Jesus did not merely advocate some theoretical form of nonviolent strategy. He offered specific resistance tactics that the poor could use against the ruling class and the Roman occupiers.
The late Quaker radical Walter Wink explores these in more detail, but they are worth restating here:
Turn the other cheek – It has been assumed by many that what Jesus is advocating in this teaching is the passive acceptance of violence or injustice. Quite the opposite.
In his context, a day-laborer could be struck by his master on a particular cheek. This strike unveils the social class disparity between the two, with the slapper being at the top of the ladder.
But the other cheek is for punching equals. Here Jesus encourages his listeners to offer that cheeks instead of the cheeks that turns the victim into a doormat. In other words, “Hit me like the human being that I am!”
If someone asks you to go one mile, go two – This has often been interpreted as encouraging empathy and understanding. A nice little suggestion from a quaint, friendly Jesus.
Not so much, it turns out. Under Roman occupation, a Roman soldier could ask any civilian to pick up his bag and walk with him for just one mile, at which point that person is to put down the bag. Another civilian in the new point of arrival can then be told to carry the bag.
Those who followed Jesus’ advice were placing soldiers in decision dilemmas. By insisting upon going an additional mile, they were compromising soldiers’ good standing with their superiors, instilling fear of reprisal for not adhering to the strictness of the rule. This was a tactic to create schisms in the ranks of the occupation.
If anyone wants to sue you for your shirt, also hand over your coat – Again we see another tactic often interpreted as passivity in the face of injustice, but Jesus is actually insisting that those who are abused through the judicial system should unveil the oppressive nature and stupidity of that system.
Often the rich would use their privilege to benefit from the few assets of the poor. We see this often in courts around the world today, where corporate thieves and political elites use their connections in the courts and their expensive lawyers to exploit the under-resourced. This not only gains them more material assets; it also provides a justification for their wrongdoings. “The courts confirmed I was in the right!”
In a place where two garments were all many people ever wore, Jesus was effectively insisting that those being exploited through official channels should expose the system – and those using it to take advantage of them – by disrobing. Imagine being awarded a shirt off the back of your opponent in court, and he proceeds to strip off everything and hand it over.
This is not only shameful for the abuser, but also a curse in many parts of the world.
I worked with one community in northern Uganda who ultimately used this tactic (and a few others) to prevent their land from being stolen by political elites and foreign companies. One government minister cried at the sight of bare-chested grandmothers pointing their breasts at him. Another looked away in shame and began pleading with the community.
Jesus encouraged his listeners to seize every opportunity to confront injustice in settings where it manifested itself interpersonally. The interpersonal relationship is easily interpreted by onlookers as symbolic for the struggle between oppressors and oppressed and encourages more dignified resistance.