Many scholars have explored the ways that Gandhi influenced Martin Luther King Jr. and inspired him to dream of ways that nonviolent protest could work on a societal level.
More recently, as the year of the Arab Spring turned a bit bleaker with the prospect of a long Arab Winter, thinkers have again turned to the question of whether nonviolent resistance can really transform the larger culture.
Skeptics might say, “Sure, it’s one thing to use nonviolence to transform human relationships, one human to one human. But can one really overturn a violent society with nonviolent tactics?”
The lives of Gandhi and King reassure us that yes, change can come through nonviolent resistance. Here’s an interesting possibility:The social change that has the most potential for lasting transformation can only come through nonviolence. And often, the training in nonviolence comes from religious traditions.
The power of nonviolence
Jonathan Schell, in an 2009 article lists autocratic regimes in the 20th century that have fallen to nonviolent movements and concludes: “So there really is a counter-story to the dominant narrative of the twentieth century — the shocking and unbelievable expansion of the use of violence. But this sort of subterranean stream of nonviolence was also present. The fall of the British Empire, the fall of the Soviet Empire — these are not the small change of history. These are serious events.”
The theologian Walter Wink has done more work in this area of nonviolence and social change than most scholars.
In a 1993 essay he noted, “In 1989 alone, there were thirteen nations that underwent non-violent revolutions. All of them successful except one, China. That year 1.7 billion people were engaged in national non-violent revolutions. That is a third of humanity.”
Wink continued, “If you throw in all of the other non-violent revolutions in all the other nations in this century (the 20th), you get the astonishing figure of 3.34 billion people involved in non-violent revolutions. That is two-thirds of the human race. No one can ever again say that non-violence doesn’t work. It has been working like crazy. It is time the Christian churches got involved in this revolution because what is happening in the world is that the world itself is discovering the truth of Jesus’ teaching, and here we come in the church, bringing up the rear.”
What does Jesus say?
We might be scratching our heads as we try to remember what Jesus said about overturning autocratic regimes. Was this not the man who told us to turn the other cheek while we give up our coats and our shirts and walk the second mile with soldiers (Matthew 5:38-48)?
These texts have been so misunderstood through the centuries that it’s hard to remember what Jesus was really saying. Jesus was NOT saying to let your abuser batter you day in and day out.
Jesus was not instructing us to let evil governments steamroll right over us. Jesus was not even calling us to a stoic acceptance of brutality that will buy us a better condo in heaven for enduring hell on earth.
No, Jesus gave us resistance texts. Yes, resistance texts.
These are texts that show us how to resist evil in such a way that evil elements will not turn around and destroy us. Likewise, these are texts that show us how to resist evil in such a way that we don’t become the evil that we are resisting.
Turning the cheek
Let’s focus on the turning of the other cheek, since this passage is so well-known. Notice that Jesus gives specific cheeks in specific order. That’s a detail lost on us, but it wouldn’t have been lost on the people who heard Jesus’ instructions. Walter Wink explains:
Imagine if I were your assailant and I were to strike a blow with my right fist at your face, which cheek would it land on? It would be the left. It is the wrong cheek in terms of the text we are looking at. Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek … .” I could hit you on the right cheek if I used a left hook, but that would be impossible in Semitic society because the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. You couldn’t even gesture with your left hand in public. The only way I could hit you on the right cheek would be with the back of the hand.
Now the back of the hand is not a blow intended to injure. It is a symbolic blow. It is intended to put you back where you belong. It is always from a position of power or superiority. The back of the hand was given by a master to a slave or by a husband to a wife or by a parent to a child or a Roman to a Jew in that period.
What Jesus is saying is in effect, “When someone tries to humiliate you and put you down, back into your social location which is inferior to that person, turn your other cheek.”
Now in the process of turning in that direction, if you turned your head to the right, I could no longer backhand you. Your nose is now in the way. Furthermore, you can’t backhand someone twice. It’s like telling a joke a second time.
If it doesn’t work the first time, it has failed. By turning the other cheek, you are defiantly saying to the master, “I refuse to be humiliated by you any longer. I am a human being just like you. I am a child of God. You can’t put me down even if you have me killed.” This is clearly no way to avoid trouble. The master might have you flogged within an inch of your life, but he will never be able to assert that you have no dignity.
Gandhi and King are some of the more famous people who cried out for justice and who nonviolently resisted evil governments, but there are plenty of others, a list too long to make here. Some of them died before they got to see the full fruits of their labor, but the groundwork that they laid was vital for bending the arc of history toward justice, to use King’s beautiful language.
The larger culture of empire and popular culture can be in thrall to death. It’s good to have a day to remember that nonviolent resistance can overcome death’s bewitchment in many different ways.
It’s good to remember that we can resist in life-affirming ways that not only prevent us from becoming agents of oppression ourselves, but that lead us toward all sorts of transformations as we become the arks that keep the more vulnerable members of society safe.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott is a lifelong Lutheran, a college teacher and department head. She has taught a variety of English and creative-writing classes for the last 20 years.