**This is part 2 of a 4-part series by Jeriah Bowser. Read part 1 here, and part 3 here**
Jeriah Bowser is a wilderness guide who teaches primitive living skills to people. He writes provocative and progressive articles for The Hampton Institute, and has a propensity for challenging not the status quo, but the avant garde. Anarchist, Satyagrahi, healer, writer, primitivist.
There is a belief in many Eastern spiritual traditions that there exists a “Universal Truth Current” that runs through all living creatures, whether they realize and manifest it or not. In Taoism, it is referred to as the “The Tao” or “The Way.” In Hinduism, it is referred to as “Prana.” Traditional Chinese Buddhism speaks to the “Qi-Gong” or, “Way of Life.” The Japanese folk religion of Shinto can be literally translated into “Way of the Gods.”
The theme continues in the Western, monotheistic religions, as well. Islam literally means “Submission”, which is referring to submitting to “The Way of Allah”. In Hebraic scripture, Yahweh is referred to as “The source of all truth and knowledge.” In the Christian religion, Yeshua is often referred to as “The Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
Whether or not you believe truth is found in many sources or one, there is an undeniable current of common belief that is found in many spiritual traditions. In this conversation we will explore this “Way” through the teachings of Yeshua, the Rabbi whom the religion of Christianity is loosely based off of. Yeshua was a major proponent of this “Way”, and I have found it central to many of his teachings, yet incredibly absent from the current culture and conversation of the American church.
The Third Way
“The Third Way.” A somewhat harmless and obscure phrase, that when fully understood and acted upon, can overthrow the most powerful empires in the world, heal broken relationships and crippled nations, and create entirely new realms of possibilities in seemingly impossible situations. This phrase, and the implications that come with it, drove the British out of India in 1947, created awareness and equality for African-Americans living in the U.S. in the 60’s, brought awareness and reform to the treatment of farm-workers and immigrant-workers in California in the 60’s, was responsible for the overthrow of the Communist party and creation of the current Democratic government of Czechoslovakia during the Velvet Revolution in 1993, and more recently achieved a long sought-after peace in war-torn Liberia, after a 14 year civil war.
Yeshua spoke directly to this action in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 5, verses 38-42:
“You have heard that it was said ’Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also”
Theologian and author Walter Wink has provided an incredible perspective into this teaching that I will paraphrase from. Wink suggests, and I have found the same to be true, that Yeshua is not at all advocating “pacifism” or inaction. Neither is he suggesting that we respond in like with aggression or resistance. Instead, he is introducing a “Third Way”, that transcends the two obvious options of passivity and resistance and yet is still extremely empowering and influential. Confused? Lets provide some context.
In the Jewish culture that Yeshua lived in, there were not sinks or soap to wash your hands after you “took care of business” or dealt with any unpleasant tasks. Therefore, you commonly used your left hand for “unclean” things, and your right hand for “clean” things, such as eating or shaking hands (ever curious why we shake hands with our right hand?) Therefore if you were to slap someone, you would use your right hand, as using your left could get you banished for ten days, or worse. In the context, its assumed that Yeshua was referring to a backhand slap, a slap that was meant to degrade, humiliate, and insult someone. The act of turning to face your assailant who just backhanded you, in the Jewish context of the day, was to effectually say, “I will not let you destroy my equality and I will not let you degrade my humanity. If you will slap me, you will do it face to face, as equals, and you will have to look me in the eyes and see my passionate resolve to love you in face of your actions.” This attitude, if done with the right motive, can completely cripple someone who is used to the reactions of either anger or fear. It puts you, the oppressed, in a position of power and forgiveness, and puts the oppressor in a position of shame and naked humanity. It is love in action. It is the third way.
In the very next sentence, as recorded by Matthew, Yeshua provides another example of this Way.
“And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”
Again, lets provide some context. First off, the word here for “coat” is the Hebrew word, “kaftan.” A kaftan was a common garment of the poor, a long piece of cloth that is wrapped around your body, essentially an undergarment. In Jewish law (Deuteronomy 24:10-13), a person who is being sued could have everything taken from them but their undergarments. This was an action only used against poor and marginalized people, who were unable to defend themselves from the power-brokers of the day. Nakedness was (and is) extremely shameful in Jewish culture, and would be very sensational. The act of stripping naked and handing all of your clothes to someone who is suing you would be an act of extreme humility, boldness, and shame, although the shame would be on the person suing. It is to effectually say, “If you are sick enough to sue me for my few possessions I have to satiate your capitalist greed, then I will show you that my possessions don’t matter that much to me. You can have my house, my retirement fund, my car, my clothes, even my underwear. But you cannot my humanity or my dignity.” Again, the incredibly powerful and creative imagination of the third way.
Yeshua leaves us with a final example in his next comment, which speaks directly to the largely Jewish crowd he was addressing.
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”
To first century Jews living under Roman occupation, this was a very familiar scenario. Roman law stated that a Roman soldier could command a civilian to carry his gear (clothes, food, etc.) for a mile, but no further. This way the Roman government could keep their troops more mobile and it constantly reminded the Jews that they were subjects of the Roman empire. It was an embarrassing and inconvenient task which they were regularly subjected to, and one that had much emotion around it. Instead of either refusing (which many did, and suffered a beating or arrest) or cowering in fear and silent hatred, Yeshua offers a third option: carry the soldiers gear for longer than the law requires. Such an action would likely bring an opportunity for conversation between the soldier and civilian, a chance to build bridges of love rather than hate. This action puts the oppressed in the position of power and love, by choosing to carry this heavy gear not because they are supposed to, but because they want to.
It’s incredible how much truth is revealed from a mere four sentences of Yeshua’s teaching! Yeshua is talking about creating a third option to deal with oppression and violence that is neither reactive nor retreating, neither fight nor flight. He isn’t even providing good strategies for “dealing with evil”, because He is completely redefining evil! If you can look in the eyes of someone who just slapped you, a banker who is taking the last of everything you own, or an occupying soldier who is forcing you to work for him and see not an enemy to be resisted, but a brother or sister who is hurt, scared, confused, and needing love, then there is no longer “me” against “them”. It becomes “we”, who are struggling to figure out this wacky puzzle called humanity.
How do we carry out the actions of this third way? How does one learn to manifest this powerful love in everyday speech and actions? What about defending my family or weaker people from oppressors? What about war? Excellent questions, and ones that you should ask yourself and your friends and spiritual communities. Next week I will attempt to provide some insight into these questions that I have learned and experienced in my life.
For now, I leave you with a poem by a third grader in Chicago, who wrote this during a scavenger hunt for peace, in 2010.
Make Things Right
We don’t have to solve problems with violence
We don’t have to fight. All we have to do is reunite
Violence gets you nowhere in life
Dinner is the only time you use a knife
Kids have the power to make things right.
--- Jeriah Bowser ---