Is Jesus’ Resistance a Thing?

Jesus’ exploration of his reframed spirituality continues with a series of teachings on resistance. This sounds odd for two reasons. One, in the United States we just had four years of liberal “resistance” revolving around Donald Trump. The other is that most of our Bibles have a translation that is something like, “Do not resist an evildoer.” So let me unpack this a bit.

A Political Jesus

Let me start by saying that the message of Jesus is, at the core, political. This explains why the State executed him. Because of this, my political views flow directly from faith, but not in a White American Evangelical kinda way. I do not have a compulsion to make others believe what I believe or regulate individual morality.

Instead, I focus on broader social structures. I back candidates whose policies are most in alignment with the Kingdom of God. Do they have a meek anger when it comes to injustice? Is their approach restorative rather than retributive? Do they make decisions on what helps everyone thrive, or do they engage in a mix of justifying bad policy and pandering to certain voting blocks?

Given this, I pay far more attention to policy positions on things like economics or national security, than party affiliation. I also focus on a candidate’s overall philosophy on how we continue the pursuit of “a more perfect Union.” This lets me know if they are operating based on a spirit of power or love. Now, I do not believe the conclusions I come to are the only options, but I do push for consistency from myself and others.

This is why, to date, I have never registered with a political party. As I see it, neither party is interested in things like meekness, mercy,  and peacemaking. On the contrary, I see them actively working against these things.

Does Jesus invite resistance? If so, how is it different?
Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Behind Liberal “Resistance”

This perspective puts me at odds with American political discourse. To explain why, we need to jump back forty years and the campaign of Ronald Reagan. Reagan basically had a three-part platform:

If we leap forward to 1992 and the campaign of Bill Clinton, he also had a three part-platform:

  • an economic policy based on tax cuts and deregulation
  • a peace plan based on global military might and tough on crime legislation
  • the culture war, based on the rights of historically marginalized groups

These two basic platforms hold not just for Reagan and Clinton, but the two Bushes. Obama and Trump campaigned on a different economic platforms and a promise to end foreign wars, but largely fell in line once in office.

Sure they have different ideas on how thriving business will make things better for everybody. Or they might focus on peacekeeping missions over war. But in the end, the results are largely the same. Even the recent $1.9 trillion recovery plan, while offering zero benefit to corporations and the ultra-wealthy, is just a token gesture to sustain people rather than moving towards an economy that works for everyone.

Not only does this mean both parties broadly operate according to a spirit of power, but the fundamental difference between them is the culture war. And the culture war is nothing more than a distraction that keeps everyday people divided and bickering as the powerful exploit them.

Jumping back to my opening point, the Trump Resistance was fundamentally a part of this culture war. So if Jesus does in fact invite resistance, that is not what it looks like. In that setting, if the Church acted as the light of the world, it would expose the culture war, not participate in it.

Resistance vs. Do Not Resist

So how about the other reason Jesus’ resistance sounds odd? What should we make of Jesus’ line, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer” (Matthew 5:38–39, NRSV).

Historic interpretation presents passivity as the alternative to resistance. The Greek word for resist literal means, “stand against.” So at a surface level, this seems accurate. However, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the word resist refers to two armies marching up to one another, taking a stand, and fighting to the death. If they resist anything, it is the urge to run away. This means familiar usage does not point to passivity, but countering violence with violence.

While passivity certainly remains an option, popular usage further closes the door on redemptive violence. It also invites another possibility, active nonviolent resistance. So is Jesus calling for passivity or is he just calling his followers to not, as the rest of the New Testament admonishes, repay evil with evil?

To find our answer we need to delve into Jesus’ examples. What does Jesus mean when he says, “Turn the other cheek?” How about when he tells his follower to give not just their tunic but their cloak? Finally, why does he call his followers to walk the extra mile? Are each of these examples of passivity or are they acts of resistance in a culture foreign to us? That is where we turn next.

The Series

This post is part of an ongoing series. Link here for a list of every episode in this series.

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