Yes, Jesus is too radical to be tamed! God is too radical to be tamed! I often think religion is about taming God, and that is what troubles me the most about it. So let’s take a look at some of Jesus’ radicalism.
If we are to understand Jesus' teachings on "turning the left cheek," "going the extra mile," and "giving one's cloak" we have to see them in the context of his situation.
Striking a person backhand on the right cheek was the way Roman soldiers debased the Jews: striking them as one might strike a dog. Slapping a person open handed on the left cheek, though a sign of anger, was also an affirmation of human equality. Jesus is saying, “Do not resist the evil of the backhanded slap, but dare the oppressor to strike you as an equal.” This puts the Roman soldier in the morally awkward position of having to elevate your status from subhuman to human, walk away, or beat you senseless despite the fact that you did not threaten the soldier with bodily harm. In any of these three cases the soldier loses, and the seeds of moral discontinuity are planted in both the soldier and those who witness the soldier’s dilemma.
The same is true of carrying a soldier’s gear the “extra mile.” Roman law allowed soldiers to grab Jews off the street and treat them as pack animals for up to one mile. Jesus is saying, “Do not resist the insult of being treated as a pack animal. Rather, when your service is up, insist upon carrying the gear as a free human being.” This act of generosity again puts the soldier in a morally untenable situation. He cannot force you to carry his pack, and has to force you to return it to him. Even if he again chooses to beat you senseless the rationale for his actions—that you wished to help him carry his gear—makes his action and the system that supports it appear more and more immoral.
In both cases the person following Jesus’ challenge places him or herself in danger of being beaten, but the beating is morally unjustifiable even by the soldier doing the beating. You are not endangering the soldier, so he cannot claim self-defense. You are simply refusing to accept his assumption that you are less than him. This is so very important: Jesus is challenging us to resist our own dehumanization as well as to cease dehumanizing others. This challenge is no less relevant today than 2000 years ago.
Jesus’ reference to the cloak shifts his concern from Roman occupation to the corrupt courts run by the Roman collaborating Jewish establishment. The courts are enforcing a system of injustice that keeps the majority of the population impoverished. The Bible speaks of everyone sitting unafraid under her vine and her fig tree (Micah 4:4), but in Jesus day most people had been robbed of their ancestral lands and reduced to tenant farming on land owned by absentee landlords. Poverty and injustice were rampant. The system had lost its moral foundation, and greed rather than godliness was its watchword.
Jesus is saying, “If they take your outer garment because you cannot pay whatever monies the unjust system says you owe, give them your undergarment as well. Walk out of the courthouse naked.” In a culture that finds nakedness more than a little troubling, this act of defiance makes a clear yet nonviolent statement about the corrupt nature of the legal system. “Look what the system is doing to us!” such an act says. “Look how we are violated!” The outrage such political theater would engender could lead to a revolution. Jesus didn’t have to raise an army to frighten the Romans and their collaborators. He only had to revive the prophetic spirit.
All of this is glorious prophetic theater. Jesus knows, contra the Zealots, that the people cannot rise up and defeat the Romans militarily. (They will try a few decades later, resulting in an exile lasting for almost 2000 years.) He also knows that collaboration ala the Sadducees is immoral. But he is equally unhappy with the passive withdrawal of the Essenes and limited cooperation of the Pharisees. Jesus wants to engage Rome, to take on the unjust system that oppresses his people, and do so nonviolently. Jesus is a prophet speaking truth to power.
The sad thing for me, and it seems to be true for you as well, Mike, is that this legacy of prophetic nonviolence taught by Jesus has been largely abandoned (albeit with notable exceptions) since Constantine when the Church was co-opted by Roman imperialism. And today, for so many self-proclaimed Christians Jesus is the lord of hatred, fear, anti-intellectualism, anti-Semitism, and racism.
Of course, every religion has its extremists, and Christianity is not different than Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism in this regard. All of its sickens me, even as it breaks my heart. Religion is so easily co–opted by power. Wherever Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism become state religions, the prophetic call for justice fades and the clerics become puppets of politicians proclaiming holy what is clearly unholy.
So what are we to make of Jesus’ call to “resist not evil”? I cannot imagine he meant us to take this as a sign of passivity. “Resist not evil” cannot mean that we are to ignore the commandment to “not stand idle while our neighbor bleeds,” (Leviticus 19:16), and place our faith in some private afterlife salvation. Rather he is urging us to find a nonviolent way to resist an unjust system of oppression. This is what Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. saw in the Sermon on the Mount. This is what we have to see ourselves. See, and then enact.