text by Sara Gross

As a PhD student, I was a historian of the first and second century. I read Greek and Hebrew texts and tried to understand the ancient cultures of places we now call Egypt, Israel, Turkey and Greece.

Back then, the Jewish people lived with tremendous persecution under the Roman Empire. Dozens, sometimes hundreds were crucified outside Jerusalem on a daily basis and the Jewish people anguished over questions of their own future. Often powerless and poor, it was near impossible to see a path forward. Sell out to the emperor for your own protection? Rebel and be strung up on a cross? Accept your own fate and live with your head down knowing your children could be abused or beaten, or worse?

It’s a shame that the meaning of modern phrases like “Turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile” have been obscured by history because their original meaning is far more compelling.

There were a few laws in place to protect the underprivileged. For example, a tired Roman soldier could conscript a Jew on the street to carry his pack for a mile – but only a mile. Any longer could lead to legal trouble for the soldier. If you were to slap someone across the face, you backhanded them. Touching someone with the palm of your hand was considered an act of intimacy. Their society, like ours, was governed by strict social mores. A cloak was an outer garment that was also used as a blanket for sleeping. No one, not even an Emperor could ask a man to give up his cloak.

So when a kid from Galilee spoke to a small group of followers telling them to turn the other cheek, walk an extra mile, or give up their cloak when sued by a Roman, he was NOT in fact recommending meek behaviour in response to oppression. He was suggesting a shrewd but clever form of peaceful protest that would expose the absurdity of oppressive, racist behaviour and possibly even get the oppressor in a bit of trouble. Cheeky right?

I’m not religious but I must say – “Good idea Jesus.”

It’s a shame that the meaning of modern phrases like “Turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile” have been obscured by history because their original meaning is far more compelling. When Matthew writes: “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain,” he was urging Jews living under oppression to find sneaky ways to rebel against the regime.

Now here’s something that might be hard to swallow, but hear me out – We are all kinda racist. Human beings that is.

What I mean by that is, we are all wired to fear the unknown, the “other.” I’m sure an anthropologist or socio-historian could tell you exactly why, but it’s part of our make up to stick with our own, defend our families and our communities and beware of outsiders. The fear is real and unavoidable. And from this fear racism, sexism and homophobia are born. It’s what we do with this feeling when we feel it that will ultimately make the difference to what kind of person we become.

these everyday choices made by ordinary citizens of the human race will ultimately decide our future.

As a child I grew up in Canada, mostly amongst white people. I remember vividly the first time we went as a family to a Chinese restaurant where all the other diners were Chinese, the first time I went to my black boyfriend’s church. Then later we moved to the Middle East and I remember my sister and I being the only white girls in a room full of Arabs. And I remember these things because it is human nature to be slightly uncomfortable when we are a minority in a new group of people. This is the discomfort, the slight innate fear of which I speak.

Ultimately, it is up to us how we engage with those who are different, whether with patience, love and understanding or with fear, hate and mistrust. It’s as simple as that. And these everyday choices made by ordinary citizens of the human race will ultimately decide our future.

Affirming and empowering racist, sexist and homophobic beliefs by legitimating them on the basis that it is “what God wants” or “is best for our country” is, quite frankly, terrifying.

It’s clear that history repeats itself and the events leading up to and following the U.S. election have underlined that we are closer, as a society, to first century Israel than we once believed.

The recent U.S. election (not to mention Brexit) has emboldened the voices of those who have given into their fears. It’s fair to say that the future of racial minorities, Muslims, women and the LGBTQ community is more uncertain than it was a couple weeks ago. It is a dangerous situation when political and religious leaders prey on the fears that are a natural, but dark, part of the human condition. Affirming and empowering racist, sexist and homophobic beliefs by legitimating them on the basis that it is “what God wants” or “is best for our country” is, quite frankly, terrifying.

It’s clear that history repeats itself and the events leading up to and following the U.S. election have underlined that we are closer, as a society, to first century Israel than we once believed.

I don’t believe that Jesus was divine, but I do see why his followers came to believe that, because, well, his suggestions for peaceful protest in times of adversity were downright inspired.

When a group of people want to limit our personal freedoms and tell us we are less than because of our race, gender or sexual preference, we have to find a way to humbly expose their idiocy. Turn the other cheeky and force them to see our humanity. Cheekily expose their lunacy for what it is. Let them know their God may not be who they think he is.

As time marches forward we may find that the hard-fought rights of minority groups are retracted by one stroke of the pen under the Trump administration. Certain groups may be empowered in a way that is dangerous and threatening.

Find a way to respond that is peaceful and clever and that exposes their true intentions.

I don’t have all the answers. But it is definitely not too early to start looking to the wisdom of the savants of times past as we head into an uncertain future.

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