The principles of Jesus are layered with a cultural context as well as a personal and social ordering application. His life and actions embody each of these aesthetic principles.
Turn the Other Cheek
Jesus introduces this principle while addressing the oppression the Jews of his time faced. It was not concerned primarily with personal injury but rather personal shame as caused by the abuse of power. The principle is a proactive nonviolent resistance that turns the tables on power structures of insult and shame. By going the extra mile, stripping naked from your tunic, and offering your other cheek, you refuse to acknowledge the power of evil and thus allow it to collapse it on the weight of its own shame.
Turn the other cheek is about not repaying evil with violence. It’s about stopping the generational cycles of vengeance that plague communities of persons not imitating Jesus. If it applies to the evil of oppressive structures, how much more does it apply to our common neighbors’ nonviolent vices. Do not repay their ___ evil with violence.
Using defensive force to protect victims against actual violent crimes is not violence. It is true law that honors victims by protecting them from acts of aggression. However, any use of the law to violently stop nonviolent behaviors only creates a cascade of more violence and antisocial resentment.
Drug cartels, greedy businessmen, racial bullies, violent pimps can all be systematically defeated as their quest for power devours itself when we allow it to collapse under the weight of competitive pressures and a lawful order that brings to the light of justice those who initiate aggression through theft and assault.
Drop the First Stone
Humans tend to act against their better nature in groupthink. This applies to voting and jury decisions that use violent force against nonviolent behaviors. Jesus confronted a crowd ready to stone a woman caught in the nonviolent act of adultery. Adultery causes much more social decay and unrest than heroin or selling raw milk. Jesus knew the woman’s life was sacred and must be seen by the persons succumbing to crowd think. Just like the modern voter who secretly casts his ballot, every member of that crowd was blind to the personal responsibility of the violence they were about to initiate.
Jesus dismantled the crowd-mind that obscures our responsibility for violence by asking the crowd essentially, who among you will cast the first stone? This immediately drew attention to the stone each one held in their hand. It was much easier for them to throw it at the woman in the safe anonymity of the crowd. But by calling each person out of the group haze, Jesus reversed their kneejerk imitation of violence into an imitation of nonviolence. Each person, starting with the older men, threw down their stones and walked away.
We must realize as Christians in the ballot booth and jury box that we are responsible for the stone in our hand—no matter how many people appear to be joining us in the violent aggression against a nonviolent person. By recognizing the violence we are hiring politicians to carry out with laws against nonviolent vices, we can drop our stone in the jury box or voting process and thereby cause others around us to imitate our nonviolence.
Take up your cross
Jesus said “Take up your cross” to follow him. That means for Christians we don’t get to crucify others for behaviors we find gross or shameful. We have to sacrifice the fear of our neighbors’ freedom to fail rather than violently sacrifice our neighbors. Expanding on the turn the other cheek principle, taking up your cross also means being willing to suffer persecution from ruling authorities.
We must be above reproach by obeying all laws, unjust or just. The only exception is for laws that would require us to personally participate in violence against our neighbors.
Get Behind Me Satan
Peter sees Jesus’s ministry is striking a chord with the Jewish people, especially the marginalized and exploited. He knows there is a popular movement in the making that could fulfill their longing for a violent revolt against their violent corrupt leaders. When Peter hears Jesus say he will be handed over and murdered by the authorities, he says let it never be. Jesus rebukes him, “Get behind me, Satan!”
The word for Satan is “Accuser,” like an antagonistic prosecutor. Jesus is saying Peter’s resistance to the cross is a temptation for power. He is saying Peter is accusing him of having the same worldly, power-makes-right, violence-based ethic with which Peter struggles. If Jesus gives into the temptation, Peter and him will be locked in the same old scandal of two well-meaning violence-affirming revolutionaries that only produce more violence.
We see oppression, economic injustice, poverty, illness, and corruption all around us. We must tell political movements whether from establishment politicians or revolutionary activists to “Get behind me, Satan” when they tempt us with the use of violence to balance the scale of justice.
“Just this one law, to get revenge on their history of sins,” the temptation whispers. But we must get behind it in our personal and civic lives.
Walk on Water
This ecstatic story has Jesus walking on water in the midst of a storm. Jesus’s act is a subversive act of political theater as he uses the Sea of Tiberius—named after the Roman emperor—as his carpet.
Jesus tells Peter to get out of the boat and walk with him. Peter does, but looks down at the raging waters, and sinks. Jesus saves him from drowning.
Many Christians hear the teachings of Jesus and conclude that since they are not Jesus they’ll try here and there but won’t fully imitate his life in everything they do. In the context of the story, they will not even get out of the boat. They are more content to stay fearfully in the boat in awe of Jesus but not interested in doing exactly as he does. In this way, they make Jesus a museum-piece God: one that can be objectified as a ticket into a social status or experience without actually imitating his actions.
The storm of our society can be daunting. The suffering and confusion and strife can feel overwhelming as we see it rage all around us. But all we must do is imitate Jesus. The storm can be walked on. Duty is ours. Results are God’s.
Dying by the Sword
Peter takes out a sword and stabs the High Priest’s chief servant. Notice that the servant is a mirror double of Peter. Peter is the chief follower of his own priest Jesus: one who washes the feet of his followers and refuses violence-based domination of the official High Priest of his community.
By trying to kill the High Priest’s servant, he is performatively killing his own soul by imitating the very power about to murder Jesus. That’s why the text points out that he slices the servant’s ear. In resisting with violence, Peter cannot hear Jesus just like his mirror chief servant graphically embodies.
Jesus tells Peter those who live by the sword die by the sword.
This does not mean we cannot use force to subdue a man assaulting an elderly lady down the street and by extension, create laws against violence.
Rather, it means to imitate Jesus is to understand that the Kingdom comes from nonviolent mercy, not violent domination. This applies to the way we treat our neighbors victimized by chaotic laws against nonviolent behaviors. It also applies to those in state and corporate power. We cannot defeat them by imitating their violent perogatives and ethos. Only embodying joyful nonviolent love can overcome the world.