I have been using Walter Wink’s article, “Neither Passivity nor Violence: Jesus’s Third Way” during the first week of my Introduction to Christian Ethics class for more than ten years now. I am an ethicist, not a biblical scholar, but share some of the concerns that Kevin Carnahan lays out about Wink’s exegesis. Nevertheless, I have found the piece to be exceptionally useful for several pedagogical purposes.
Some of my students come to this core course never having opened a Bible. Many have a preconceived notion of the Bible as a sort of rule book, and Christian ethics as the study and application of those rules. Even those who have had some exposure to the Bible rarely have a full sense of the Bible as a document that emerged through historical processes and requires thoughtful and conscious interpretive choices. Before we can begin to talk about how the Bible is (or is not) used in Christian ethics, I must first begin to complicate their understanding of scripture. Wink’s interpretation proves very helpful for this—it may be even more accessible for undergraduates because his exegesis is not as careful as we might like.
In sixteen pages, Wink draws on an array of historical-critical exegetical techniques to build his case that Jesus was offering first-century Palestinian Jews a vision of creative nonviolent resistance to Roman oppression. Wink compares Matthew 4:38-42 with Luke 6:29-30, offering arguments about how each writer redacted his source material. As we unpack Wink’s article, my students gain a sense of the biblical text as generated within and between historical communities of faith and over time. We can see how choices made by the authors and redactors may reflect the needs of the redactor’s own communities, and how these choices can influence how the text is received and interpreted today.
As Kevin notes, Wink combines an argument about the cultural meaning of a punch versus a backhand slap with a discussion of the mechanics of striking someone’s face to argue that “turning the other cheek” signified a declaration of equality: if I turn my cheek, you must punch me rather than backhand me, and thereby proclaim me an equal. Does this interpretation seem a stretch? Yes, but it also provides a vivid illustration of the ways in which culturally specific meanings shape the meaning of ancient texts. Wink draws on Roman law codes about impressed labor to construct his argument about Jesus’s admonition to “go the extra mile,” offering another example of how the Gospel texts are shaped by historical context.
Wink’s interpretation of “give the additional garment” provides context from the Hebrew law code provisions against taking someone’s garment in pledge. This intertextual moment helps students to see that the scriptures themselves are layered: later texts are shaped by and interpret earlier biblical texts. Wink’s reference to Exodus and Deuteronomy also illustrates something that can take a very long time to sink in for many students: Jesus was Jewish, his followers were Jewish, and Jesus’s Jewishness matters when we appropriate New Testament texts in the contemporary context.
Finally, Wink’s argument about the meaning of the Greek word antistenai (he argues that instead of “do not resist” it should be translated as “do not resist with violence”) is based on a survey of all places in scripture where the word is used. Students see an example of the ways in which context shapes the meaning of words. Wink also argues that biblical translators often preferred the “don’t resist at all” translation to the “resist, but not violently” translation, because they did not want to invite any sort of revolution. Whether or not Wink is correct that this specific translation was a conscious choice by translators in service to the powerful, my students quickly agree that translations can be political.
Once we have worked through the various exegetical techniques that Wink uses to construct his argument, the students have a direct experience of thinking about a biblical text as historically generated, and the complexities of appropriating such an ancient text in the contemporary world. Then we can ask some larger questions.
First, I ask the students, what do you think of this picture of Jesus? Do you like this Jesus? Many students like Wink’s Nonviolently Resistant Jesus and prefer this Jesus to the Jesus they learned about via religious education or the broader culture, but some usually object. Jesus was about sacrifice, not resistance, some say. Others reject the notion that Jesus was concerned with the politics of this world. We can discuss why people have different images of Jesus and whether there are good criteria for adopting one image or another. Is our image of Jesus about Jesus? Or is it about us?
I ask whether they think Wink’s exegesis is correct. Many have been completely convinced; they think that Wink has provided very compelling evidence. In the context of the first week of Introduction to Christian Ethics, I do not have time to show competing exegetical arguments (most are far more technical than Wink’s and would not work in the introductory classroom). But now that my students are certain that Wink has hit it out of the park, I can add another layer of complexity and uncertainty by sharing that I have doubts.
Wink’s first-century peasant sounds very post-Enlightenment, at the very least, when (as Wink imagines) he says to a soldier who has struck him, “I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status (gender, race, age, wealth) does not alter that fact.” (105) Wink’s description of the exploited reclaiming their dignity and shaming their oppressors by stripping naked and striding out of court sounds—fanciful, to say the least.
We also talk about Wink’s claim that he has finally, in the late twentieth century, unlocked the key to the text has been misinterpreted from the very beginning (Wink depicts even the Matthean redactor as misunderstanding Jesus’s true meaning!) Is this credible? Probably not, but might this Jesus, “discovered” by Wink, have meaning for us anyway?
I suggest to the students that Wink was able to see this Jesus in the text because of his own engagement in some of the nonviolent resistance movements of the 20thcentury. For Wink, Jesus could not possibly have been a doormat. The Jesus that Wink knew could not be counseling the oppressed to just suck it up and wait for heaven. Thus, Wink went to the text to see if he could find something else. He asked questions that others may not have asked. He may have found some clues that others would never have looked for. As I sum things up, I might even throw something in there about classic texts having a surplus of meaning, able to generate ever more interpretations so that the text can provide meaning to many different communities engaging the text across time and cultures. At this point, perhaps a few literature majors have a vague idea of what I am talking about.
I sometimes wonder whether it is appropriate to teach problematic exegesis to undergraduate students, most of whom will not take additional biblical studies courses. However, for those of us teaching theology and religion, our students generally come to us with problematic understandings of scripture, of Jesus, of religion, and of Christian ethics already. I have often thought of the bulk of my task as a teacher of core Theology courses as helping students to unlearn many of their presuppositions. I would like them to leave my class aware of the complexities of interpretation and less sure that they know what Christianity is, who Jesus was, and what scripture says.
In the end, devoting a week to engaging Wink’s argument sets us up to appreciate the complexity and variety of scriptural interpretations as we discuss varied Christian approaches to the use of force, sexuality, economics, and other issues. It helps to chip away at students’ ahistorical, non-Jewish conception of Jesus. It immerses students in a demonstration of the historicity of religious traditions and sacred texts. And whether we think Jesus was a pacifist or a nonviolent activist, Wink’s piece highlights the early church’s disposition against violence and participation in the government’s use of force, which is based on their own interpretation of Jesus’s commands. It thereby positions us to explore how this disposition altered as the historical fortunes of the church changed.
Walter Wink, “Neither Passivity nor Violence: Jesus’ Third Way (Matt 5:38-42 par.)” in Willard M. Swartley, ed. The Love of Enemy and Nonviolence in the New Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 102-126.