Jesus and the Third Way

June 25, 2014 § 5 Comments


In my previous post, I argued that Liberal Friends have abandoned the traditional prophetic voice, steeped in biblical ideas and the righteous emotions of judgment, testimony, and witness (though we hold onto some of the words, which for me prompts queries about integrity), without developing a new, effective voice. We can’t invoke the wrath of a judgmental God we no longer believe in, and we don’t know how to articulate the consequences of wrongdoing or the “mechanics” of the impending consequences—how and why those consequences will occur—in alternative religious language. 

Most of the time, we explain our testimonies and back up our witness work by invoking our belief that there is that of God in everyone, especially in the case of the peace testimony. However, that belief is NOT the source of any of our testimonies. Furthermore, it misrepresents what the phrase originally meant to George Fox and I believe it even misunderstands what it’s intended to say: we do not resist wrongdoing because there is that of God in other people; we resist wrongdoing because there is that of God IN US—because the Light within us reveals the truth and we turn toward the right instead of toward the wrong.

As a result of this spiritual and rhetorical impoverishment, the witness minutes that come out of our meetings, at least in my circles, almost never mention God and often do not give a religious, let alone a recognizably Quaker, rationale for our stand. Often, they don’t even make a secular moral argument. Usually, they rely on science, rights-based legal argument, or other secular reasoning. Very often, you would never know that a religious community had written the thing, let alone a Quaker meeting. I can’t tell you how often I have seen this happen.

Meanwhile, the tradition we have let go from our hands and minds often offers us the most powerful language and rationale we could hope for. For the first master of the Third Way, before George Fox and Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr and Bayard Rustin, was Jesus the Christ.

One of the greatest contributions to Christian justice work in modern times comes from theologian Walter Wink in his unpacking of Jesus’ sayings about resistance. Here’s what Jesus had to say:

 ‘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.

Some religious pacifists have used that line “Do not resist an evildoer” and the subsequent sayings to justify meek submission in the face of oppression. Jesus means no such thing. When you understand the practical implications of the sayings themselves in their historical context, you see that he did not mean to resist not evil in the literal sense, but not to resist evil with its own tools of violence, hate, and fear.

In fact, he did teach his disciples to resist, but with the tools of nonviolence, love, and boldness.

Here’s how Walter Wink opens our understanding of these teachings:

If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them also the left.

In first-century Palestine, you did not touch other people with your left hand if you could help it. It was unclean because you used it to do your toilet. Some conservative men would even keep their left hand hidden within their robes when in public as a matter of propriety. So to strike someone on the right cheek meant that you gave them a backhanded slap with your right hand. This was an offensive expression of disrespect, just as it is now—but it wasn’t illegal; it wasn’t assault.

So, if you turned your left cheek to this person, you invited them to strike you outright—to punch you in the face. That is assault. Such an attack is against the law. You are inviting them to break the law, and if they take you up on it, then you can press a case in the assembly of the elders.

This is moral jiu jitsu. This turns the oppressor’s hate back upon them, undoing them with their own malice.

If someone asks you to walk with them a mile, walk with them two.

Roman soldiers were allowed by Roman military law to press civilians they encountered along the road into porter service, forcing them to carry their gear for them. But Roman law only provided for one mile of such service—and the Roman roads were all clearly marked with mile markers. 

Offering to carry a soldier’s gear for a second mile invited him to break his military code, and the penalty for this infringement was a flogging.

This is moral jiu jitsu, using the oppressor’s law against him.

If someone demands your coat, give them also your cloak.

The coat of Jesus’ time was a special garment with a special weave designed to shed water and it was used as a shelter at night, since people often slept outdoors at night, either on their roofs or in the fields or vineyards. For the very poor—the homeless—their coat was their only shelter. The coat also was used as a marker in economic exchanges, just as sandals were. Thus the coat had considerable intrinsic economic value because of its quality, and symbolic economic value as a marker of debt. Specifically, speaking of its symbolic value, if you fell into dire debt, more debt than you could pay, your creditor could claim your coat as a token of your debt, though they had to return it to you at dusk for sleeping.

To offer your cloak, your under-clothing, however, was to go around virtually naked. This was not just an embarrassment to the debtor, as it would be to us; in the traditional society of Jesus’ time, it also was a considerable embarrassment onlookers. But it was even more than an embarrassment to the creditor, for taking this extra garment was against the law of Moses. Your creditor had no right to anything more than your coat. If he took your cloak, you could take him to court.

This is moral jiu jitsu, turning the tables on economic oppression.

Jesus employs the Third Way.

The gospels give us a handful of scenes in which Jesus employs the Third Way against his enemies. For example . . .

In the week leading up to his arrest, Jesus was accosted by scribes in the temple court and asked whether one should pay the Roman tax. This was a setup: if Jesus said yes, he contradicted his mission against the Roman occupation of Israel; if he said no, he could be tried as an insurrectionist—the very charge for which he was soon to be tried and executed, in fact.

Jesus asks to see the coin, and someone provides one. He asks whose picture is on the coin. “Caesar’s,” they answer. The people in the story and the readers of the gospels at the time all know that above that image the inscription reads, “Son of God.”

There it is. Jesus’ enemies have brought an unclean and blasphemous thing into the temple complex, in violation of the law. He hardly needs to say more. They have just indicted themselves. But he goes on to say, famously, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” 

Like the resist not evil sayings, this passage has often been used to justify obedience to the state. But Jesus means the opposite. For what is God’s in this context? Everything is God’s! All your heart and all your soul and all your strength. I have unpacked these three items in another post, but the point is that, after giving God his (sic) due, there’s nothing left for Caesar. Jesus has said, do not pay Roman taxes, but in a way that avoids getting arrested.

Jesus has thrown his enemies onto the mat and pinned them with the moral jiu jitsu of the Third Way. He has revealed them as hypocrites and he has answered their question in a way that avoids prosecution, by quoting the heart of the very law his enemies claim to represent.

Jesus was a tactical genius. But he offers us more than just clever method. The gospel of Jesus is full of real content, too: teachings that radically challenge the political, social, and especially, the economic oppression of our time, and an argument and language that carries real weight in much of our society. Most especially, it offers a powerful antidote to the lies of the Christian right, for they have got their putative master completely wrong. I want to return to this content soon.

But in the next post, I want to explore the Lamb’s War of early Friends as the Third Way.



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§ 5 Responses to Jesus and the Third Way

  • jtower11 says:

    Thank you. As an Evangelical Quaker, I appreciate your digging in to the biblical roots of the peace testimony. In my diggings I also found George Fox heavily quoting, Micah 4:1-5. I wrote a series on it called Tanks, Tractors, and Tremblers before God on my blog, if you are interested

  • Lucy Duncan says:

    Thanks, Steven, I was at a yearly meeting recently and one person read a long quote from John Woolman saying that the boycotts he participated in were not intended to pressure people to change (he used the word coerce, of course) and so he would never sign on to something that was intended to have an impact, that wasn’t only about moral purity. I love these passages and think Friends some times don’t fully apprehend the nature of harm or evil or what we might oppose, and naively think niceness is the way to transform society… if we all just talk and dialogue, all will be well, That misses the revolutionary and subversive underpinnings of the gospels and of Jesus’ teachings (and those of John Woolman and Fox who followed after)… or Martin Luther King, Jr., too. That nonviolence exposes the harm and the power imbalances and by doing so makes shifting possible. That the ‘polite’ every day injustices can be exposed by nonviolent resistance. They also expose another way.

  • I love Walter Wink’s insights into the “third way” tactics of Jesus, Steve, but it saddens me to see Jesus characterized as merely a master of the moral jiu-jitsu of the Third Way who disarms his adversaries and exposes them as hypocrites. Because the whole point of the Gospel is not to send exposed hypocrites slinking off into the outer darkness to gnash their teeth, but to save them!

    Jesus’ incarnation was tidings of great joy to all people because he was to be the Savior of humankind; else, as Robert Barclay pointed out (Apology, Props. V and VI, §VI), “it should rather have been accounted bad tidings of great sorrow to most people.” Now it’s clear that most people don’t repent and enjoy perfect reconciliation with God in this lifetime; but all we’re allowed to see is what’s on this side of death’s door. God’s given us notice that God does not will that anyone perish (Ezek. 33:11; Matt. 18:14; 2 Peter 3:9; and the witness of your own heart), but intends the reconciliation of all things (Colossians 1:20).

    To be sure, some people seem never to get past the stage of having their hypocrisy exposed, at least in this lifetime, and Jesus wisely saved His breath with Caiaphas and Pilate and those people in John 8 whom he called sons of the devil. Neither did He bother to call Judas Iscariot to repentance, seeing that Judas’s heart was fixed on what he was determined to do; He did, however, hand-feed Judas and then wash his feet; why bother with such kindness if Judas was bound for nothing more than an eternity of hell-fire and total destruction? And didn’t Jesus ask for the forgiveness of Judas in His last moments on the cross? (Luke 23:34.)

    The preponderance of the evidence is that God intends the salvation of all sentient beings. And “I am the Lord, the God of all flesh: is there any thing too hard for me?” (Jer. 32:27) When Julian of Norwich, seeing Jesus Christ in a vision, expressed concern to Him about the souls in hell, He famously answered, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” I trust that that was the real Jesus talking.

    If we are to be followers of Jesus and not just masters of jiu-jitsu, we must not forget that our ultimate objective is the perfect reconciliation of our adversary to God. Humiliation and immobilization of the adversary is never, never to be taken as an end in itself. I believe in that truth strongly enough to die for it if I have to.

  • isaacsmith says:

    Great post, Steven. Including Walter Wink is a good move, as his work (especially on the principalities and powers) is vital to bringing forth the liberatory message of the gospel in a disenchanted age. We can’t recover the worldview of the first Quakers, much less the first Christians, without reinterpreting it in a way that make sense to us moderns. The language of heaven and hell and angels and demons is off-putting to many of us today, and with good reason. And yet, if we follow Wink and reconceive of heavenly and demonic forces as being not distinct entities but the “inner aspects” of state and corporate relations–sort of like your idea of the “angel of the meeting”–we can see how many of the institutions of the world today, both religious and secular, are frankly possessed: They imagine themselves as gods and compel the obedience of its members, asking them to put the institution above all other commitments, even the true God. (Think of the hazing rituals and insane work hours demanded of new Wall Street bankers, for example.) That understanding, I think, gives vitality and power particularly to the Quaker understanding of the church: Christ did not come to replace one institution with another institution, but to free us from the power all institutions, from empires to priesthoods, have over us. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25-28)

    I was introduced to Wink through reading Richard Beck’s blog Experimental Theology, and I think you might profit from reading it too. Here’s a sample:

    • Yes! This is exactly how I have been thinking. Thanks, Isaac. And thank you for the link to Richard Beck. I think I’m going to like this guy. I started reading that paper and discovered the reference to Bob Sutton. I used to do communications for a high-end speakers bureau that represented Bob Sutton, so I know his earlier work fairly well, but didn’t know about this later book.

      So thanks all around.


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