During Jesus time there was a very appealing Jewish nationalistic political party known as Zealots. One of the inner twelve disciples was even given the epithet “Simon called the Zealot” or “Simon the Zealot” in Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13. A Zealot would have been known for being anti-Roman and theocratic. A Zealot was more than just an adjective describing a person’s eager, ambitious, competitive and striving disposition. A Zealot was a Jewish nationalistic political party. The Zealot’s platform was essentially this, Rome was not Gods nation, Caesar is not our God (during this time Caesar the roman ruler was considered to be a god and worshipped as one), our king is Yahweh and His covenant people are the subjects of his Kingdom. To be a member of the Zealot party was to be a part of a growing Hebrew national resistance party dating back to 6 B.C.
For a Zealot any violence that came from them toward Rome was born out of a sense of vengeance and nationalistic pride.
Would this timeless and escalating narrative of an oppressed people come to a victorious climax with the arrival of King Jesus? To put it simply, no.
Israel in large part was a tender box of oppressed people waiting to be ignited by a nationalistic ruler zealous enough to over throw the kingdom of Rome for the Kingdom of God.
Jesus showed zeal for the kingdom this cannot be argued. But to frame him as a member of the Zealot party is going to far. Jesus not only saw the Roman system of religious government as a bully but he also saw the current Jewish system as a bully as well. Jesus discourse with Peter regarding the temple tax in Matthew 17:24–27 shows us that Jesus was not a part of the Zealot party’s movement.
Jesus ministry brings his followers to see a much bigger picture a picture that involved a worldwide conspiracy. A conspiracy that was much more powerful than Rome and one that is unseen as Paul brings to light in Ephesians 6.
In light of what Jesus kept hidden about the kingdom of God and his coming sacrifice not Just for Israel but Rome and the whole world Jesus ministry was one of humility and de-escalation to his disciples. It is in light of this humble ministry in a world of kingdoms built on zeal and pride that Jesus challenges the rule of reciprocity not violence.
“An eye for an eye”. I hear this even in America today from folks like Simon that desire a sense of justice when they hear of some horrible crime on the news. This is the rule of reciprocity. This rule is understood to mean that if a person causes us damage then justice would be that the same damage must be done to them as punishment. This rule was to be discerned and carried out by judges and those placed over us as rulers.
But in Matthew 5:38-42 we find Jesus saying this “You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.”
This passage taken out of it’s contemporary context is often used to frame Jesus in such a way that he appears to be a teacher of non-violence. But Jesus is not addressing violence here in general. Jesus is addressing violence as it relates to the rule of reciprocity within the context of a Zealot. That is why his example involves a Roman soldier. Israel was under the humiliating reign of Rome. It wasn’t just the Zealots that were bothered by the disrespect of Rome toward the Jewish people. These Romans were a humiliating slap in the face. These were the unclean invaders, rapists and dictators of God’s covenant people in the eyes of many Jewish folks. A proud covenant people of God reduced to servants and second-class citizens.
Jesus in context is not saying anything about self-defense in this passage or non-violence. Jesus is addressing pride. He is saying the way of the kingdom of God is not through revenge but service. The way of the new creation is one of grace and the unmerited favor of God to every nation. Jesus didn’t want to escalate God’s people to revenge but grace. Violence alone was not the focus of Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” discourse. The Romanesque idolatry of violence as a deliverer of Gods people and giver of vengeance and retaliation was what Jesus was telling his people to turn from.
If this passage is misused today it seems as if it is used to back an idea unsupported by the whole of the scriptural witness. This idea is that all violence is wrong because God is not violent. Sure violence is wrong when it is misused and misapplied. God is just and it is in this justice that his violence is right. When we find ourselves as Christians in a position to defend ourselves and others as a collective or independently from extreme forms of violence we should not consider ourselves in the wrong to rage in violent opposition for the sake of defense. There is still a right and wrong even in a grey world and there are often times when a judge, court, police officer or authority is not present to help.
The schoolyard bully Jesus was addressing in Matthew 5:38-42 was not Rome it was a heart bent on revenge and vengeance. It was a heart filled with zealous underdog pride.
Free violence uncontrolled or untempered and fueled by hateful pride and vengeance is wrong. Violence connected to justice and mercy is not always wrong. It can be an expression of love and compassion. Violence that sets captives free is not always wrong again it can be a legitimate expression of love and compassion. It is in this love that we find Jesus not turning the other cheek in 2 Thessalonians 1:5–12 “And God will use this persecution to show his justice and to make you worthy of his Kingdom, for which you are suffering. In his justice he will pay back those who persecute you. And God will provide rest for you who are being persecuted and also for us when the Lord Jesus appears from heaven. He will come with his mighty angels, in flaming fire, bringing judgment on those who don’t know God and on those who refuse to obey the Good News of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with eternal destruction, forever separated from the Lord and from his glorious power. When he comes on that day, he will receive glory from his holy people—praise from all who believe. And this includes you, for you believed what we told you about him. So we keep on praying for you, asking our God to enable you to live a life worthy of his call. May he give you the power to accomplish all the good things your faith prompts you to do. Then the name of our Lord Jesus will be honored because of the way you live, and you will be honored along with him. This is all made possible because of the grace of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ. “
There is an idealism forever in the future but never found in our history books. It is framed by folks reading into passages like Matthew 17:24–27. These folks want us to believe that all violence is wrong. The Jesus of scripture might not have promoted violence as a solution for Zealots and their problem of Roman occupation but a response doesn’t have to always be a solution. A well-placed, correctly timed violent response from the right motive can be a means to a greater end. Humility and justice do not have to turn the other cheek all the time and in every situation.
So would Jesus throw a punch at a schoolyard bully? Maybe he would. I don’t know. But one thing is clear “turn the other cheek” is not about self defense.