The Power of Resistance
It’s a feature of tyrants that, however brutal and oppressive they are, they fear opposition. However great their brutality, there is no respite for them from the gnawing anxiety that someone is intent on getting them. Kim Jong-Un of North Korea is a case in point. He and his father and grandfather have run the country like one vast concentration camp, one in which they starve and brutalise 23 million of their fellow men and women. But Kim Jong-Un clearly can’t even trust his own family members. Just recently he had an uncle murdered, someone who hitherto had been seen as a pillar of the regime. In true, Stalinist fashion, the uncle has now been airbrushed out of photographs. And of course, Kim can’t bear mockery – witness the recent actions against the US comedy film “The Interview”.
Kim has much in common with King Herod, whom we meet in today’s gospel. He too was paranoid. During his reign he murdered his wife, her mother and three of his sons, such was his paranoia. It’s therefore little surprise that when he hears of a baby born to be King of the Jews he wants the child killed – and with dispatch. Given how loathed Herod’s Roman masters were, the thought of the coming of such a king would have appeared a real threat.
But what Herod didn’t know – and what he couldn’t have ever imagined – was that the coming king would have no truck with armed insurrection. In the terms that Herod knew and understood, Jesus presented no threat to him at all.
The Jesus story as it is set out in the gospels is all about two very different conceptions of power, what it’s for and how it’s used. King Herod, Kim Jong-Un and any number of other tyrants you can think of all represent a notion of power that is about domination. It’s all about power over people. It is achieved and sustained by fear and it exploits the many in the interests of the few. At heart, this kind of power is violent. It only works by coercion and is therefore inherently unstable. Tyrants are paranoid precisely because they know that terrible vengeance will be visited upon them if ever they are overthrown – just think of Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania and what happened to him 25 years ago when his was the last Communist dictatorship to be overthrown in Eastern Europe.
By contrast, there’s the kind of power exercised by Jesus. This power is always exercised in the interests of others and to the benefit of all. Those exercising this kind of power are happy to share it – think of Jesus and his disciples. This kind of power is non-violent and it cannot be otherwise. Jesus was consistently non-violent. His most violent action in the gospel was that of overturning the money-changers tables in the temple but no-one got hurt.
You might sum it up like this. The power of Herod, the Romans and our latter day tyrants is power which is exercised over others, whereas Jesus’s kind of power is power that is exercised with and for others.
We are fortunate enough to live in a peaceful, law-abiding society. Whatever we think of the government, we are not at the whim of a violent and bullying state that crushes opposition. We should be very grateful for this but such good fortune can induce a certain smugness and complacency. For if you look carefully you will see evidence of power being exercised over others all around you, and where that happens exploitation and injustice will follow.
We live, for instance, in an era of over-mighty corporations. Just recently I had an experience with my mobile ‘phone company that amounted to bullying. I received in the post a final demand (having never received any kind of demand before) for £230 to cover the cost of a ‘phone that I had allegedly returned to them damaged. Their claim was unsubstantiated and yet, after hours spent on the ‘phone vainly trying to reason with their “customer service representatives” they forced me to pay the bill on pain of them switching my signal off, with serious consequences for my business.
I got the money back because I’m educated, I know how to complain and I’m not easily bullied but what if I’d been old and infirm, or a harassed single parent, or an ill-educated youth? And all this from a company that avoids paying UK tax on its £6bn profits. Shame on them!
But never mind my middle class bleating. We live in an age of inequality in which the poor are increasingly at the mercy of the rich and powerful. You will recall that a few weeks ago I dressed up as Santa to present our 50+ application forms to join the local credit union. Tony Das, the credit union manager, told me that day of a company just a few doors away from him that offers £20 cash handouts to anyone who manages to sign up a friend for one of their payday loans which carry with them an exhorbitant APR (Annual Percentage Rate of interest). Shame on them!
And what about those employers who pay not the living wage in London but the minimum wage – that’s just £6.50 an hour or an annual income of £12,500. Or those organisations that hire workers on zero hours contracts. Yes, they are very convenient for some people but a curse of terrible insecurity for many. Shame on those employers. And as for housing, what about the US investment firm that bought up a social housing estate in Hoxton and immediately announced a plan to triple the rents, so forcing the poor and less well-off from their homes. Fortunately, a high profile campaign has forced them into retreat, but shame on them for even thinking of doing this.
So what are we supposed to do about this? As Christians we are not supposed to take this lying down. This may come as a surprise to some, for the gospel of love is too often seen as the gospel of meekness. Too many people – including many in the church – understand Jesus’ injunction to “turn the other cheek” as a call to stoically shrug our shoulders, take whatever injustice is meted out to us, confident that justice will be done in the end, most likely in the next world.
But if you think for a second about Jesus’ ministry and all that he did to promote the cause of the poor and to challenge authority, this just will not wash. What’s more, it’s not supported by a close reading of scripture.
The biblical scholar Walter Wink’s book “Engaging the Powers” contains a wonderful exegesis on the famous passage in Luke which contains the instruction to turn the other cheek. I found it genuinely revelatory when I first read it but it is quite complicated as much depends on understanding the culture and habits of the time.
The give-away to what’s really going on in the passage is that Jesus is very specific in saying that if someone hits you on “the right cheek” then you should offer him the other one as well. Why is the right cheek important? Well, to hit the right cheek with a fist would require using the left hand but the left hand was only used for unclean tasks in the culture of first century Palestine. So, hitting the right cheek would involve the back of the right hand – in other words, it would be a slap. We’re talking an insult here, not a fist fight. Now, a fist fight in those days would only have taken place between men of equal status. What Jesus was really talking about was an unequal relationship in which a servant or slave was being punished by his master.
So why does Jesus say that the slave or servant should offer the other cheek as well? Because he’s encouraging resistance. It’s a way of saying that the first blow didn’t succeed in humiliating him or dehumanising him, so try another. But this time, in offering the other cheek, the servant would be inviting a punch, and as that would put the two of them on an equal footing, it would be impossible for the master to do, leaving him in something of a quandary.
What looks like an invitation to meekness is really an exercise in resistance and – if you will forgive the pun – a pretty cheeky exercise in resistance at that. For the impact of it would be to expose the injustice of the situation and to shame the perpetrator.
We are called therefore to name and shame the over-mighty and arrogant that perpetrate injustice, whether it be in our own lives or those we see around us who need support in their struggle. We really don’t need to put up with things as they are. What’s more, we shouldn’t.
And we should take heart that this approach works. Just think for a moment of the success of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s campaign on pay day loan companies and how, under his leadership, the church has named and shamed these companies with their 5000% plus APRs to the extent that they are now, as of January 1, facing much tougher regulation.
We’ve become part of that campaign with our support of the local credit union, so there’s no doubt that St. Mary’s cares deeply about injustice. But now let’s ask ourselves what more we can do to resist it both in our own lives and in support of those with little power and resources who are at the mercy of those with lots of both.
We’re just beginning to get an inkling of what’s possible, so let’s see what we can do together in the name of justice in 2015.