For seven summers in a row, my parents sent me to church camp. And I hated it. Oh sure, we got to ride horses and canoe and swim in the lake and shoot bows and arrows. But we also had to go to church three times a day: morning devotions, afternoon Bible study, and evening evangelistic services. The evening services were the most painful for me. There we sat in an open-air tabernacle for hours on end, swatting mosquitos and listening to how dreadfully sinful we were. The evening always ended with an altar call.
Some of the preachers were bad, some were better, but one I have never forgotten. He was billed as a youth evangelist, and I remember that his preaching style was bombastic. He paced the platform, working up a sweat and mopping his brow with a big white handkerchief. He easily mixed humor and dark predictions of a burning hell. One night, this preacher used this Gospel lesson as his text. He told us we had to turn the other cheek –no matter how difficult that was. But then he added his own twist and declared. “If you turn the other cheek and the guy punches you again, then you turn around and knock his block off!” And we laughed and laughed and thought he was cool. Some of us had been bullied and so the idea of knocking someone’s block off with Jesus’s blessing was very appealing.
I don’t think this man had much theology to stand on, but he certainly taped into a human desire. Imagine how satisfying it would be to strike back at the bullies who inhabit the playground called Washington, DC. Our own president has encouraged physical violence against protesters, so the idea of returning the favor sounds like fun: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, insult for insult, slap for slap.
This passage is not an easy one to understand, especially if you have ever been the victim of violence. And some of you have – from spouses or parents or strangers. And even if you haven’t been a victim of violence, it might strike you as odd and idealistic to turn the other cheek.
There are all kinds of ways to interpret this passage. Some people see it as aspirational. We can’t ever get there, they say, but we should try. Others take it quite literally and have adopted lifestyles of non-violence – folks like the Amish and Quakers and Mennonites. Still others think it is impossible and that its impossibility on purpose in order to show us how much we need God’s grace.
But I find the following explanation the most compelling. It has been put forward by a number of biblical scholars, but most famously by the late great Walter Wink who spent most of his career at Auburn Seminary here in New York. Dr. Wink set out to understand this passage by sinking deeply into its own historical context and into the life and teaching of Jesus.
Last week I introduced the idea of the antitheses of Jesus, and we heard about four of them. This week we look at the other two. Jesus begins by quoting the Law of Moses: “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” That sounds pretty primitive, but it was actually a huge leap forward in applying justice. In a world where causing someone’s blindness could cost you your life in an act of vengeance, Moses instituted parity in punishment: an eye for an eye, not a life for an eye. “But I say to you,” Jesus continued, “Do not resist an evil doer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
“Do not resist an evil doer.” In Greek, the word for “resist” is “antistenai” which literally means to “stand against” or “withstand.” And elsewhere in the New Testament and other contemporary writings, this word was largely used in a military context. It had the clear implication of warfare and violence. So one could easily translate these words of Jesus as “Do not violently resist an evil doer.” And that’s key. Jesus is teaching non-violence, but he is not teaching non-resistance. And we can see that practice of resisting non-violently in his own life.
So that’s part of the puzzle here, but there’s more. Jesus says that when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other one also. During the time of Jesus, people did not generally initiate any action with the left hand. The left hand was considered unclean. Therefore, as a privileged person in society, if you were going to strike someone, you did with your right hand. But Jesus said that if someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other also. Think about that. How can you land a right hook on someone’s right cheek? The only way to strike another person on their right cheek with your right hand is to backhand them. And that is exactly what was done. To give someone the back of your hand was an expression of dominance and insult. It’s what powerful men did to slaves and women and children in order to humiliate them. So the instruction to turn the other cheek once your right one has been makes it impossible for the oppressor to backhand you again. The nose gets in the way. And he is not going to use his left hand. The master would not strike again using the front of his hand because the front of the hand implied some kind of equality between them. Now it’s true that this might have infuriated the master and worse punishment might have ensued, but in that moment, the point was made: “I am your equal. I am a child of God.” As Dr. Wink said: “The first principle of non-violent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.”
The same principle of non-cooperation with everything humiliating also applies to Jesus’s teaching about giving away your cloak. In Jesus’s day, the poor were often forced to borrow from the rich and the rich were allowed to take clothing as collateral, since that is all most poor folks owned. If the creditor demanded a person’s cloak, however, it had to be returned each evening so that the poor person would have something to sleep in. So to give the rich oppressor your cloak meant that you would walk out of court stark naked. And nakedness was verboten. I imagine that the crowd burst into laughter when Jesus said this as they imagined what it really meant. But Jesus tells this bawdy tale in order to to point out the naked greed of an unjust economic system. It was non-violent, but the kind of resistance that no one would ever forget.
OK, so we get the non-violent resistance stuff pretty well. We have Dr. King and others to thank for that. But there is another antithesis of Jesus that is even more challenging than the commands of turning the other cheek, and giving away your clothes, and going the extra mile. Jesus also said: “You have heard it said that you should love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love you enemy and pray for those who persecute you.”
Love you enemy. Frankly, I have been shocked by how quickly my hatred for regressive policies and systemic abuse becomes hatred for the people behind those policies. It’s a very slippery slope, especially on social media, when it’s so easy to pile on the hate train. But the work set out before us as followers, imitators of Jesus Christ, is not simply to march in the streets and organize letter-writing campaigns and boycott certain industries. Those are all great, but they are not the sum total of discipleship. The followers of Jesus are challenged to go the extra mile. Jesus said we must love our enemies and pray for them.
And those two things actually go hand in hand. It’s really hard to hate someone you’re praying for. The prayers might be hard work, but they are also transformative. Praying for our enemies keeps us from behaving like our enemies. Praying for our enemies keeps us from getting down in the same mud, and demanding “an eye for an eye,” which as Gandhi once said, “… (just) makes the whole world blind.” The practice of prayer, especially for one’s enemies, changes us. And who knows, maybe it can change them as well.