I attended Stellenbosch Gemeente again on 6 January. The topic was “Breek uit…Passiwiteit”, or “breaking out of passivity”. Let me keep my words to a minimum, the video clip of Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, says it all:
This clip was shown at the beginning of the sermon to set the stage. For interested parties that understand Afrikaans, the sermon’s page on Stellenbosch Gemeente’s website contains an mp3 of the sermon as well as a new creed that was recited towards the end of the sermon.
A key idea emphasized in the sermon was that “passivity versus traditional activism” is a false dichotomy, with a third option typically being the best course of action. This was illustrated by re-examining the examples of turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile, from the context of slavery and Roman rule during Jesus’ time. Read on for my explanation of passivity, activism, and the third “thinking outside the box” option…
All too often “turning the other cheek” is interpreted as “be passive, do nothing”. This is all too often leads to someone becoming a doormat Christian — a Christian that lets other people walk all over them, to everyone’s detriment. Passivity is as evil as apathy.
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)
Passivity while education is undermined by people that hate science, passivity while the anti-vaccination crowd gets us all killed from diseases we have beaten decades ago (smallpox anyone?), passivity as genocide is committed, as people starve, minority groups are oppressed and marginalised, passivity as The Third Reich runs rampant through Europe, how is that even an option?!
The Old Testament had the suggestion of an eye for an eye. This is standard activism, with a limit to forbid tenfold retaliation. If some guy pokes out your eye, you are not allowed to retaliate by burning his fields, stealing his cattle, killing his children, raping his wives and poking out his eye. Extrapolated to global politics, that would lead to destruction, possibly mutual destruction. Hence, the suggested limit: equal response.
The problem with responding in kind is the differences in perception. Did any of you play “‘n hou vir ‘n hou” when you were younger? (Translates literally and ickily to a-hit-for-a-hit.) That is a game some boys play, at least in South Africa, where you take turns in hitting one another until someone loses interest in hitting back, or is possibly unable to do so. This kind of game typically escalates, even if both try to return “in kind”. I’m afraid I lost the link to an article explaining how the harms committed to you always seem worse than the exact same harm you dish out. Even in an attempt to keep things “equal”, it escalates. Again we have destruction.
The Third Option
In the case of turning the other cheek, there is a little detail found in the text that should be given some thought:
If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Why the right cheek? Why not simply “on the cheek”?
The explanation suggested in the sermon was this: Most people are right-handed. Striking someone on his or her right cheek with your right hand will therefore be a back-handed strike. Apparently this was the strike used on e.g. slaves. In this context, turning the other cheek is a defiant challenge to the striker to treat/hit you as an equal, rather than as a slave.
In the case of walking the extra mile, the context is the laws of the Roman army. Apparently Roman soldiers could ask citizens of the empire to carry their packs for them, but only for one mile. Refuse to carry their packs, and you’d be breaking the law. So how do you protest? You insist on walking a second mile. This returns the embarrassment to the soldier, placing him in the uncomfortable position of being the one to break the law.
I see many similarities between this approach and eastern philosophies, found in the game of Go, my potentially incorrect understanding of yin/yang, the principles and fundamentals of many Chinese martial arts, and probably most Japanese arts too, e.g. Aikido (many clips on YouTube, e.g. Aikido vs Kickboxing) — use the aggressor’s aggression against them, rather than trying to meet it directly with force.