The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775. They had no legal authority, but had to make decisions because of military events between the colonists and British. By the end of 1775, independence was almost inevitable due to the mistrust of the whole British society.
In January of 1776, news came that the British were sending German troops. Thomas Paine, an English pamphleteer, in his pamphlet Common Sense, called for complete independence. Congress appointed a committee to justify independence and asked their youngest member, Thomas Jefferson, to prepare a draft.
Jefferson’s statement has inspired oppressed people for many years: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
Since this time, people’s rights have expanded. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Civil Rights’ movements for African-Americans and women broke out. Children and unions pushed for their rights. Prisoners, gay-rights activists, and abortion rights activists also advocated their agenda.
We do live in a period when we are concerned with our rights and privileges—perhaps overly so. This is a natural characteristic of the sinful nature we possess from birth and of the fleshly tendencies Christians still have.
We naturally want revenge and retaliation on those who infringe on our rights. If this is our chief concern, then anything that gets in the way becomes disposable. Such an attitude causes us to trample on the rights of others. This leads to no room for concern for others when self is number one.
Jesus’ words have been misinterpreted and misapplied. They have been used to support pacifism, conscientious objection, lawlessness, and anarchy. Tolstoy, a Russian writer, based his book, War and Peace, on this passage. His thesis was that the elimination of the police, military, and other forms of authority would lead to a utopian society.
Instead of focusing on the rights we have, Jesus tells us about rights we must be willing to give up in our service to him.
The Right to Retaliation
The eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth directive comes from the Old Testament and is known as the principle of lex talionis. It teaches that punishment should exactly match the crime.
The purpose of the law was to curtail further crime and prevent excessive punishment that might come from personal vengeance and angry retaliation. It was also designed to curtail the human propensity to seek retaliation or vengeance beyond what the offense deserved.
By Jesus’ day, the teaching had been perverted by the religious leaders. Each person was allowed to become their own judge, jury, and executioner. They used the law as a command for vengeance, revenge, and retaliation.
Jesus says not to resist. He is not saying not to take a stand against evil, but speaking of personal retaliation. Martin Luther King, Jr. in America and Mahatma Gandhi in India both used this teaching of Jesus in their peaceful demonstrations for the rights of the oppressed in their respective countries.
We are tempted to get more than even when wronged, but vengeance belongs to God and God’s standard is, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.”
Jesus is not teaching that we should let evil run rampant. The church must resist evil. Believers must resist it in our personal lives and in our world. Rather, Jesus is referring to evil people who harm us. We are not to be characterized by vengeful retaliation but are to overcome someone’s evil toward us with good.
Jesus is not saying we don’t have a right to be treated with dignity, respect, and consideration. His emphasis is on our reaction when mistreated. Jesus says to turn the other cheek.
In Jewish society, slapping was the most demeaning and contemptuous thing someone could do. It was an attack on one’s honor and a terrible indignity. Rather, Jesus means that we are to have non-avenging, non-retaliatory, humble, and gentle spirit.
Jesus doesn’t teach what he doesn’t model. He resisted evil toward others, but not towards himself. Peter says, “While being reviled, he did not revile in return; while suffering, he uttered no threats, but kept entrusting himself to him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23).
Believers should give up the right of vengeful retaliation for personal insults. This doesn’t mean we should forego the protection the law gives us but that we should forego vengeful retaliation.
The Right to Security
The shirt was a type of tunic worn as an undergarment. The coat was an outer garment that also served as a blanket. Jesus is not referring to one who takes these items by force but to one who has a legitimate claim to sue us.
Jesus teaches that we should be willing to give up those things that make us feel secure if it will keep hard feelings from developing. We should go beyond the fair legal agreement to show our regrets over the disagreement. Doing these things also shows we don’t have bitter or resentful feelings. It is better to be defrauded than to be spiteful and have a revengeful spirit.
Those things we normally think give security really don’t. Things such as homes, autos, clothes, food, retirement, and insurance policies. The Lord gives everything to us, so we don’t need to guard these things with jealousy.
The Right to Time and Money
God’s original plan was that everyone enjoy freedom. No slavery or bondage of any type, even though some have used his word to justify it.
History shows how limits have been placed on freedom at many times. Under Roman Law, a soldier could force a civilian to carry his pack for a mile. This caused inconvenience and meant they had to carry items for those who oppressed them. Simon of Cyrene forced to carry Jesus’ cross.
We should be willing to give up our right of time by not resenting it when people ask us to do things that take time. We serve with a cheerful heart, knowing that God is looking.
We also should give up the right to money or property. Everything we have belongs to God. We should not turn away those who need genuine help, but rather be willing to help as soon as we know the need, and to do so with generosity not grudgingly.
The Bible says, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help” (1 John 3:17)?
One biographer of William Gladstone, British prime minister, wrote, “Of how few who have lived for more than sixty years in the full light of their countrymen and have, as party leaders, been exposed to angry and sometimes spiteful criticism, can it be said that there stands against them no malignant word and no vindictive act.”
George Mueller said, “There was a day when I died, utterly died to George Mueller and his opinions, his preferences, and his tastes and his will. I died to the world, to its approval and its censure. I died to the approval or the blame of even my brethren and friends. And since then I have studied only to show myself approved unto God.”