Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Spiritual Discipline of Nonviolence

There are definite ethical concerns tied up with Matthew's infamous injunction: "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Mt 5:38-39). If read as a moral absolute, this form of non-violence may not adequately speak to the complexities of mass slaughter or genocidal brutality, in which more is required than a defenseless turning - I shall leave that discussion to another time. On a more daily basis, in our interactions with others, I have found this moral principle to be both effective, cathartic and spiritually grounding. What does it mean to affirm someone's inherent worth in the face of offensive or hurtful behavior?

In the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, we come across an adaptation of this ethical truism:

ਜੋ ਤੈ ਮਾਰਨਿ ਮੁਕੀਆਂ ਤਿਨ੍ਹ੍ਹਾ ਨ ਮਾਰੇ ਘੁੰਮਿ ॥
Do not turn around and strike those who strike you with their fists.
ਆਪਨੜੈ ਘਰਿ ਜਾਈਐ ਪੈਰ ਤਿਨ੍ਹ੍ਹਾ ਦੇ ਚੁੰਮਿ ॥
Kiss their feet, and return to your own home.

[Pannaa 1378]

This commandment radicalizes that of Jesus' in the way of reverence. It focuses less on what is given (later in Mt and Lk, a tunic) or received (a subsequent blow), and more on the disposition that is cultivated in the practice of returning home. The act of kissing another's feet (reminiscent, perhaps, of John's account of the foot-washing, 13:1-15) mirrors in Sikh tradition the appropriate demonstration of reverence for the Lotus feet of the Satguru: e.g. "I take the Support of the Lord's Lotus Feet; there is no other place of rest for me" (Pannaa 46). In a very real sense, then, this exhortation deferentially affirms the dignity of personhood. Just as a radiant lotus flower bursts out of the murky swamp, so too an individual's humanity shines through destructive deeds.

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The Eclectic Cleric said...

Walter Wink has a very insightful exegesis of these particular passages, which I've often seen repeated elsewhere. To be struck on the right cheek is to be struck with the back of the (right) hand, a blow which a privileged oppressor would use to strike a slave or a subordinate. By offering the other check as well, the victim is essentially challenging his oppressor to strike him again with his fist -- which in effect is an assertion of the victim's status as an "equal." Similarly with "the shirt off his back." Most 1st century peasants basically only owned two garments -- their heavier cloak, which they also used as a blanket for sleeping (hence the prohibition about keeping a debtor's cloak overnight) and then their "shirt" -- which they wore to cover the rest of their body during normal waking hours. Thus when a creditor asks for your cloak (as security for a loan, like leaving your driver's license when you rent a piece of equipment) and you offer him your shirt as well, you are essentially threatening to walk out of his house naked, thus shaming him for having asked for your cloak in the first place.

Just something to think about. The footwashing in my mind has a very different context altogether -- it's both a demonstration of what we today are calling "radical hospitality," as well as an illustration of servant leadership, and that "the last shall be first and the first shall be last."

Erik Resly said...

Fascinating! Thanks for sharing.