place.

Let's look at each of these three directives from Jesus to those who would lead Jesus' third way of creative, loving, non-violent resistance.

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Here are the words recorded in various translations of the original Greek in MATTHEW 5:

The Good News found in Matthew 5: 38-41

It needs to be read carefully noticing the context and then thinking about the socio-political situation in which the hearers of these words of Jesus were living.

[Mat 5:38] "You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'

[Mat 5:39] But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;

[Mat 5:40] and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well;

[Mat 5:41] and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles."

These are not directions to lie down and let people walk all over you.
These are not calls to be passive and take whatever abuse oppressors want to place on you by their power over you.
These are guidelines from Jesus for nonviolent resistence.
Notice that none of them are pleas for help from a less powerful person; they all involve someone with power over another enought to 'strike', 'sue', and 'force'. Let's look more closely at each one and uncover the good news within them.

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The first illustration Jesus gives is to turn the other cheek when someone hits you. This makes no sense. How does this help you or the other? How is this loving? How is this just?
But wait, Matthew records Jesus as saying 'turn the LEFT cheek'. Why such a specific direction?

Turn the other cheek

Matt reads "If someone strikes you on the right cheek..."
Let's discover what this word picture would have meant to those who heard it in the first place.

Social Context: it was a time of slavery and Jesus was usually talking to the common folk and many of his listeners were slaves. He knew that a master has power over another and did not treat slaves as equals. Slaves were reprimanded by a slap with the back of the right hand to the right cheek of the slave. You try this now and see how easy it is and how it feels. But to strike a peer, someone your equal, you would use your fist and hit directly, usually to the left cheek. [This all assumes that the person hitting is right-handed.]
Jesus directs us to turn the other cheek - the left cheek
- that forces the hitter to hit you as an equal
- that alerts the hitter that they are treating you as a lessor
- that allows them to see that they are abusing their power over you and to consider changing their behaviour.

This makes more sense. Now this directive to turn the left cheek meshes with everything else that we have been told by Jesus to do to enter the realm of God's heaven on earth.
- show love for your neighbours even when they abuse you
- but show love by pointing out the unjust nature of their acts and giving them the chance to change their minds and act more justly or more lovingly..

But what does this have to do with loving that enemy that would strike us? and how does it apply to what we experience today?

You love someone when you wish and work for the best for them. Sometimes it gets down to what is called 'tough love' because you don't do what they want you to do but you make them do something for themselves - you make them discover their own resources or you make them discover that what they have been getting away with is neither going to continue to work nor be tolerated in the same way. You are pointing out to them where they are abusing you or the situation and you are opening them to the opportunity to learn and change and grow. That is a loving thing to do and sometimes it's very hard to do because they accuse you of not loving them because you won't do for them what you used to do.

To the enemies who wield power over you and abuse that power, you can say or show that they do not have the same power any more and that they will have to treat you as an equal - as another child of God, not a slave.

We've probably misunderstood these directives from Jesus for centuries because we didn't read every word and place it in the social context of the day it was spoken. If you are surprised by this understanding, I can appreciate that; I was surprised when I heard it from Walter Wink and have since read it in two of his books, but is this an isolated case? No.

Let's consider the other two and see if they are consistent.

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Let him have your cloak
Jesus knew that this was a radical way to show love and so he gave a third example - "giving your cloak to the one who sues you for your coat."

To the enemy who wields power over you and abuses that power, you can show that they do not have the same power any more and that they will have to treat you as an equal - as another child of God, not a slave.

Matt reads "If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well."
Let's discover what this word picture would have meant to those who heard it in the first place.

Social Context: poor farmers and wealthy land-grabbers, word of honor, role of coat, Levitical Law, land-grabbers: greed, distrust, collateral vs. word for seed loan
Consequence: Without his coat, any peasant would be without a covering at night and it gets cold in that desert area once the sun goes down. Getting chilled night after night weakens the body makes you susceptible to disease. In such a weakened or ill state you can't tend your crops well and your harvest fails, so the landlord can claim his land back and leave you without any means of support.
Call: to shame the abuser, to show the abuse in its extreme consequence, and to strip (shame of beholders) and expose the injustice to the public.

Jesus directs us to give the rest of our clothing - to the point where we're naked and in Hebrew tradition to behold nakedness is a shame on you [Noah was drunk and fell asleep uncovered so his sons Shem & Japeth walked into his tent backwards and covered their father's nakedness (Gen 9:18-27)]
that forces the suer and all witnesses to this injustice to be shamed
- that alerts the suer that they are treating you as a lessor
- that allows them to see that they are abusing their power over you through wealth and to consider changing their behaviour.

This makes sense. Now this directive to let them have all your clothes to shame them into thinking again about this law suit meshes with everything else that we have been told by Jesus to do to enter the realm of God's heaven on earth.

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Now look at the "going the second mile" illustration.

Matt reads "If someone forces you to go one mile, go two miles."
Let's discover what this word picture would have meant to those who heard it in the first place.

Social Context: The people Jesus was talking to were under Roman occupation and the authorities had agreed that it was permissible for a Roman soldier to conscript a Jew to carry his pack for one mile. The Romans were very methodical and oganized and there were milemarkers along major roads (some are still visible in Britain from the Roman occupation there).
Consequences: A violation of this agreement, such as forcing someone to carry their pack beyond one mile, was a punishable offense and the soldier would get into trouble.

Jesus directs his followers to (offer to) go a second mile.
- that forces the soldier to see that they are using their authority over you and not treating you as an equal,
- that alerts the officer that they are treating you as a lessor
- that allows them to see that they are abusing their power over you and to consider changing their behaviour.

That was Jesus calling his followers and us to point out the abuses others make on us out of their power positions and not out of love. You point out to them where they are abusing you or the situation and you open them to the opportunity to learn and change and grow. That is a loving thing to do and sometimes it's very hard to do because they accuse you of not loving them because you won't do for them what you used to do.

This makes more sense. Now this directive to offer to go the second mile meshes with everything else that we have been told by Jesus to love our enemies and so enter the realm of God's realm of love here on earth.

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JESUS' THIRD WAY: Modern Day Examples

It is unfortunate that the Bible does not contain more instances of Jesus' Third Way of dealing with our enemy.

Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. rediscovered this way to lovingly deal with oppressors, but there have been few examples that are widely known and rarely taught.

At the risk of this turning into a lecture, here are some current examples of people using non-violent resistance and even a sense of the ironic, if not humour in a situation of confrontation.


Jesus' teaching on nonviolence forms the charter for a way of being in the world that breaks the spiral of violence.

Jesus here reveals a way to fight evil with all our power without being transformed into the very evil we fight. It is a way— the only way possible— of not becoming what we hate. "Do not counter evil in kind"— this insight is the distilled essence, stated with sublime simplicity, of the experience of those Jews who had, in Jesus' very lifetime, so courageously and effectively practiced nonviolent direct action against Rome.

Jesus, in short, abhors both passivity and violence. He articulates, out of the history of his own people's struggles, a way by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored, the oppressor resisted without being emulated, and the enemy neutralized without being destroyed. Those who have lived by Jesus' words—Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, Adolpho Perez Esquivel— point us to a new way of confronting evil whose potential for personal and social transformation we are only beginning to grasp today.

Making Jesus' Teaching Operational

BATTERED — Nothing is deadlier to the spirit of Jesus' teaching on nonviolence than regarding it legalistically. Women beaten by their husbands are told to "turn the other cheek" and let the man continue to brutalize them, with no reference to Jesus' actual intention. If we reenter the freedom Jesus sought to establish in these sayings, we would rather counsel the battered to seize the initiative, force her husband to recognize her rights, expose his behavior publicly, and break the vicious cycle of humiliation, guilt, and bruising.

In our legal context, according to the social workers I have consulted, the most loving thing a battered wife could do might be to have her husband arrested. This would bring the issue out into the open, put him under a court injunction that would mean jail if the violence continues, and position him so that his self-interest is served by joining a therapy group for batterers. This potentially begins a process that would not only deliver the woman from being battered, but free the man from battering as well. I cite this suggestion because it is at the antipodes to our sentimental notions of what love entails. Perhaps there are better ways; but they will certainly involve tough love, not the limp collusion that so often masquerades as Christian.

BULLIED — To require a boy who is being bullied at school literally to "turn the other cheek" can simply encourage cowardice. Of course, a nonviolent solution would be preferable, and one can usually be found. But it is a fundamental rule of the life of the spirit that people cannot sacrifice something they do not have. Jesus did not invite slaves to abandon their sense of dignity as a way of mortifying the ego; their egos had been mortified a thousand times, so much so that the vast majority had internalized a sense of their inferiority. They could not give up their self-esteem for the sake of God; they had been robbed of it long since by the very structure of servitude. It was precisely to restore that dignity and self-esteem that Jesus counseled nonviolent assertiveness.

If, then, a boy is willing and able to fight, even at the cost of great pain, then one might have a right to encourage him to renounce violence and seek a third way. But to duck violence under cover of the gospel, without having found the inner strength to fight for one's own rights, is both dishonest and craven.

Gandhi was adamant that nothing could be done with a coward, but that from a violent person one could make a nonviolent one. "I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence. ... But I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence." "At every meeting I repeated the warning that unless they felt that in non-violence they had come into possession of a force infinitely superior to the one they had and in the use of which they were adept, they should have nothing to do with non-violence and resume the arms they possessed before."

Before Gandhi had become fully committed to satyagraha, he so despaired of teaching his people the art of courageous nonviolence that he even proposed that they enlist in the army. He reasoned that men who had risked their lives on the battlefield would be better prepared to risk their lives in a nonviolent struggle. Something of the same militancy can be seen in Jesus' call to a potential disciple in Luke 9:60, where discipleship is comparable to the conscripting of recruits for a holy war. In normal circumstances, no grounds exist that justify flouting the filial obligation to bury one's father; but if the issue is war or something even more urgent (the reign of God), there is no time for normal obligations.

FIGHT — What looks to all the world like passivity may in fact be the third way. When Jackie Robinson became the first black player in major league baseball, Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers pressed this intensely competitive athlete to agree that for three years he would take whatever abuse was heaped on him without a word. Robinson finally said, "Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?" Rickey replied, "I'm looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.""

Humor and wit can help preserve the humanity of all parties in a conflict.

LICE — Once, a squatter community in South Africa found its shelter infested with lice. When the authorities refused to fumigate it, the leadership committee took bags full of lice-infested blankets to the administrator's office and dumped them on his floor. They got immediate action.

SPIT — A black woman was walking on a South African street with her children, when a white man, passing, spat in her face. She stopped and said, "Thank you, and now for the children." He was so nonplused he was unable to respond.

Sometimes the wit can have a barb.

WALK — When Bishop Desmond Tutu was walking by a construction site on a temporary sidewalk the width of one person, a white man appeared at the other end, recognized Tutu, and said, "I don't give way to gorillas." At which Tutu stepped aside, made a deep sweeping gesture, and said, "Ah yes, but I do."

Ridicule even has a role in shocking people awake to the meaning of their acts.

MIMIC — One of the world's most peaceful peoples, the Mbuti, hunter-gatherers of northeast Zaire, defuse anger through laughter. If a group of children making noise wake a man from his nap, who then shouts at or slaps a child, all the children come rushing together and play the adult role, shouting and slapping each other. The adult, seeing himself ridiculed this way, must either retreat or join the laughter in his own self-ridicule.

RIDICULE — Similarly, Chinese students, forbidden to demonstrate against government policy, donned masks of the communist leadership and carried signs: "Support Martial Law," "Support Dictatorship," "Support Inflation."

SOLIDARITY — During the struggle of Solidarity in Poland, one group dressed in Santa Claus outfits distributed scarce sanitary napkins to women as a way of dramatizing the difficulty of obtaining essentials. When these Santas were arrested, other Santas showed up at the jail insisting that the others were frauds, that they were the real Santas.

WELL-WISHERS — Gandhi spoke of entering jail as a bridegroom enters his bride's chamber, as a way of stressing the importance of being fearless of the government's punishment. So when he was arrested during the civil disobedience campaign of 1930, a mass meeting was organized to congratulate the government for arresting him. It is difficult for a government to arrest well-wishers!

Jesus does not proclaim a nonviolence for the perfect, but for the violent. His is a practical, achievable nonviolence that can be performed by ordinary people. The beatitude about the meek can be translated as "Blessed are the nonviolent, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5). Jesus' third way is not individualistic, but collective; it usually involves the actions of organizations, communities, social classes, or racial groups. Not just young men of war-making age, but all sectors of the population can participate, from babies to the elderly. "Tradition here is for the men to keep the women in their houses," said Murabak Awad during the Palestinian Intifada. "But now husbands are allowing their wives out, to engage in political activity. The women are pouring all their energy into it. Nonviolent action can draw all of the population together and create a powerful unity."

Nor is Jesus' third way averse to using coercion. His way aims at converting the opponent; failing that, it hopes for accommodation, where the opponent is willing to make some changes simply to get the protesters off his back. But if that too fails, nonviolence entails coercion: the opponent is forced to make a change rather than suffer the loss of power, even though he remains hostile. But Jesus' way does not employ violent coercion.

MARCHERS — As Barbara Deming puts it, in nonviolence one "exerts force upon the other, not tearing him away from himself but tearing from him only that which is not properly his own, the strength which has been loaned to him by all those who have been giving him obedience." The civil rights marchers who crossed the bridge in Selma, Alabama, without a parade permit forced the authorities to decide between two courses, either of which would damage their position. Either they allowed the blacks to march, thus recognizing the legitimacy of their protest; or they forcibly stopped it, thus exposing their own endemic violence for all the world to see. The choice of violence proved to be catastrophic for white supremacy and a major victory for the marchers, despite the injuries incurred.

Finally, nonviolence must not be misconstrued as a way of avoiding conflict. The "peace" that the gospel brings is never the absence of conflict, but an ineffable divine reassurance within the heart of conflict: a peace that passes understanding. Christians have all too often called for "nonviolence" when they really meant tranquility. Nonviolence, in fact, seeks out conflict, elicits conflict, exacerbates conflict, in order to bring it out into the open and lance its poisonous sores. It is not idealistic or sentimental about evil; it does not coddle or cajole aggressors, but moves against perceived injustice proactively, with the same alacrity as the most hawkish militarist.

As Eisler reminds us, a partnership society is not a society devoid of conflict. Partnership values conflict, as the inevitable price of freedom. But it handles conflict nonviolently. The Domination System, by contrast, deals with conflict by suppressing it." Democracy is a state of perpetual low-level conflict—severe enough to agitate citizens into action, and mild enough to prevent that action from boiling over into violence.

The programmatic task of what we might call the "Jesus project" in the decades ahead will require moving from largely reactive, episodic, and occasional nonviolent actions to an aggressive, sustained movement. Our goal must be the training of millions of nonviolent activists who are ready, at a moment's notice, to swing into action on behalf of the humanizing purposes of God.

JAIL — In Alagamar, Brazil, a group of peasants organized a long-term struggle to preserve their lands against attempts at illegal expropriation by national and international corporations (with the connivance of local politicians and the military). Some of the peasant farmers were arrested and jailed in town. Their companions decided that they were equally responsible and hundreds marched to town and filled the house of the judge, demanding that they be jailed with those who had been arrested. The judge was finally obliged to send them all home, including the prisoners.

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* Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and resistance in a world of domination. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992. (Chapter 9: Jesus' Third Way: Nonviolent Engagement, pgs. 189-192)

Wink, Walter. Violence and Non-violence in South Africa: Jesus' Third Way. Santa Cruz, CA: New Society Publishers, 1987, pages 24-31 and 52-57.)

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This site was created by The Reverend Charles Moorhouse Bidwell, PhD and has the permission of Dr. Wink to post it on the Internet.

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