FACING INTO THE VIOLENCE
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile … I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
In 1981, Pope John Paul II was shot by an assassin/terrorist, Mehmet Ali Agca, and very nearly killed. Months later, when the Pope went to the prison to meet with his would-be assassin, people were astounded that the Pope would seek reconciliation with someone who had offended him to such a degree. People in the media suggested they thought it was complete foolishness for the Pope to stoop to this guy’s level. Agca was a Muslim fanatic; the Pope had been shot four times at point blank range. John Paul had every reason to hate the man, and no apparent reason to want to see him again, but he did. And the pope repeatedly asked people to “pray for my brother [Ağca] … whom I have sincerely forgiven.” Publicity stunt by the Pope? Or perhaps one of the most genuine expressions of what Christ meant when he said “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies”?
This Gospel (Matthew 5: 38—48), like last week’s, is a very difficult one, and very easily misapplied to situations where it doesn’t fit. For instance, in cases of spousal abuse, this passage has been lifted out of context and used to turn women into victims. It has also kept many Christians from asserting their rights, or even standing up for their principles.
The context into which Jesus spoke these powerful and difficult words was extremely violent and oppressive. The Roman occupation of Israel obliged the local inhabitants to become servants of the invaders – the aliens. The Jewish people were virtually enslaved in their own country and there were rules the Romans brought with them – about their right to tax the people, to take their goods when needed, to conscript people into working for them (as tax collectors for instance), and to require personal services like carrying bags. Most offensive of all, their Roman rules took precedence over the rules of the Jewish people, which were taken from the Bible – their sacred book – so to their minds, the Romans were overruling God.
The fact that Jesus mentions people being struck in the face suggests it was commonplace. As a child, it happened to me, when a group of bullies surrounded me, and one smacked me across the face and dared me to do anything about it – it is an experience not only painful but humiliating and insulting. Violence was commonplace, so if you refused a request, you might be executed on the spot, jailed or tortured. The Romans apparently didn’t put up with much insolence.
The problem for the Jews was that their religious law demanded retaliation. For the Romans to be there at all – as invaders in their sacred homeland – was outrageous to start with. But for Jews to allow a Gentile to strike them was completely unacceptable, and a loss of face. The “eye for an eye” rule suggested they had every right (and even the responsibility) to strike back equally hard. But, as an observant Jew, Jesus would have known that if they obeyed their law and responded with violence, they would have been met with more violence and maybe killed.
Jesus obviously perceived the need for a different kind of response in the complicated world the Romans had created in Israel, as their occupation had made the simple values of the Bible seem ridiculous, and futile. One of the questions Jesus raises is: How can you make your values work even in the face of a dominant, different and unfair system of values? Since that may be the case for many Christians today, it’s worth considering.
The issue is not whether you should respond but how. Confronted by people of foreign practices, languages, customs, expectation and values, how do you respond? When you feel threatened or compromised, how do you respond? The Christian Way is a way of non-violence – not totally passive, not condoning of abuse or injustice, but opting for peace whenever possible and open to the potential for reconciliation when harm has been done. The call to be holy, the summons to be like God, is a reminder of self-worth – not to accept random abuse. The words “turn the other cheek” are not meant to be applied literally in every situation. A woman being physically abused or a child being bullied is not going to be helped much by the words “turn the other cheek.”
Faced with shame and powerlessness, in the shadow of Roman domination, even some of his own disciples wanted to kill somebody. Everyone is tempted to “Get even” when they feel they have been wronged. It happens at every level of life – you just have to watch people in traffic for a few minutes to get a lot of demonstrations. Jesus’ advice is to let God be God and not mistake our vengeance and anger for God’s will. The repeated line in our reading from Leviticus, “I am the Lord,” means we shouldn’t attempt to “play God” in situations. “You shall be holy,” it says. In other words, try to operate in the Spirit of God and it will bring a different perspective. When we are conscious that God is present, it changes the dynamics of the situation; it changes how we think and feel, it changes how we act. We no longer need to control the outcome. We can let go, and let God be God.
Sometimes the best thing to do is stand down, or at least step back. Jesus offered a way to defuse a potentially deadly situation, without losing face. Young men especially, and immature people in general, tend to be easily provoked to anger. To be provoked into a foolish act of violence or bravado would have profited no one. Self-control is an essential aspect of Christian spirituality – a mature person is not impulsive; a mature person is not reactionary. Jesus’ approach suggests the importance of creating some elasticity in relationships – of being wise enough not to make kneejerk responses that come from anger or ego. That is partly what Jesus meant when he called his disciples to “perfection” – the word can be translated as maturity.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Today, as we face globalization, massive changes of priority in our society and perceived threats to a known way of life, Jesus might be saying: Go deeper – the Bible, your spiritual practices, your trust in God, are not irrelevant, but they need to be taken beyond their original rather facile application so the rule of “Love God and love your neighbour as yourself” can be relevant in a different way, in a new context.
“Love your neighbour” was an ethical directive that originally mostly applied to those of your own community – it didn’t necessarily apply to outsiders. As Jesus suggests, you were permitted to hate foreigners, but as the scripture says: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.” Everyone looks out for their own – that’s natural and to be expected, but you don’t get any brownie points for favouring your own child or hiring your son-in-law. Jesus makes the law of love of neighbour extend not only to foreigners but to enemies – obliging people to re-think their biases, and also to develop a perspective in which everyone is potentially part of God’s community (even the Romans). Jesus’ teaching suggested they could no longer look at the world from a limited, tribal point of view – they had to develop a more global vision.
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Jesus’ advice created the opportunity to personalize or humanize difficult encounters and obligations. How many miles of walking with someone does it take to get to know them? I know from golfing that you can learn a lot about people just by walking with them for a few hours. In urging people to go beyond obligation he created a freedom within the usual perfunctory and mechanical interactions between people – he created a different kind of relational space which could allow people on both sides to see the humanity in each other.
In Jesus’ re-interpretation of the law, he enabled people to shift from being victims to protagonists by making the Romans realize “You didn’t have to do that!” When you’re operating under mere obligation, your actions aren’t necessarily personal; you aren’t much more than a slave or a robot. An act of freely-given, voluntary service changes the way people see each other – i.e. not as functions or as commodities or as obligations – but as fellow human beings. In suggesting this way, Jesus helped people under oppression realize they still had a measure of control – they were not helpless – they could still make choices – and the choice to respond with grace would be bound to make their oppressors think.
Jesus taught people to become wise and creative in dealing with their circumstances. Today, violence is celebrated and encouraged in sports, in business, in video games, and in the media. Bullying is chronic; settling things with fists and knives and guns is now typical. Jesus did not suggest running away or pretending bad things don’t exist, but suggests a kind of defiance and determination not to be beaten by violence and injustice – a choice not to be degraded into responding in kind.
He taught people (by his own example) a way that required tremendous courage – literally facing into the violence, which requires being a peaceful warrior, one who realizes that the most difficult enemy in any situation is ourselves.
What does it mean for us? It points to the need to de-escalate the level of tension and violence in our own world. It introduces a measure of grace and forgiveness into a world which often doesn’t have any manners or mutual respect or willingness to understand; it urges us toward a personal way of relating to others – even difficult people – in a world which has become mechanical and perfunctory and very much losing the human touch.
Christians are not called to be Pollyanna’s, or punching bags, or doormats. Again and again the writings of the spiritual greats teach us that we must always contend with a world which promotes violence and aggression as virtues while making peace and reconciliation into faults. From the moment of our Baptism we are challenged to live by another way – a higher code – and as St Paul says, it can mean appearing to be a fool in light of the values of the present moment. It’s OK to be seen as a fool if it’s for the right reasons – being creatively out of step, or counter-cultural, has always been an aspect of Christianity. In the midst of the violence, oppression and fear that is plaguing our society, it requires a profound trust in the God who nature is love, and it requires the help and guidance of a faith community which is committed to this way of life.
(The Rev.) Grant Rodgers, B.A., M.Div.
RCL appointed readings:
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”
So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
Matthew 5:38-48 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.