Turn the Other Cheek?: Jesus on the space between passivity and “stand your ground” – Sermon for February 23, 2014

Safety cards handed out in the aftermath of the Otherside Bombing in 1997.
Safety cards handed out in the aftermath of the Otherside Bombing in 1997.

Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48

If you have ever gotten into a discussion or a debate about religion, you probably know what it’s like to have a bunch of soundbites from the Bible thrown at you. I’m always interested in how people who mostly seem uninterested in church or faith seem to know how to quote the Bible when it supports their argument. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. “Those who don’t work don’t eat”. “”Wives be obedient to your husbands.” Spare the rod and spoil the child”. (Actually that last one isn’t even in the Bible.)

The point is, we hear certain phrases over and over, and we are told they come from Scripture, and we internalize them without really knowing the context or where they come from or what they might really mean. And in doing so we go down this dangerous path where the Bible is the book full of one-liners that we can pull out when we need them, and not a book about a man who changed everything. And today’s lectionary reading is no exception.

Today’s Scripture passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount, a series of teachings Jesus gave after he was baptized. And this sermon contains a lot of the phrases of Scripture you may know: the meek shall inherit the earth. Be perfect as your Father is perfect. Blessed are the peacemakers. Our Father who art in heaven.

And it contains this phrase that I’m sure you’ve heard before. Jesus starts this passage saying, “You’ve heard it 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.

Turn the other cheek. You’ve heard that before, right? Maybe as a kid you got in a fight with a brother or sister and your parents told you to be the bigger person, to turn the other cheek? It’s come to mean “brush it off” or “ignore it” to us. And maybe that doesn’t sound half bad sometimes.

But sometimes that line gets used in some dangerous ways. Once years ago I was doing some pastoral care with a woman who was being abused by her husband. And when I would ask her what her plan to get out of this abuse was, she would tell me “well, Jesus says to just turn the other cheek”.

At its worst his passage has come to mean a sort of passivity in the face of what is very wrong. An acceptance of being mistreated and degraded. Even a sort of self-destructiveness…you’ve hit me once, so hit me again.

But I don’t think that’s what Jesus ever meant it to be. A Biblical scholar by the name of Walter Wink talked about this passage in his writings and he clarified the context a bit. He talked about how for those who were slaves, who were considered to have less rights than others, those in authority would strike them when angry by hitting them with the back of their hand on their right cheek. They wouldn’t hit them with a fist, or on their left cheek, because they wouldn’t even hit them directly. Even the manner of violence suggested that the person being hit was less than human.

And so when Jesus says, “turn the other cheek” he’s saying something powerful. It’s not “let them hit you again”. It’s, “make them see that you are their equal, and that if they are going to hit you, they have to at least acknowledge what they are doing. It’s a powerful way of changing the conversation. The one who is seen as subhuman refuses to be seen that way anymore. In the moment of attack, they claim their whole humanity.

And that is a big part of what Jesus’ message was. His followers were generally not powerful people. Some of them were people who had been oppressed their whole lives. They didn’t have much. Some were slaves. Some were very poor. All were subject to a brutal Roman regime and corrupt religious authorities. These were the powerless. These were people who knew what it was like to be struck on the right cheek.

What Jesus is saying is that you are not lesser anymore. Maybe you cannot change the way that the authorities treat you. At least not yet. But you can claim your whole worth as a beloved child of God, created as equal as anyone else. This is not a divine call towards being a doormat. This is a divine reminder that you are God’s creation.

It’s a pretty radical message when you think of it. It’s one that subverts everything, and changes the game. I think of the woman I counseled. I think of the children I saw when I was a hospital chaplain who were brought into the ER after being abused by parents. I think of people who have been treated as lesser for any reason, and I hear “turn the other cheek”. And now I know that it’s not Jesus saying “take it”. I know it’s Jesus saying, “refuse to take this anymore”.

Now, I want to be clear about what this is not. This is about claiming your full humanity and not being mistreated. But this is not “stand your ground” Jesus. This is not Jesus saying escalate the situation. This is not Jesus saying choose violence. Jesus does not tell his disciples, “if anyone hits you on the right cheek, deliver a stiff right hook to their left.”

See, Jesus is better than that. And Jesus wants better than that for us. He preceded the line about turning the other cheek by saying “you have heard an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and then he presents “turn the other cheek” as an alternative. We love quoting “an eye for an eye” in our culture. We want to see the one who hurts others get theirs. But Jesus himself says, “wait…there’s a better way”.

Walter Wink calls this “Jesus’ third way of nonviolent resistance”. He cites many examples of people from Ghandi to Desmond Tutu to Martin Luther King as examples of this. They all refused to embrace the ways of the people who oppressed them and saw their people as lesser. But they all also refused to extract an eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.

What Dr. Wink calls “nonviolent resistance” I simply call refusing to stoop down and claim the ways of the bullies and abusers and oppressors of the world. I call it claiming the image of God in ourselves. We are not to be abused, and we are not to become abusers of God’s creation either. We are better than that. And we have to find better ways of responding.

When I was a junior in college, 20 years old, very early one morning the phone rang in my dorm room. My roommate answered and I could hear across the room that my mom on other line. And my roommate said, “Hang on, hang on…she’s right here.” And when I got on the phone my mom sounded scared to death, and she said, “Were you in the bombing?”

In the middle of the night, at a gay club only a few miles away, a bomb had gone off. I had known before that moment that there were people who hated people like me. But until that moment I hadn’t really understood that some of them wanted us dead.

In the aftermath I’m sure there were a few hot-heads in my community who wanted to retaliate with violence. But their voices didn’t win out. And there were those too who wanted to hide, and who thought that they would be safe by never going back out. But here’s what most of us did. We went and stood in vigil as close as we could get to the site of the bombing.

And that night we went to all the other gathering places of our community. We gathered in larger crowds than I’d ever seen before. We gathered to say that a bomb planted in cowardice in a dumpster would never make us too afraid to claim our humanity. Refused to be treated as lesser. But refused to stoop down to the level of those who hated us too. Had we, it would have done us more harm than good in the end.

I tell you that story as an example. Because I think things like that bombing still happen everyday. Sometimes on that level, with that amount of news coverage, and sometimes not. Sometimes we never hear about them, but they blow lives apart just the same.

Our job as Christians in the world is to see everyone as a child of God, as a part of God’s creation. And it is to stand with those who are being treated as anything less than that. That means people who are being discriminated against, yes. But that also means people who are living with violence. Children who don’t have enough to eat. Teenagers who are being bullied. Elders who are being neglected. Young people fighting addiction in our Valley, and there are many, who are being targeted by heroin dealers. The ones who are constantly in life being struck on their right cheeks.

Our job is to make sure, first, that we are not the ones doing the striking. And then, to stand in solidarity and to turn the other cheek and say “you don’t get to treat people like that anymore”. You don’t get to do that because they are children of God. And, and maybe this is what they need to hear the most, you don’t get to do that because YOU are a child of God. And God created you for something better.

This week I’ve been watching the news coming out of the Ukraine, and there have been a few images that have moved me profoundly. Clergy of both Orthodox and Eastern Catholic traditions have been out in the streets, praying with both sides, and anointing the dying. They’ve been opening sanctuaries for those who have been wounded. And, most dramatically, in one situation they stood between protesters and armed forces, refusing to let the unarmed be hurt. They literally risked life and limb to make others see the true humanity in one another. They turned the other cheek, and they taught others how to do the same.

So, how are you going to turn the other cheek? First in your own life, but then as a person who lives in a larger community. How are you going to help turn the other cheek when you see something wrong happening? How are you going to turn the other cheek and demand the full humanity of all of God’s children? How are you going to turn the other cheek and change the game for everyone?

Christ himself has called us to nothing less. Because Christ himself has prepared a better way for us. We need this. Our community needs this. Our world needs this. Let’s get ready, and let’s follow him.

2 thoughts on “Turn the Other Cheek?: Jesus on the space between passivity and “stand your ground” – Sermon for February 23, 2014

  1. I also appreciate the “cloak” aspect of the interpretation: Wink continues with an interpretation of handing over one’s cloak in addition to one’s tunic. The debtor has given the shirt off his back, a situation forbidden by Hebrew law as stated in Deuteronomy (24:10–13). By giving the lender the cloak as well the debtor was reduced to nakedness. He notes that public nudity was viewed as bringing shame on the viewer, not just the naked, as seen in Noah’s case (Genesis 9:20–23).

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