They were a despised group in society, thought stupid for their beliefs and corrosive to the state. Their attitudes toward common morality were hostile, and some of them flagrantly defied authority. They were also a secretive group: there were lots of rumors going around about what their believed and what they did, and some of those rumors were horrific. Some thought them cannibals, some thought them too licentious, and they frequently ran afoul of civil authority because they weren’t willing to promise obedience to the state about everything. They were persecuted, at first sporadically by hostile mobs then later by law. However, Christianity survived and grew in spite of the forces arrayed against it, and eventually converted the Roman Empire.
How did they manage it? They didn’t hold public protests as such, although they frequently stood tall in the face of persecution, generally not giving in to fear or anger. They didn’t withdraw from society, didn’t run to the hinterlands or start an alternative culture, but took part in society as they could. They prayed for their persecutors and took care of the poor. In short, they lived their faith, and over time it won them respect and acceptance.
I think what Jesus says today is one of the most misinterpreted quotes of the Bible. Most people interpret “when someone strikes your right cheek, offer them your left,” submitting to aggression without resistance. In the culture of that time, it means something different. A blow to the right cheek is a backhand blow, one a master gives a slave or a soldier gives a civilian. One who got one could just take it, which means it will happen again, or resist and risk getting killed as a rebel against the established social order. A blow to the left cheek is a blow between social equals, and asking someone to hit that meant changing the relationship, demanding equal status. It changes an either/or situation into something different. It’s usually referred to as following the Third Way.
Third Way strategies are in the other two vignettes as well. If you gave over your cloak and your tunic, you would be naked. The nudity taboo in Jesus’ time wasn’t being naked, but looking at someone else’s nakedness. Noah’s grandson Canaan was cursed for looking at his grandfather naked. Having someone strip you of your clothes meant they couldn’t look at you. Similarly, the Roman army had strict regulations about how much they could impress labor: a soldier could make a civilian carry his pack for one mile but no farther. Going past this risked punishment. Carrying the pack the second mile probably meant fighting off the solider, but it also transformed the relationship from oppressor/oppressed to host/guest. It created a new relationship.
Hate is unacceptable in Christian thought. Evil is to be resisted, but people are not. On Wednesday, the reading from the letter of James said: “anger does not accomplish the righteousness of God.” In being charitable to those we believe hate us, we believe are against us, we turn them from an object of our resistance to a human being, a person endowed by God with dignity. This helps us remain human.
Christ restores us to full humanity, molds us to be more like Him. Christ offers himself in the Eucharist as the most important gift, the source of our being, the one who makes everything right, and He calls us to remember that we aren’t instruments of God’s vengeance, so we aren’t instruments of our own vengeance. When we treat everyone the same way we would treat Christ, no matter how they’ve treated us, we give ourselves as well as all around us a new opportunity, a new hope. When we live the Gospel to its fullest, we offer the world a Third Way, which bears witness to the Kingdom of God breaking into our midst. We also become first class evangelizers.