They were a despised group in society. People thought their beliefs were stupid and their presence endangered the state. Their attitudes toward common morality were hostile, and some of them flagrantly defied authority. They were also a secretive group: many rumors circulated about what their believed and what they did, and some of those rumors were disgusting. Some thought they were cannibals, some thought they were 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 enforcement. However, Christianity survived and grew in spite of the forces arrayed against it, and eventually converted the Roman Empire.
How did they do it? They didn’t hold public protests as such, although they frequently stood tall in the face of persecution, generally they didn’t give in to fear or anger. They didn’t withdraw from society, or run away, or live in isolation, 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. David’s first great sin was looking at Bathsheba naked. Having someone strip you of your clothes meant they shouldn’t look at you, and if they did, it was their fault. Similarly, the Roman army had strict regulations about how far you could push someone: a soldier could make a civilian carry his pack for one mile but no farther. Going past this risked punishment, and Roman soldiers were usually more scared of their Centurions than their enemies. 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. The letter of James says: “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.
The Jesuit Karl Rahner said that the greatest creators of atheists was Christians. We talk loudly about what we believe and generally don’t follow it. Rahner said: “This is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.” As we get ready for Lent, as we look at how to focus our time of preparation, The first reading from Leviticus says: “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Everything we do during Lent should help us live up to that standard that converted an Empire: to truly love and care for our enemies as ourselves.