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.

10 Things You Can Do to Help Confront Bullying

On this day after Spirit Day, I’m committed to keeping awareness of bullying at the forefront of my mind. I just shared these ten suggestions with my parishioners. What would you add?

  1. Let the youth in your life know how you feel about bullying. Just like you talk to them about other life choices, talk to them about how you expect them to treat their peers. Encourage them to covenant with others to make their school, team, etc. a bullying-free zone.
  2. Whenever possible, talk about the deeper reasons we do not bully. Make connections for the youth in your life between respect for all of God’s creation and respect for all people. Talk about why your faith teaches you not to bully.
  3. If you were bullied, tell your story. Sometimes youth who are being bullied feel ashamed of the fact. Or, they may not realize that people they love have gone through the same thing, and have come out the other side.
  4. If a young person who is being bullied comes to you for support, encourage open dialogues with them. Do not shame them for being bullied or tell them they need to “get a thicker skin”. Stress that this is not their fault.
  5. Don’t dismiss bullying as “kids will be kids” or say “this has always happened, and it always will…they’ll be fine”. Besides the fact that these statements do nothing to comfort a bullied kid, things are tougher than ever now. Because of Facebook, Twitter, texting, and other forms of communication, today’s bullied youth can now be targeted 24 hours a day, even in their own homes after school. Take bullying seriously, and be aware of how social media might be abused for this purpose.
  6. If a young person in your life is the bully get them the help they need. Bullies are not born. If they are targeting other young people it is often because they are learning the behavior from someone else.
  7. Model non-bullying behavior in your work, church, and home life. Bullying, unfortunately, does not end with high school. Adults are often just as guilty. Show the young people in your life what it means to treat everyone with respect and civility. Confront bullies with love, but firmness.
  8. Help shape anti-bullying programs in your local community. Take a public stand against bullying. Encourage parents and other adults to talk about the issues. Participate in honest dialogue.
  9. Grow your youths’ confidence in their ability to stand up to bullies. Teach them to be strong without being a bully. Praise them when they stand up for more vulnerable classmates. Differentiate “turning the other cheek” from allowing one’s self to be continually abused.
  10. Give them hope. It does get better, and you should make sure they know that, but don’t leave it at that. Give them a reason to find hope now. Remind them of their value. Tell them they are loved. Talk to them about their future. And, if you are worried, talk to them about whether they are considering hurting themselves. It is worth it to have the conversation.

When Wearing Purple Isn’t Enough – New post on HuffPost Religion for Spirit Day

Check out my new post on Huffington Post Religion about what being bullied has taught me as a clergyperson:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/when-wearing-purple-isnt-enough-telling-the-truth-about-bullying_b_1987128.html?fb_action_ids=10100160786150108&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map=%7B%2210100160786150108%22%3A440237262678258%7D&action_type_map=%7B%2210100160786150108%22%3A%22og.likes%22%7D&action_ref_map=%5B%5D

Jesus, America, and the Bullies on the Bus – A sermon for July 1, 2012

Mark 5:21-43
5:21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.

5:22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet

5:23 and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

5:24 So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.

5:25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.

5:26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.

5:27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,

5:28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”

5:29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

5:30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

5:31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?'”

5:32 He looked all around to see who had done it.

5:33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.

5:34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

 

Like many of you I’ve been following the story of the New York state bus monitor who was bullied recently. Karen Klein was riding on a bus when a group of 7th graders, 12 and 13 years old, taunted her, grabbed at her, and made fun of the fact she’s a widow and had lost a child. Another student then posted it on youtube. Apparently this had happened before. As anyone who watched the video can tell you, these seventh grade kids are already breathtakingly cruel.

And today we read this story from the Gospel, about Jesus and a woman who was looking for healing. Jesus has been called to go to a house where a young girl is dying. He’s hurrying along and seemingly oblivious to this woman who approaches him. She has been suffering for a long time. Twelve years. And she has seen all the doctors and spent all her money trying to get well. But she’s heard about Jesus, and she says, “If I can just touch his clothes, maybe I’ll be healed…”

She does, and she is immediately made well. And Jesus knows something has happened and turns around and says, “Who touched me?” She admits, timidly, it was her. Jesus tells her, “your faith has made you well…go in peace and be healed.”

What do these two stories have to do with each other? And why am I putting the two together on the Sunday that we celebrate the 4th of July, and ask God’s blessing upon our country?

It’s because of this. As much as we might want to write those school bus bullies off as “kids today” or as much as we might want to talk about what the parents could have done differently, the fact is those kids on the bus were not born in a vacuum, nor were they raised in one. They didn’t wake up one morning after years of exposure to a society of civility and compassion and decide to bully the widow who road their bus. The same is true of the kids who are bullied around this country every day, for whatever reason. It’s not an issue of “kids will be kids”. They don’t come up with this on their own.

Instead, they get it from somewhere. And more often than not, they get it from us. Not us here specifically, but us as in the adults in their life. Not just the ones in their homes, but the ones in their neighborhoods and on their televisions and even in the places of power in this country.

Pundits bemoan the lack of civility in this country. They say we have lost basic manners and human compassion. And to a great extent, they’re right. We reward radio personalities who degrade women, we engage in name-calling when someone has a different political belief than ours, we curse out the umpire when he calls our kid out at home plate. Is it any surprise those kids on the bus may have thought what they were doing was acceptable?

In fact, in the aftermath of the video, some of the boys involved began to receive death threats from adults. And while nothing those boys did on the bus that day was okay, adults threatening 13 year olds with death isn’t either. The ones who made the threats are probably oblivious to the fact that they were replicating the very kind of un-compassionate behavior those kids were engaging in.

Now, it would be wonderful to be able to say that we who follow the way of Christ, who taught us compassion and who taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves, aren’t like that. But the truth is Christians are sometimes the worst offenders. The things that are said in the public arena by Christians of all stripes, sometimes even as they defend their views as being truly Christian, are sometimes staggeringly lacking in compassion, kindness, and respect. It’s little wonder that many under the age of forty in our country think that Christians is a religion where believers claim to believe one thing but act in a totally different way. For many Americans in my generation the hypocritical Christian is what they think of when they argue religion is useless.

So how do we change that? How do we change not so much so that we will be perceived differently, but so that our society will be different? How do we become a people who embodies Christ’s teaching in such a way that our culture changes?

I think about the woman on the road that day. Broken down. Losing her lifeblood. Looking for healing. Being willing to try anything. I think of her seeking out this man who was promising a different way. A way of compassion. A way of moving forward. And I think of her, unsure, tentative, reaching out and just touching his clothing. Reaching out to the one that she thought would heal her.

I think she has something to teach those of us who would follow Christ. In a time where the culture we live, the body made up of all of us in this country, sometimes feels like it is bleeding out, and losing its life, how do we reach out for that which would heal us? How do we reach out for the cloak of Jesus and dare to ask for healing?

We Americans often sing God bless America. It’s a prayer we are singing. But when we finish singing, do we think about our part in that? Or do we ask for that blessing from God without considering the things that God wants us to do? Do we finish singing and forget about it? Or do we finish singing and get to work on working with that blessing? Do we get to work trying to follow the path of love, and compassion, and kindness set out by Christ?

Now, I want to be clear here for a minute that I am not saying this should become a country of Christians. We live in a religiously diverse country and every citizen of every faith should be valued and respected. And every faith, in its best interpretation, encourages its members to lead lives of compassion and care for ones neighbor. But what I’m saying is that for those of us who are Christian, our faith adds an extra layer to our citizenship. It adds a mandate that we help to transform our culture from one where 13 year old kids think bullying an elderly woman is acceptable to one where they have grown up with the privileging of compassion and kindness and civility. One where the whole idea of loving your neighbor as yourself is not something that we just give lip service to on Sundays.

I believe that’s possible. I believe it’s possible to create a country where we may disagree widely on the issues, but we still act like Christians. I’ll give you an example. I know this congregation pretty well, and I know that last Thursday when the Supreme Court decision on health care came down, many of you had strong reactions. A segment of this congregation thought it was the worst thing to ever happen to this country. But I know another group of you thought it was the best thing ever.

And yet here you are, on Sunday morning. Sitting across the aisle from one another. Maybe even sharing the same pew. You’re not calling each other names. You’re not saying the other is unAmerican. You’re not yelling at each other with red faces. You may disagree, but you pray for each other’s families and bring casseroles over when one gets sick. And after the final hymn you’ll go into the back room and drink coffee and actually fellowship.

I’m not naive. I know that this country will never resemble a church fellowship hour. But I do know that if we who would follow Christ were to reach out to him, reach out and just try to touch him, try to be healed, we could help to spread that healing to the places we live and work and learn. If we did that, things might look a whole lot better than they did when we saw that video taken on the bus for the same time. They might look a whole lot more like the country we want to be, the country that we hope God will bless.

It’s not always an easy path, though. Deciding how you will live into your Christian calling as a citizen is different for each person, and deciding how you will ask for God’s blessing, and healing, for us all is a personal decision.

A seminarian I know, a good friend of Heidi’s, had to ask herself that question recently. She felt called by God to a different type of ministry, one in which she could share Christ’s compassion and love with those who needed it most. And so this summer, while her classmates have been safely ensconced in air conditioned offices, she’s been waking up at 4am and running, drilling, and otherwise getting through another day of training to be an Air Force chaplain.

She’s not someone who relishes the idea of war. Her political ideas are different from many she serves with. But she is someone who feels called by God to serve in that way, and to spread Christ’s love and light to those who don’t get to see a whole lot of it. She has decided that is the way to embody her faith in her citizenship.

That’s the path she took. But you don’t have to join the military to do that. You can do it right here at home in your own neighborhoods. In this election year, where the commercials bombard us every night on our TV screens, where the debates grow louder each round, where even jokes about candidates being killed are not considered out of bounds, how will you choose to let your faith inform your citizenship? How will you reach out for Christ asking that his healing be on us all? How will you ask God to bless America, and bless the whole world?

Will you let yourself be transformed by the meanest kids on the bus? Or will you become the one who steps in, and reaches out for Christ’s healing? The one who hears Christ say, “your faith has healed you…go in peace”?

May God bless us all that we would not be the one who sits ideally by when our country, and our world, need us the most. Amen.