People of the third way

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This is Gamla. Or more precisely, what’s left of it.

Carved into a steep hillside northeast of Galilee, Gamla is where the Jewish Zealot movement was born. Zealots demanded strict adherence to the law and total separation from anyone who didn’t believe exactly as they did.

To be a Zealot was to be perpetually angry. Angry at the apostasy of your own people. Most of all, angry at the occupation of your land. Because if you were Jewish and you lived in the first century, your future was not in your own hands. You were a subject of the Roman Empire. Your destiny was shaped by pagan hands.

Zealots couldn’t abide that. Occupation had to be resisted by any means necessary. There were whispers in Galilee of Zealot assassins who roamed the streets by night, armed with small daggers called sicarii, looking for enemies to cut down.

To a Zealot, God’s kingdom advanced on the tip of a sword.

And if he ever needed reminding of who (and where) his enemies were, a Zealot could simply climb atop his fortress and look across the Sea of Galilee.

There, on the opposite shore. Tiberias.

Tiberias was established during Jesus’ lifetime. An entire city built by Herod Antipas, puppet-king of Galilee, to honor his new boss, the Emperor Tiberius.

The city of Tiberias was home to the Herodians, Jewish families who had allied themselves to Herod Antipas and, by extension, to Rome itself. The Herodians didn’t believe in God’s kingdom; they were too busy building one for themselves in Tiberias.

The Zealots’ response to occupation was to fight. The Herodians’ response was to make the most of it — and, if they could, make a buck from it.

Two extremes, literally on opposite shores of the sea.

Caught in the middle, on the northern edge of Galilee, was Capernaum. Home base, as it were, for Jesus and his followers.

While the Herodians went on loving their friends (as long as they could profit from them) and the Zealots went on hating their enemies, Jesus climbed a hill between Tiberias and Gamla and gave this command:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

While the Herodians cashed in on Roman oppression and Zealots fought back with swords, Jesus taught:

Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.

Jesus stood between the extremes of groveling accommodation and reciprocal violence and offered a third way. He rejected the separatist impulse of the Zealots and the opportunistic impulse of the Herodions. Instead, he taught his followers to subvert evil with love. Not the kind of love that involves becoming everyone’s doormat. But the kind that seizes the initiative, exposes oppression for what it truly is, and always — ALWAYS — leaves the door open for the oppressor to repent.

As for that command to go the extra mile, it was not just a matter of personal piety. It was how Jesus expected his followers to respond to a particular military threat. Unpacking the cultural significance of this command, Walter Wink writes:

A [Roman] soldier could impress a civilian to carry his pack one mile only; to force the civilian to go further carried with it severe penalties under military law. Nevertheless, this levy was a bitter reminder to the Jews that they were a subject people even in the Promised Land.

Jesus does not counsel revolt. One does not “befriend” the soldier, draw him aside, and drive a knife into his ribs.

But why walk the second mile?

The question here is how the oppressed can recover the initiative, how they can assert their human dignity. The rules are Caesar’s but not how one responds to the rules.

Imagine then the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack. You say, “Oh no, let me carry it another mile.” Normally he has to coerce your kinsmen to carry his pack; now you do it cheerfully and will not stop! Is this a provocation? Are you insulting his strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to make you go farther than you should?

From a situation of servile impressment, you have once more seized the initiative. You have taken back the power of choice. The soldier is thrown off-balance by being deprived of the predictability of your response.

Some readers may object to the idea of discomfiting the soldier. But can people engaged in oppressive acts repent unless made uncomfortable with their actions? Loving confrontation can free both the oppressed from docility and the oppressor from sin.

Being followers of Jesus means becoming people of the third way. People who transcend categories, stereotypes, and extremes. People who are not co-opted by a single ideology, whose response to evil cannot be predicted based on all the usual categories. People who rise above polarization and find compelling and creative ways to bring heaven to earth, bit by bit.

In fact, it is by doing so that we truly become followers of Jesus.

Take another look at Matthew 5. Notice the connection between loving your enemies and being children of God.

Many in Galilee thought they were automatically God’s people because of what was on their birth certificate: descendant of Abraham. They saw themselves as the elect, the chosen, the predestined.

You can imagine how this kind of thinking cultivated in people an “us vs. them” mentality. Just like the one that incited the Zealots to violence.

When Jesus spoke these words in Matthew 5, there were, doubtless, Zealots or Zealot sympathizers among the broader audience. Imagine what it was like for them to hear this itinerant rabbi — who they hoped was the Messiah who would lead them into battle against Rome — tell them, “If you want to be God’s children, then you must learn to love your enemy.”

I imagine that was the last time many Zealots had anything to do with Jesus.

What if being the people of God isn’t defined by how well we separate ourselves from those who don’t believe as we do, but rather by how well we love those who don’t believe as we do?

Finally… it’s worth remembering that neither the Zealots nor Herodians lived to see the end of the first century. The Herodians, lost in the pursuit of power and comfort, cast their lot with the family of Herod. After the first century, there were no more Herods to benefit from.

As for the Zealots, in A.D. 67, Rome laid siege to Gamla, breaching the city wall and killing thousands. Those who survived the attack committed mass suicide, jumping off cliffs above the village. Later, the Zealots briefly took control of Jerusalem and ruled with a brutality surpassing that of their enemies.

Their legacy is a reminder that violence breeds only more violence. Extremism breeds extremism. Oppression breeds oppression.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to break the cycle of violence. We are called to be people of the third way.

The breach in the wall at Gamla, where Vespasian’s army broke through

7 thoughts on “People of the third way

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  6. Ben, I’m sitting here in Gettysburg, PA tonight on the 150th anniversary of the battle here. There was nothing “civil” about this war – brothers set upon brothers, Americans killing Americans, Christians dealing death to other Christians. It’s unimaginable. Knowing that I’m frolicking on the land that so much blood was spilled on is a very strange feeling. Thank you for your words. They come at an appropriate time as I wonder how I am supposed to react, in light of the teachings you present here, to the presence of evil in this world. May we lean on those who came before us and learn more fully what it is to be people of the third way.

  7. Pingback: Polarization and the church: is a third way possible? | Ben Irwin

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