7th Sunday after Epiphany: WWJD?
By: Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram
Alright, Millennial pastors, I’m talking to you for a minute. Do you remember those cool bracelets we used to wear that said “WWJD?” They came in so many colors that many Christians collected them. There was also an ongoing debate over which way the imposing question was to face on one’s wrist. Did you face it so that you were asking yourself every day “What Would Jesus Do?” or was it meant to be an evangelical tool to ask others that saw it to consider their own actions in light of what Jesus would do. While I remember this treasure of evangelical culture, I have fewer memories of what it meant to actually discern what Jesus would do in each moment. That part was much more difficult. After all, my biggest life stressors were school, love, parents, and part-time sandwich shop work—and the Bible didn’t talk about my specific problems as much as I wished at the time it would have.
Matthew 5 is a glimpse though, of what Jesus would do. The problem is that for readers in the 21st century, it’s still not very clear what Jesus would have us do. In fact, it kind of seems like Jesus wouldn’t do anything at all. It seems like Jesus would let a person slap him twice instead of just once and wind up naked when someone takes his clothes. This seeming inaction by Jesus sets some Christians on edge. Those who argue against pacifism say that we can’t afford to just sit back and take it like Jesus would. In that case, WWJD is understood as naive idealism that does not actually have a word for us in the 21st century amidst higher tech and more efficient forms of violence and oppression.
The historical context of Jesus’s response to violence, however, paints a different picture. Scholars suggest that for someone to slap another on the right cheek, it would have likely been a backhanded slap reserved for people considered to be of lower status. So when Jesus challenges his audience to turn the other cheek, he is encouraging a subversive act that equalizes the status of the two people. Giving a person who took a coat a person’s cloak, too, would likely embarrass the person who took the coat because without a cloak, the subversive act is standing nearly naked in a culture in which modesty is important. Walking an extra mile breaks the rule that Roman soldiers had which limited their ability to demand someone carry their pack to a single mile. So the early edicts of this passage are not about inaction at all, but instead, Jesus is modeling strategic resistance to oppression that demands action.
During the second part of this passage, Jesus continues to push his audience by admitting the revolutionary nature of these demands. Here, Jesus ensures that his message is political, meaning more than the self, and not just personal. He doesn’t suggest simply that if your brother punches you in the leg, you self-righteously give him your other leg to punch, knowing that in the end you both are on the same team anyway. It is easy, after all, to love those that you’re already in community with. Jesus explicitly explains that his challenge is not limited to the realm of family and friends, but that it includes enemies and those we do not want to have a connection with. This is what makes it political—its import in social relationships.
While Jesus’s specific advice does not easily translate to 21st century living, his call to act strategically and intentionally does. His model of culturally-informed direct action has influenced Christian social justice leaders and continues to inspire those who seek social justice today. Two weeks ago, I attended a meeting of Denver’s young chapter of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a network for faith and community organizations that seek to come together to collect political power that is broad-based rather than issue-specific. The IAF model asserts that the power created by institutions working together in a community is far greater and fuller of lasting potential than groups of individuals that gather for the purpose of simply addressing one single issue, as in the latter case, the group would likely disband after its objectives were met. There is a clear privileging of the belief that what people and groups do together for the long run is better than what they can do in isolation at singular moments. This group has prioritized strategy over emotion, committing together to collect power and use it to transform injustice and oppression.
When I consider the second half of Matthew 5 in light of my participation with IAF, I see a call for smart, strategic action in the face of injustice. I see a vision of Jesus that calls me to live like this not just in my interpersonal relationships, but in my engagement with my so-called enemies, or in my current context, those that hold power on the national and global stage that are threatening the lives, security, and well-being of marginalized folks.
I also see a vision that seems too difficult to manage on my own. Even though Jesus points out that even the tax collectors love those who love them, it’s not always easy to love our friends and family. So when Jesus insists that we also love our enemies, this burden seems too much. It is almost salt in the wound that Jesus ends his call with, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I know I cannot be perfect. Yet perhaps Jesus isn’t simply ending his call with a shaming tactic, but with an encouragement that the hard work his challenge takes is worth it. We are actually called to live differently than the world around us because we are called to live as God would. WWJD?
Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram has a PhD from Iliff School of Theology and is approved for ordination pending call in the United Church of Christ. She currently resides in Denver, Colorado, where she is an adjunct faculty member at Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver.