Monday, February 24, 2014

Doormats for Jesus

A Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48

It might not surprise you much to hear that I enjoyed Sunday school when I was a child. I am a pastor, after all. But you might be surprised to hear why I enjoyed Sunday school. The Bible stories were nice enough; the lessons were usually interesting; I liked some of the songs; I hated all of the crafts. But some of my favorite things about Sunday school were the climbing structures. Like so many sprawling suburban churches, my church housed a nursery school, which used the Sunday school rooms during the week. They had installed an outdoor playground with a big climbing structure made out of tires, and an indoor playspace with a structure that we called “the fort.” When my class was very well-behaved and finished our activities early – or, more often, when we were very badly behaved and our teacher gave up on trying to get anything done that day – we got to play.

One day, out on the playground, Glenn had attained an awesome perch at the top of the climbing structure when Morgan approached and shoved him out of the way to take the good spot. Glenn shoved back. And Morgan declared indignantly, “You can’t do that! You’re supposed to turn the other cheek!”

We had learned the well-known verse and discussed its message of non-violence some weeks before, and I guess some of us had figured out how to use it to our own advantage: the proper Christian response to aggression was passivity, we had learned. The proper response to violence was non-violence. The secret, therefore, was to be the aggressor! Your hapless victim would be obligated to turn the other cheek, taking your abuse meekly as Jesus commanded, and you would get your way without risk of retaliation.

Our interpretation sounds obviously wrong – because, of course, it is wrong. And yet, our misinterpretation was not created in a vacuum: in misinterpreting this passage for our own benefit, we were drawing on a Christian culture that has misinterpreted the same passage, the passage which is our Gospel reading for today.

The passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount, an extended discourse in which Jesus teaches crowds in Galilee. Many of Jesus’ best-known teachings are drawn from the Sermon on the Mount (or its counterpart in Luke): teachings like the Beatitudes, the words “judge not lest ye be judged,” and the Lord’s Prayer. Many of the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount expand on the teachings of the Law of Moses found in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, which were the foundation of the Jewish faith and practice shared by Jesus, his disciples, and his followers. In today’s passage, Jesus teaches about how to deal with aggression, violence, evil, and enemies. These words are so challenging that, two millennia later, Christian societies are still trying to explain them away.

Jesus quotes a passage from Exodus: “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” he says. This system of retaliation may sound barbaric to us, but to this day, society is afflicted by the human tendency to escalate conflict – whether it is physical violence or emotional harm. Surely we can think of situations in our own lives where the desire to “get even” led to larger and larger acts of cruelty and hostility. The ancient Israelites, no less than us, struggled with that human tendency; this law commands them to “settle the score” without adding to it. But Jesus takes this limitation even further: “Do not resist an evildoer,” he says. “If anyone strikes you on your 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.”

Too often, Christians have heard these words as a call to meekness, docility, and passivity. We have assumed that “turning the other cheek” means patiently enduring violence, meekly submitting to abuse, silently suffering oppression. My Sunday school classmates and I thought we had learned what the words meant: if someone is mean to you, don’t get back at them, just tolerate it. That’s what our teacher had taught us, and probably what she had learned in Sunday school, and her teacher before her. Kingdoms and empires have taught this lesson to their subjects; in the days of slavery, white supremacist ministers preached this lesson to slaves; abusive spouses and parents have used it against their victims. The supposed message is that, if we act like doormats and punching bags in the face of violence, God will reward us in heaven.

Is that what Jesus is saying? I don’t think so.

Biblical scholar Walter Wink has pointed out that Jesus specifically refers to the “right cheek.” In order for a right-handed person to strike someone on the right cheek, he argues, the blow must be with the back of the hand, which he says would be a dehumanizing and disrespectful gesture in the ancient world (as it still is, to a lesser extent, in ours), a gesture meant to reinforce hierarchies. Looking at the legal codes of the time, Wink notes that the fine for striking an equal with the back of the hand was one hundred times as much as the fine for striking an equal with a fist; there was no penalty for backhanding someone of a lower social station. “A backhand slap was the normal way of admonishing inferiors,” Wink declares. “Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews.” Wink argues that when Jesus teaches his followers to turn the other cheek, he is suggesting that they demand to be engaged as an equal, upsetting the balance of power by refusing to either fight back or accept their aggressor’s dominance.

Perhaps Wink is right, or perhaps he’s stretching his inferences a bit further than the text can bear, but either way, he touches on something that I think is important: turning the other cheek is not an act of resigned acceptance. Jesus does not say, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, let them strike you again as many times as they want.” He does not say, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, look meekly down at the ground.” He does not say “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, be still and silent and passive.” If we listen with fresh ears, we can perhaps hear the power of this teaching: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek,” he might be saying, “surprise them. Don’t do what they’re expecting. Don’t cower, don’t fight back. With your cheek still stinging and your eyes still watering, look them in the eye and say, ‘Now hit me here.’”

Jesus invites his followers to confront violence – to confront it – but not with more violence. He does not call them to be doormats and pushovers. He calls them to be courageous witnesses to another way of living. Turning the other cheek is non-violent, but make no mistake, it is confrontational. It turns a mirror on cruelty and injustice, shines holy light on hatred and evil, and confronts the powers of evil and oppression with the power of the Reign of God.

On Martin Luther King Day this year, a history blog published an image of an incredible document: type-written guidelines by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association, directed to the African American community of Montgomery, Alabama as the bus boycott came to an end. The guidelines give advice to African Americans boarding racially integrated buses, and give voice, for that time and place, to some of the principles I believe Jesus was espousing when he told his followers to “turn the other cheek.” “If there is violence in word or deed,” the document declares, “it must not be our people who commit it.” “Be quiet but friendly; proud, but not arrogant; joyous, but not boisterous. Be loving enough to absorb evil and understanding enough to turn an enemy into a friend.”

The document offers some specific strategies, some of which might sound odd to modern ears: “Do not deliberately sit by a white person unless there is no other seat,” Rev. King and his colleagues advise their African American readers. Later, they counsel: “If another person is being molested, do not arise to go to his defense, but pray for the oppressor and use moral and spiritual force to carry on the struggle for justice.” At first, this seemed strange to me: why would Rev. King advise his followers not to advocate for each other? But in his time and place, this was how he applied Jesus’ admonition to turn the other cheek: turning the other cheek means confronting violence and injustice in an unexpected way. Rev. King is perhaps anticipating that white racists will try to pick fights and incite riots; he warns his community not to fall into that trap, but to rise above it. That was a way of turning the other cheek, in that time and place, for that community.

And what about our community? How do we practice this challenging teaching? Many of us are fortunate not to face regular threats of violence on the streets and subways, in our places of work and leisure. Unlike Jesus’ followers, there are no Roman centurions who are legally entitled to hit us on the right cheek, or force us to carry their pack for a mile. Injustice, oppression, and violence take other forms now, but they still exist – in huge societal systems, and in everyday interactions with other people. I see it when sandwich line volunteers arrive at the church shaken by a homophobic or transphobic remark. I see it when I hear about how young African American men are treated in New York City department stores, and how their murderers are treated in courts of law. I see it when legislators mischaracterize food stamps recipients as lazy, dishonest, and undeserving.

I observed it the day I arrived at church for work one weekday morning and saw a man sitting on the steps of the church, aggressively shouting unwanted sexual comments at young women passing by. I wish I had lived up to Jesus’ teaching as I understand it. I wish I had found a way to say or do something that drew attention to the human dignity of the women he was humiliating with his rude words, something that would knock him off-balance and make him reconsider his actions, something that would invite him to a different and holier way of living in the world with his fellow humans. What I actually did was tell him to shut his mouth and get the – ahem – off my church steps.

Jesus’ admonition to turn the other cheek is hard. It’s hard because it calls us to resist our desire for vindication and vengeance. It’s hard because it requires us to use imagination in moments when we want to fight or flee. It’s hard because it isn’t a recipe for holiness, but a call to creative, non-violent confrontation – a call which we need to answer differently depending on the particulars of the situation.

But the good news is that we are not called to do the work of justice alone, friends. We have each other, we have the witness of generations of saints who have walked this path of love and justice, and we have the Holy Spirit. And when we answer Jesus’ call – when we answer hate with love, humiliation with dignity, thoughtless cruelty with creative non-violence, when we turn the other cheek – it is like the tiny pinch of yeast which leavens the whole loaf, like the little green shoots that push through the cracks of the concrete, like the light which shines in the darkness; it is like the Kingdom of God.

Thanks be to God.

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