D&C 98: How to take the heat

After covering some of the first issues addressed in section 98, we spent some time likening the situation the Saints faced in Missouri to real situations faced by youth today.  To do this, we spent about 20 minutes reading from the 11th chapter of Church History in the Fulness of Times dealing with the Saints being expelled from Jackson County, Missouri.  I have attached this chapter in an easy to read verse by verse format here:Expulsion from Jackson County

After we covered this historical data, we likened ourselves to this situation and examined what the Lord taught the Saints in Missouri in D&C 98:23-40.  Several students shared experiences of when they were bullied at school or in other places by someone older than them.  We talked about how we handled such situations.  One experience that happened many years ago to someone I know involved a young boy delivering newspapers when he was 12 years old.  

The Datsun B210 - an instrument of torture!

This young man was attacked on his paper route by another young man who, although he was only 14 years old, was driving his car after school.  The car has been etched into the memory of this boy forever as it was the tool used to torture the young lad.  A yellow or green (he isn’t sure because he was color blind)Datsun B210 approached the young paper boy with blinding speed, aimed right for the paperboy’s Schwinn bicycle! 

This image is forever etched in the memory of the paperboy!

The boy quickly moved his bike out of the way of the oncoming car, only to then be physically attacked by the older, bigger bully. This would happen for weeks at a time.  Whenever the older boy wanted to have some fun, he would drive around looking for the young paperboy and drive him off the road, only to then punch and kick him while he was down.  This boy never found out why he was the victim of these attacks, only that one day he would seek revenge.

Well, one day he found retribution.  The paperboy had grown a little taller, and was now 14 years old.  The bully, in his 16th year, still drove the Datsun B210, only now he was of legal age to drive.  Before the young boy was to leave his home state for the summer, he plotted his revenge.  He would desecrate the Datsun B210 by placing a substance inside the car so foul, that no human would ever want to drive it ever again!  Today I am certain that car met an early retirement!

I bet it looks like this now!

Now while this story illustrates the plight of the oppressed, how this young fellow handled the situation is not a good example of how to handle a bully.  Many of the Saints in Missouri had to struggle with their desire to make things fair while being forced to leave their homes.  It seems as if no solution could be found.  By illustrating the predicament in this way, with a situation all of the students could relate to, we were ready as a class to really dig into this section and understand what the Lord would have us do in these types of situations.

We also discussed when it is okay to defend ourselves and when it is not- after examining the Lord’s counsel in this section, we also looked at a couple of scriptures in the Book of Mormon- Alma 46:12 and Alma 43:45-47.  Alma 46:12 examines when self defense is acceptable and Alma 43:45-47 warns against what is sometimes called “being a second striker”.  

When children get in a fight, it is common to ask who started the confrontation.  In Alma 43:45-47 we are told that “inasmuch as ye are not guilty of the first offense, neither the second, ye shall not suffer yourselves to be slain by the hands of your enemies.”  If I strike back – if I return violence for violence, then we both deserve each other.  A great statement of principle might look like this: if I deal with confrontation the Lord’s way, I receive the Lord’s help; if I do it my way, I am on my own.  This is one of the messages of section 98.  

This section of the Doctrine and Covenants reminds us of another place where Jesus taught his followers how to resist oppression.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used the phrase, “turn the other cheek”.  This teaching has often been used incorrectly to teach that we are to be doormats.  I do not believe this is what Jesus meant when he said this.  The following illustrates another view of this verse which, in my opinion, more accurately portrays the meaning of this very important teaching on how to handle oppressive situations in mortality. 

Jesus on Nonviolence

But the Gospel does not teach nonresistance to evil.  The Greek word translated as “resist” in Matt. 5:39 (“Do not resist one who it evil”) is antistenai, meaning literally to stand (stenai) against (anti).  The translation, “resist”, creates the impression that only two alternatives exist, resistance and nonresistance.   Since Jesus clearly forbids resistance, nonresistance alone remains.  What this has frequently meant in practice is passivity, withdrawal, submissiveness in the face of evil, an unwillingness to stand up for one’s rights or the rights of others, and supine cowardice.

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 (44 out of 71 times).  “Stand against” referred to the practice of marching one’s army up usage characterizes Josephus’ use of the word (15 out of 17 times.)  Ephesians 6:13 reflects precisely this imagery: “Therefore take up 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).  The image is not of a punch-drunk boxer somehow managing to stay on his feet, but of standing one’s ground, keeping ranks, refusing to flee.  

Jesus is not, therefore, telling us to capitulate to evil, but rather to refuse to oppose it on its own terms.  He is urging us to avoid mirroring evil, to refuse to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition.  The correct translation would be the one still preserved in the earliest version of this saying: “Do not repay evil for evil.”  The Scholars Bible brilliantly renders the phrase, “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.”

The examples that follow confirm this reading.  “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  Readers generally imagine this as a blow with the right fist.   But such a blow would fall on the left cheek.  To hit the right cheek with a fist would require the left hand.  But the left hand was reserved only for unclean tasks; at Qumran, even to gesture with the left hand meant exclusion from the meeting and penance for ten days.  The only conceivable blow is a right-handed backhand.  The backhand was not a blow to injure, but insult, humiliate, degrade.  It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior.  Masters backhanded slaves; husband, wives; parents, children; Roman, Jews.  The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into his or her normal social station. 

Notice Jesus’ audience: “ If anyone strikes you.”  These are people used to being degraded. He is saying to them, “Refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore.  It they backhanded you, turn the other cheek.”  By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again.  The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals have fistfights, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality.  Logistically, the superior is deprived of any way to make his point.  The servant has irrevocably conveyed the message: I am not a “thing.”  I am a human being, and nothing you do from now on can deprive me of that status.  I refuse to be humiliated any longer.  I am your equal.  I am a child of God.     

Such defiance is no way to avoid trouble.  Meek acquiescence is what the master wants.  Such “cheeky” behavior may call down a flogging or worse.  But the defiance has had its effect.  The Powers That Be have lost their power to make this person submit.  And when large numbers begin behaving thus (and Jesus was addressing a crowd), you have the makings of a social revolution. 

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

One could easily misuse Jesus’ advice vindictively; that is why it must not be separated from the command to love one’s enemies integrally connected with it in both 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 where he has never been before. 

To those whose lifelong pattern has been to cringe before their masters, Jesus offers a way to liberate themselves from servile actions and a servile mentality.  And he asserts that they can do this before there is a revolution.  There is no need to wait until Rome has been defeated, or peasants are landed and slaves freed.  They can begin to behave with dignity and recovered humanity now, even under the unchanged conditions of the old order.  Jesus’ 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 leaven slowly causing the dough to rise.  Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence is thus of a piece with his proclamation of the dawning of the reign of God. 

In the conditions of first-century Palestine, a political revolution against the Romans could only be catastrophic, as the events of 66-70 C.E. would prove, Jesus does not propose armed revolution.  But he does lay the foundations for a social revolution, as Richard A. Horsley has pointed out.  And a social revolution becomes political when it reaches a critical threshold of acceptance; this in fact did happen to the Roman empire as the Christian church subverted it from below. 

The logic of Jesus’ examples in Matthew 5:39b-41 goes beyond both inaction and overreaction, capitulation and murderous counterviolence, to a new response, fired in the crucible of love, that promises to liberate the oppressed from evil 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 draw you into mimetic rivalry”-this is the revolutionary principle, recognized from earliest times, that Jesus articulates as the basis for nonviolently engaging the Powers. 

From a situation of powerlessness, Jesus in all three examples shows his hearers how to take command of the situation, using the momentum of the system to throw it, judo-like.  This is not “nonresistance” to evil.  It is active nonviolence.  It is not passivity.  It is proactive, aggressive, and courageous. 

Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence forms the charter for a way of being in the world that breaks the spiral of violence.  Jesus here reveals a way to fight evil with all our power without being transformed into the very evil we fight.  It is a way-the only way possible-of not becoming what we hate.  “Do not counter evil in kind”-this insight is the distilled essence, stated with sublime simplicity, of the experience of those Jews who had, in Jesus’ very lifetime, so courageously and effectively practiced nonviolent direct action against Rome. 

Jesus, in short, abhors both passivity and violence.  He articulates, out of the history of his own people’s struggles, a way by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored, the oppressor resisted without being emulated, and the enemy neutralized without being destroyed.  Those who have lived the nonviolent way-Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Heschel, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez,  Adolpho Perez Esquivel-point us to a new way of confronting evil whose potential for personal and social transformation we are only beginning to grasp today. (Walter Wink, Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Religion, p. 286-288, edited by Daniel K Judd)

About LDS Scripture Teachings

I write about ways scripture applies in our lives: LDSScriptureTeachings.org
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