Nonviolence for the Violent

Walter Wink’s explanation of Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way

By illustrating “turn the other cheek”, “offer your coat as well”, and “go the second mile” with lively demonstrations, Dr. Wink puts “Do not resist evil” into a vibrant historical context with practical applications for today at the Spiritual Pilgrimages of Peacemaking retreat at the Princeton Theological Seminary, New Jersey.

Fellowship of Reconciliation (USA)
The oldest interfaith peace and justice organization in the United States.

Walter Wink: Nonviolence for the Violent
Entire lecture – 45 minutes

Part 1 – Video Recording here.  Introduction
Part 2 – Video Recording here. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
Part 3 – Video Recording here. Jesus counsels them to give over their undergarments as well.
Part 4 – Video Recording here. If any one … forces you to carry back one-mile, carry it two.
Part 5 – Video Recording here. Conclusion – Jesus offers a third way.


This morning I want to talk about – as you said – Nonviolence for the Violent.

I chose this title because we all have violence within us.

To recognize our inner violence is one of the hardest things we must do, if we were to become nonviolent. I once tried to eradicate violence from my heart, when I took a long look at all the violence and rage within me, I thought I had a tremendous amount of work to do.

If we can’t deal with our own personal violence, how do we expect to deal with the violence of Nations?

Let’s turn then to what Jesus has to say about nonviolence. He says this:

You heard that was said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.‘ but I say to you:

Do not resist one who is an evildoer, but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, and if anyone sues you for your outer garment, give your undergarment as well, and if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two.

Many otherwise developed Christians simply dismiss Jesus’s teachings about nonviolence out of hand as impractical idealism. And with good reason. Turn the other cheek has come to imply a doormat-like quality, that has made the Christian way seem cowardly and complicit in the face of injustice. Resist not evil seems to break the back of all opposition to evil and to council submission. Going the Second Mile has become a platitude, meaning nothing else then Extend yourself and encourages collaboration with the oppressor. Jesus’s teaching viewed this way is impractical, masochistic, and even suicidal. An invitation to bullies and spouse batterers to wipe up the floor with their supine Christian victims.

Jesus never displayed that kind of passivity. Whatever the source of the misunderstanding, such distortions are clearly neither in Jesus or his teaching. The normal or natural reaction to being slapped, sued, or forced to carry a soldier’s pack was irritation, outrage or violence. The structure of violence is quite simple: Do unto others as they have done unto you.

Consequently we always mirror our opponent and become the very thing that we hate.

Jesus offers a third way, one which marks an historic mutation in human development – the revolt against the principle of natural selection. With Jesus a way emerges by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored and engaged without capitulation. Jesus counsels resistance, but without violence.

The Greek word translated ‘resist’ in Matthew 5 is: ‘ANTI/STENAI’ (He writes the words anti/stenai and against/stand onto blackboard.) Stand against.

What the translators have overlooked is that antistenai is most often used in the Greek version of the Old Testament as a technical term for ‘warfare’. It describes the way opposing armies would march toward each other, until their ranks colide, until they got company of steal against steel, disembowelling each other, until one of the lines broke and fled.

This was called Taking a stand.

This is not the tame little word being used, this is the real word: war.

Ephesians 6 uses the precisely this imagery. Quote: Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand (antistenai) on that evil day and having done everything to stand firm. (stenai)

In short antistenai means more here than simply to resist, it means to resist violently; to revolt, to rebel, to engage in an armed insurrection, as was Barabbas – same word used.

So when Jesus says: Do not antistenai one who is evil,

he is telling us not to resist evil with violence.

King James of England was profoundly disturbed during the Protestant Reformation, that Presbyterians from Geneva were smuggling copies of the Geneva Bible into England. (joking:It‘s all the Presbyterians fault.) He condemned the marginal notes 1 as seditious, dangerous and traitorous for endorsing the right to overthrow a tyrant. The King was not amused.

Therefore he authorized a new translation, the authorized version, the King James Bible. It was written with part of its intention to prevent insurrection. Therefore he authorized a new translation that would make clear that there were only two alternatives: flight and fight. And if Jesus says do not resist one that was evil, it sounds like he’s saying don’t fight, flight. I hope that‘s clear, I worked on it all morning. Thus Jesus is made to authorize monarchical absolutism. Submission to the powers that be, the King insists, is the will of God and most translators have meekly followed this path until this very day.

Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms.

He is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way, one that is at once assertive and yet nonviolent.

The three examples that follow confirm this reading.

Part 2 – Video Recording here.

If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

And now I need two helpers to come forward – Al and Gi.

Yes, thank you.

Al, you‘ll be here and Guide, you‘ll be here, and I‘ll stand behind here.

Al, you can be the hitter and Guide, you can be the hittie.

You son, have a rifle … not a rifle, not a rifle.


Careful men, don‘t push.

Now, what‘s wrong with that blow …?

Jesus said „right cheek“ – very explicitly.

Alright, hit his right … wait (pointing at right cheek of hittie)

Sure, it‘s the left hand.

What‘s wrong with that? Wrong arm, can‘t use the right arm for that side.

Can you use the left arm for any public action?

It was used for wiping your ass. (laughter)

How, with your right hand, can you hit his right cheek?

What‘s the only possible blow? With the back hand …

And the backhand is not for injuring people. It is for humiliating people, degrading.

Masters backhanded slaves, husbands wives, parents children, Romans Jews.

(it’s alright one down, isn’t it – not cleary pronounced)

It’s always inserting a person back in the social role he had, he played, as an inferior.

The whole point was to force someone, who was out of line, to get back in line.

Notice Jesus’s audience here. If anyone strikes you, the kind of people Jesus was talking to, slaves, these are people who are used to being thus degraded, he is saying to them refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymor. You‘re backhanded?Turn the other cheek.

Okay, get a little closer. Backhand him.

Alright Keith, now you turn the other cheek.

Just a second now, what are you gonna do?

Al: I have nothing to do. I don’t know what to do.

Walter: His nose is in the way, isn‘t it? (Laughter)

And anyway, it’s like telling a joke twice. If it didn’t work the first time, it won‘t work the second time either. (Laughter)

The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the fist, but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underlings equality.

This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship. He can have this little slave beaten, but he can intimidate him no longer. By turning the cheek then, the inferior party is saying:

I’m not inferior to you. I’m a human being. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I’m a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.

Such defiance is no way to avoid trouble. Meak acquiescence2 is what the master wants.

Such cheeky behavior (laughter) make lead to flogging or worse. Even killing.

But the point has been made.

The powers that be have lost their power to make people submit, and when large numbers begin behaving thus – and Jesus was already depicted as addressing a crowd – you have a social revolution on your hands.

In that world of Honor and Shaming the superior has been rendered impotent to stick instill shame in a subordinate. He’s been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other.

As Gandhi taught the first principle of nonviolent action is that of non-compliance with everything humiliating.

How different this is from the usual view, that this passage teaches us to turn the other cheek, so our batterer can simply clobber us again. How often this interpretation has been fed to battered wives and children. And it was never what Jesus intended in the least.

For such victims, he advises: Stand up for yourselves! Take control of your responses! Don’t answer the oppressor in kind, but find a new, third way, that is neither cowardly submission, nor violent reprisal.

Jesus‘s second example of assertive non-violence is said in a court of law.

A creditor has taken a poor man to court over an unpaid loan. Only the poorest of the poor were subjected to such treatment. Deuteronomy 243 provided that a creditor could take as collateral for a loan a poor man’s long outer robe, but it had to be returned each evening, so that the poor person would have something in which to sleep. Jesus is not advising people to add to their disadvantage, by pronouncing justice altogether, and so many commentators have suggested, he is telling impoverished debtors, that they have nothing left, but the clothes on their backs, to use the system against itself. Indebtedness was a plague in first century‘s Palestine. Jesus’s parables are full of debtors, struggling to salvage their lives. Heavy debt was not however a natural calamity, that had overtaken the incompetent. It was the direct consequence of Roman Imperial policy, givers tax the wealthy – heavily –to fund their Wars and bankroll the bureaucracy. The rich naturally naturally sought non-liquid investments to hide their wealth. Land was best, but it was ancestrally owned and passed down over generations and no peasant would voluntarily relinquish it. However, exorbitant interest from twenty-five to two hundred and fifty percent could be used to drive landowners ever deeper into debt and debt, coupled with the high taxation required to pay roman tribune, created the economic leverage to pry Galilean peasants loose from their land. That sounds kind of familiar. (Laugther)

By the time of Jesus we see this process already far advanced. Large estates, owned by absentee landlords, managed by stewards and worked by tenant farmers, day laborers and slaves, many of whom had formerly been landowners.

It’s no accident, that the very first acts of Jewish revolutionaries in 66 AD, when the Roman war began the first act, was to burn the temple treasury, where the record of debt was kept.

Their own temple.

Part 3 – Video Recording here.

It is into this situation that Jesus speaks.

As before, his hearers are the poor. If anyone would sue you. They share a rankling hatred for a system that subjects them to humiliation, by stripping them of their lands, their goods, and finally even their outer garments.

Why, then, does Jesus counsel them to give over their undergarments as well?

This would mean stripping off all their clothing, and marching out of court stark naked. They didn’t have jockey underware, folks. There was two items of clothing, the outer in the inner.

But nakedness was taboo in Judaism. Shame fell less on the naked party, rather than on the person viewing or causing the nakedness.

Remember the story of Noah. Noah was naked and drunk, and the son looked upon his father’s nakedness, and the son was cursed. The son, not the father.

By stripping the debtor has brought shame on the creditor. There stands the creditor, covered with shame, the poor debtors outer garment in one hand, his undergarment in the other. The tables have suddenly been turned on the creditor. The debtor had no hope of winning the case, the law was entirely in the creditors favor.

But the poor man has transcended this attempt to humiliate. He has risen above shame. At the same time he has registered a stunning protest against the system that created his debt. He has said in effect:

You want my robe? Here, take everything! Now you’ve got all I have, except my body. Is that what you’ll take next?

Imagine the debtor leaving court naked. His friends and neighbors aghast inquire: What happened? He explains. They join his growing procession, which now resembles a victory parade. This is guerrilla theater, folks!

The entire system by which debtors are oppressed has been publicly unmasked. The creditors revealed to be not a legitimate moneylender, but a party to the reduction of an entire social class, to landlessness and destitution.

This unmasking is not simply punitive, however. Since it offers the creditor a chance to see, perhaps for the first time in his life, what his practices cause and to repent. The powers-that-be literally stand on their dignity. Nothing deflates them more effectively, than debt lampooning. By refusing to be awed by their power, the powerless are emboldened to seek the initiative, even when structural change is not immediately possible. This message, far from counselling and unattainable otherworldly perfection, is a practical, strategic failure for empowering the oppressed.

It’s being lived out all over the world today by previously powerless people, ready to take their history into their own hands, even if it cost them their lives. Time clock.

Shortly before the fall of political apartheid in South Africa, police descended on a squatters camp, that they have long wanted to demolish. They gave the few women there five minutes to gather their possessions, and then the bulldozers would level the shacks. The women, apparently sensing the residual, puritanical streak in rural Afrikaners, stripped naked before the bulldozers. The police turned and fled.

The last I heard that camp still stands.

The difference is, they’re now getting electricity and water.

Could I have the help of two more volunteers? Ann and Brian.

Creditor Ann:

Sailing back in three months, but nothing ever happens, and now I’m getting a little tired of this, I need my money, I really… When you‘re gonna pay?

Debtor Brian: Well, what she says is true, but I’ve been sick, my wife‘s just had another baby and the flocks just run amok, and I’ve been working as hard as I can, man she can’t give another ounce.

Judge: Have you paid her anything at all?

Debtor Brian: I have nothing to pay her.

Judge: Can you give her your coat, this morning?

Debtor Brian:

Well, I can give this, but it’s cold at night. and if I give this, I won’t have much.

Judge: The law requires this, you have to give this. is good you have to it was a 17 and every night

Creditor Ann: So you just come to my house, you know, at 9 p.m. and I’ll give it back. And then you come back, you bring it back to me the next morning.

Debtor Brian: It‘s cold.

Ann: …

Debtor Brian: If you’re gonna take the jacket, you might as well take this (takes of his shirt)

You need this one. In fact, here. (Gives his watch.)

You will know the time to come.


(Takes of his belt and gives it to her.) You need to hold something up with this.

And I won‘t need these, either … (starts taking off his pants.)

Judge oders to halt this activity. Brian continues. Big laughter, fun, and applause.

You can imagine the people in the crowd, responding in the way you’ve been responding.

This is funny. I want those.

Jesus‘s teaching on nonviolence provides a hint of how to take on the entire system, by unmasking it’s essential cruelty and burlesqing its pretences to justice. Those who listen will no longer be treated as sponges to be squeezed dry by the rich.

They can accept the law, as they stand. Push them to absurdity and reveal them for what they are. They can strip naked, walk out before before their fellows, and leave the creditors and the whole economic edifice they represent stark naked.

Part 4 – Video Recording here.

Jesus‘s third example. If any one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one-mile, carry it two. This example is drawn from the relatively enlightened practice of limiting to a single mile the amount of forced or oppressed labor, that Roman soldiers could levy on subject peoples. The Angaria. The Angeria said that soldiers had the right to force civilians to carry their pack, but reassuming after one mile.

Such compulsory service was a constant feature from Persian to late Roman times. Whoever was found on the street could be coerced into service, as was Simon of Cyrene. He was forced to carry Jesus’s cross. That was the Angeria. Armies had to be moved with dispatch. Ranking legionaires bought slaves or donkeys to carry their packs, some sixty to eighty five pounds, not including weapons. The majority of the rank-and-file, however, had to depend on impressed civilians. Whole villages sometimes fled in order to avoid being forced to carry soldier‘s baggage.

Well we’ve overlooked in this passage is the fact that, carrying the packages a second mile is an infraction of military code. With few exceptions, minor infractions were left to the Disciplinary control of the Centurion. He was the head of 100 men. He might find the offending soldier, he‘ll flog him or put him on a ration of barley instead of wheat, or make him camp outside the fortifications, or force him to stand all day before the general …., holding a cloud of dirt in his hands or, if the offender was a buddy, issue a mild reprimand.

But the point is that that the soldier does not know what will happen. It’s in this context of Roman military occupation, that Jesus speaks. He does not counsel revolt. One does not befriend the soldier, draw him aside and drive a knife into his ribs. Jesus must surely aware of the futility of armed insurrection against Roman Imperial might. He certainly did nothing to encourage those whose hatred of Rome would soon explode into violence.

But why carry the soldier‘s pack a second mile? Does this not go to the opposite extreme, by aiding and abetting4 the enemy. Not at all! The question here is, as in the two previous instances, how the oppressed can recover the initiative and assert their human dignity. In the situation that cannot for the time being be changed. The rules are Caesar‘s. But how one responds to the rules is God’s. And Caesar has no power over there. Imagine then the soldier‘s surprise, when at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack and the civilian says: „Oh no, let me carry it another mile.“ – „Why would you want to do that? What’s up, dude?“ Normally soldiers have to coerce people to carry their packs, but this dude does so cheerfully and will not stop. Is this a provocation? Is he insulting the Legionnaire‘s strength? Being kind? Trying to get a disciplined for seeming to violate the rules of impressment? Will the civilian file a complaint? Create trouble?

Let‘s go by this one.

Yes! This is the Centurion. Okay. You are the soldier. I am the peasant.

Soldier: „Peasant! Carry my bag! One Mile!“

Peasant: „I got to get back to the field…“

Soldier: „No, you are commanded to do it right now!“

Peasant: „Oh, God …“

Soldier: „Okay, the mile is up! I‘ll have my bag back. Give my bag back!“

(Peasant chats about God, keeps carrying the pack.)

Peasant: „Are you the Centurion?!“

Centurion: „I most certainly am!“

Peasant: „This is my second mile, boss.“

Centurion: „You had this peasant carry your pack two miles?!“

Soldier: „It was a mistake.“

Centurion: „You know what the rules are, here! We are not here to make this peasants sick.“

Peasant: „It‘s all my fault. I started talking to him about Jesus and I got carried away.“

Centurion: „Go back to the field, I don’t want to hear about it.“

Centurion: „We‘ll see you at seven o‘clock and we will decide what your punishment will be.“

Soldier, saluting, signing off.

From a situation of servile impressment, the oppressed have once more seized the initiative. They’ve taken back to the power of choice. They have thrown the soldier off-balance by depriving him of the predictability of his victims response. He has never dealt with such a problem before. Now he must make a decision for which nothing in his previous experience has prepared him. If he has enjoyed feeling superior to the vanquished, he will not enjoy it today. Imagine a Roman infantry man pleading with a Jew to give him back his pack. „Oy, give me back my pack!“ The humor of this scene must have escaped us, but it scarcely had been lost on Jesus. He must have been delighted at the prospect of this discomforting of their oppressors.

Jesus does not encourage Jews to walk the Second Mile, in order to build up merit in heaven, or to be pious or to kill the soldier with kindness. Rather he is helping an oppressed people to find a way to protest and neutralize an onerous5 practice, despised throughout the empire.

He is not giving a non-political message of spiritual world transcendence. No. He is formulating a worldly spirituality, in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of the imperial power can learn to recover their humanity.

One could easily use Jesus‘s advice vindictively. That is why we must not separate it from the command to love enemies, that is integrally connected with it in Matthew and Luke.

But love is not averse to taking the law and using its oppressive momentum to throw the soldier into a region of uncertainty and anxiety, that he has never before known.

Part 5 – Video Recording here.

These three examples then amplify what Jesus means in his thesis statement „Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.“ Instead of two depended? options, ingrained in us by millions of years from threats from the environment and other people – flight or fight – Jesus offers a third way.

This new way marks a historic mutation in human development. The revolt against the principle of natural selection. With Jesus a way emerges by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored.

It’s too bad that Jesus did not provide 15 or 20 further role plays. so we don’t have Since we do not tend naturally to this response to those things. But you know, Gene Shark, one of the great writers in the area of non-violence has 598 non-violent types of action, under which many, many listings.

To those whose lifelong pattern has been to cringe before their masters, Jesus offers a way to liberate themselves from servile actions and the servile mentality and he asserts that they can do this before there is a revolution. There’s no need to wait till Rome is defeated, slaves are free peasants of land. They can begin to behave with dignity and recovered humanity now, even under the unchanged conditions of the old order.

Jesus‘s sense of divine immediacy has social implications. The reign of God is already breaking into the world and it comes not as an imposition from on high, but as the lemons slowly causing the dough to rise, as in Jesus’s parable of the leaven. Jesus‘s teaching on nonviolence is thus integral to his proclamation of the dawning of the reign of God. here was indeed a way to resist the powers that be without being made over into their likeness.

Jesus did not endorse armed revolution. It is not hard to see why. In the conditions of first century Palestine, violent revolution against the Romans proved catastrophic. But it didn’t lay the foundations for a social revolution. And a social revolution becomes political when it reaches a threshold a critical threshold of acceptance. This in fact did happen to the Roman Empire, as the Christian Church overcame it from below and was in turn overcame by the Roman Empire from above, in the form of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor. Nor were peasants and slaves in a position to transform the economic system by frontal assault, but they could begin to act from an already recovered dignity and freedom. They could create within the shell of the old society the foundations of God’s domination free order. They can begin living as if the reign of God was already arrived. This this is not pie in the sky idealism. It was literally enacted in Poland, when in 1980 the labor union Solidarity was organized in defiance of the communist regime. After a year and a half Solidarity was declared illegal and martial law was imposed. Solidarity appeared to have disappeared altogether, but in fact it had gone underground, with his own universities and secondary schools being held in private homes, poetry readings, concerts, in fact all the elements of a dynamic society. When the Communists rulers foolishly called a snap election to endorse their rule, Solidarity suddenly reappeared and won all 98 contested seats in parlament. They had not been destroyed. Rather they had built by nonviolent means a democratic shell within the shell of the old decrepit rule.

To an oppressed people Jesus is saying: Do not continue to acquiesce in your oppression by the powers, but do not react violently to them either. Rather find that third way, a way that is neither submission nor assault, neither flight nor fight, a way that can secure your human dignity and begin to change the power equation, even now, before the revolution. Turn your cheek, thus indicating to the one who backhands you, that attempts to shame you into servility, have failed. Strip naked and parade out of court, thus taking the momentum of the law and the whole debt economy and flipping them, Aikido like, in the burlesque of legality. Walk a second mile, surprising the Occupational by placing them in jeopardy with their superiors. In short, take the law and push it to the point of absurdity. These are of course not rules to be followed legalistic, but examples to spark an infinite variety of creative responses in new and changing circumstances. They break the cycle of humiliation with humor and even ridicule, exposing the injustice of the system. They recover for the poor a modicum of initiative that can force the oppressors to see them in a new light. Jesus is not by advocating nonviolence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a just means of opposing the enemy in a way that holds open the possibility of the enemy’s becoming just also. If possible we want both sides to win. This is necessary, since we will usually have to live with our opponents after the conflict is over, as in South-Africa.

We are summoned to pray for our enemies‘ transformation and respond to ill treatment with love. The logic of Jesus examples in Matthew goes beyond both inaction and overreaction to a new response. fired in the crucible of love that promises to liberate the oppressed from evil even as it frees the oppressor from sin.

Do not react violently to evil. Do not counter evil in kind. Do not let evil dictate the terms of your opposition. Do not let violence lead you to mirror your own. Don’t become the very thing you hate.

This forms the revolutionary principle, that Jesus articulates as the basis for nonviolently engaging the powers. Jesus abhors both passivity and violence. He articulates out of the history of his own people‘s struggles a way by which the oppressor can be resisted without being emulated, and the enemy neutralized without being destroyed. Those who live by Jesus’s words point us to a new way of confronting evil, whose potential for personal and social transformation we are only beginning to grasp today.

Transcript, John Gather 2019

  1. Quote from a page entitled The Difference Between the Geneva and King James Bibles: „The marginal notes throughout the 1560 and 1599 Geneva Bibles questioned the authority of the Catholic Church and any ruling monarchy. That his subjects might question his authority because of this text was a problem for King James I.“ ↩︎
  2. In German „Demütige Ergebung“ ↩︎
  3. Deuteronmy 24,10: „When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, do not go into their house to get what is offered to you as a pledge. 11 Stay outside and let the neighbor to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you. 12 If the neighbor is poor, do not go to sleep with their pledge in your possession. 13 Return their cloak by sunset so that your neighbor may sleep in it. Then they will thank you, and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the Lord your God. ↩︎
  4. German: begünstigen ↩︎
  5. German: bescherlich, lästig ↩︎