Answering oppression by offering another cheek, coat, and mile

Written by Josiah Piett

2020. A lot can and will be said about this year: COVID-19, political conflict, globalization, and increased awareness of racial tensions and human trafficking.

There is a great polarity of opinions about each of these topics. Depending where you stand it can quickly determine whether someone views you as a friend or enemy. We live in what has been referred to as a cancel culture, and these crises have only added fuel to an already stoked fire of judgment and hatred.

But what does Jesus have to say about how we are to respond to those who may identify us as an enemy?

We need to hear His answer within the context of the culture He was in. Jesus was a Jew born in a Jewish land being ruled and oppressed by the Roman Empire. The Jews of Jesus’ day were eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come who would bring spiritual renewal and social order to their land.

Spiritual renewal meant restoring the ways of old that had been so corrupted and distorted by the world around them. And renewed social order, in the imaginations of most Jews, meant overthrowing the Roman Empire and re-establishing Jewish rule over the nation. 

When Jesus started His public ministry, we see a clash of ideas. The people wanted Jesus to respond to their immediate crisis with victorious force. Yet His response was one of re-direction. Jesus’ re-direction created such controversy and offense that He was sentenced to be killed on a criminal’s cross.

Imagine being a Jew at this time. Was this the Messiah? There would only be one rational response to this question. No, He must not have been because He’d been defeated and killed.

Jesus’ disciples may even have wondered at first. But then they saw the resurrected Jesus and weeks later saw Him ascend to the throne of heaven. They saw the Holy Spirit descend on all who responded with a yes to Jesus’ invitation to follow Him.

But what then do those disciples—and us today—make of the prophecies that said the Messiah would bring spiritual renewal and social order to the land? Did Jesus not fulfill them? The short response is: Jesus reframes the questions and redirects our attention to Himself.

Spiritual restoration is now accomplished through Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, and by the power of the Holy Spirit who transforms us into new creations. This opportunity isn’t limited to Jews but is available to anyone. Social order is now understood as the Kingdom of God which has been ushered in through Jesus and is beginning to take full effect through those who are being made into new creations in Christ.

With the contrast between what Jesus’ listeners believed about the Messiah and what He lived and taught, let’s read Jesus’ teaching about how to respond to our enemies in Matthew 5:38-42:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist the evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away the one who wants to borrow from you.”

Today we are often inclined to stand up against our opponents, but Jesus is saying, “When your walk with Me inevitably brings offense to those around you, don’t respond in the way the world tells you to.”

You will not find one story in the New Testament of any follower of Jesus responding to their oppressor or persecutor with violence. You also won’t find a story where a follower of Jesus argues with someone who isn’t a follower of Jesus over values related to their Christian beliefs.

Pause for a moment and think about those two statements against the backdrop of the many arguments on social media or in real life today between followers of Jesus and people with different worldviews.

We aren’t meant to force our beliefs and values on people. When we try to do so and it isn’t being received well, we can call it many things, but persecution shouldn’t be one of them. Persecution might come from inviting; it should not come from insisting.

Jesus is calling His followers to be people of peace—new creations—despite the chaos surrounding us.

He doesn’t in any way justify the actions of the oppressor. In fact, He specifically calls oppression evil in this passage. But His call to action in response to oppression is voluntarily increased oppression: another cheek, coat, and mile.

We can look at this teaching and think Jesus is asking His followers to be pushovers. But if anything, He is saying we should be so secure in who we are in Him that when oppression comes, we respond with loving actions that declare (without words) that oppressors have no power over us. For the power we do have we’ve given over to the One who is more powerful than any evil that can be thrown at us.

Jesus invites us into a new way of being. We don’t have the strength, wisdom, or ability in ourselves to navigate through these times of conflict. But through the Spirit, Jesus is calling us to display His way amid intense polarity. This means turning the other cheek, giving the coat, and going the extra mile in our responses. We are to respond to conflict as new creations, not as old. 

Maybe you are reading this and you can think back to a conversation you had or post you shared recently that you now see doesn’t align with the way Jesus is calling us to live. I have been there too many times. I’m in no way trying to sound like an expert in this. I can just encourage you to make things right and apologize.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to apologize for your belief, but maybe you now realize the way you expressed the view wasn’t helpful. Humility is such an important characteristic for a follower of Jesus. Regardless of how people respond to the apology, if we know we messed up it’s important we acknowledge it.

Followers of Jesus should be leading the way when it comes to owning up to our mistakes and responding to crises differently.

We have an opportunity in this day and age to be lights in a very dark world.

We know we are in Christ, and this brings security, allowing us to respond to those around us with humility and love. As 2020 keeps throwing new things at us, let us prayerfully seek ways to live as new creations and participate in our Father’s Kingdom in our midst. May we turn our cheeks, give our coats, and run those extra miles.