Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
On June 17, 2015, nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, were shot and killed by a stranger, a young white man they’d welcomed to their Bible study. In the days that followed this mass murder, the surviving families came together and publicly expressed forgiveness for the one whose hate-filled actions had violated the sanctity of their house of worship and caused unspeakable heartbreak.
That’s what I thought about when I read in this week’s text about loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us, and going the extra mile for people who are taking advantage of us. I thought about how unfathomable the pain of those families must have been, and how profound the witness they made about God’s grace when they embodied the work of reconciliation God has entrusted to all of us. They forgave someone who never repented or acknowledged guilt.
I wonder if something that awful happened in this congregation, or to my family, could I forgive the murderer? Like I’ve responded to most of Jesus teachings in the Sermon on the Mount in these past few weeks, I like to hope that I’d manage it on my good days, maybe a little; but there would be other days, when I wouldn’t at all. So how am I supposed to respond to Jesus’ conclusion of this reading: “Be perfect, therefore, as your father in heaven in perfect”? Perfect?
David Lose, the President of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia has a great response to that question. He writes, “It’s not our job to bring in the kingdom; Jesus does that. It’s our job to live like we really believe Jesus actually is bringing in God’s kingdom, and to realize that we get to practice living like Jesus’ disciples and citizens of this new kingdom in the meantime.” So knowing we can’t attain the kind of life Jesus describes in this sermon, we get to practice living like disciples. How?
Here’s a sliver of Good News to get us started: the Greek verb translated as “to be perfect” in Jesus’ command is actually more accurately translated “to be as fully developed as possible,” or “to be mature” or “to have attained the goal.” It’s like a peach tree bearing peaches is perfect or an archer’s arrow finding its mark is perfect. They are doing what they were meant to do, being what they were meant to be. When Jesus calls us to be perfect, he isn’t commanding us to be sinless; he knows that isn’t possible. What he’s urging us to do is to live into our full potential, to embrace our authentic identities as children of God, and grow into grow into the “little Christs” we are called to be, each in our own unique contexts.
Like Jesus, we are called to be radical and countercultural in our interactions with our neighbors, including the ones we prefer not to think of as our neighbors, as those families from Mother Emanuel Church so vividly demonstrated. Jesus makes it abundantly clear here (and in other parts of Scripture) that we are not to retaliate when someone behaves badly toward us. But I want to be clear that this does not mean we are to be doormats. As Paul tells the Corinthians, our bodies are the temples where God lives, and these temples must be treated with honor and dignity.
That’s why I want to unpack this verse about turning the other cheek when someone strikes you. It is among the most misused passages in the Bible, one that generations of misguided people have cited to coerce frightened wives to stay with abusive husbands, or to force oppressed groups to submit to their oppressors, or to shame a victim of bullying into refraining from protecting themselves. How can the Jesus who said, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10) suggest to someone whose very existence is being threatened, “not resist one who is evil”?
What I want to make crystal clear here is that Jesus resisted every sort of evil with every fiber of his being. What he didn’t do, however, was retaliate. “Don’t return evil for evil,” is how St. Paul put in his letter to the Romans. The key to knowing what to do with evil is inside the Greek word for RESIST. In Greek it doesn’t just imply “holding back.” It’s more accurately interpreted, “Don’t meet evil on its own terms.” Jesus wants his followers to subvert evil intentions instead of combating them their own terms. Jesus was all about creative and peaceful non-violent resistance, and we should be too.
Theologian Walter Wink wrote a series of books about creative resistance, and presents a helpful framework for this passage. In The Powers That Be he writes: “Imagine if I were your assailant and I were to strike a blow with my right fist at your face, which cheek would it land on? (VOLUNTEERS ACT THIS OUT) It would be the left. It is the wrong cheek in terms of the text we are looking at. Jesus says, ‘If anyone strikes you on the right cheek . . . .’ I could hit you on the right cheek if I used a left hook, but that would be impossible in Semitic society because the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. You couldn’t even gesture with your left hand in public. The only way I could hit you on the right cheek would be with the back of the hand.”
A backhanded slap is not intended to hurt, typically. It’s symbolic, a sign of the power and superiority of the one bestowing it. Jesus considers belittling someone else to be evil, and so while he doesn’t advocate striking back, he does encourage people to resist by offering the other cheek. “Don’t allow yourself to be humiliated,” he’s saying. Don’t let someone suggest that you are inferior. Turn the other cheek, making it impossible for your assailant to backhand you a second time. “You can’t backhand someone twice,” Wink observes. “It’s like telling a joke a second time. If it doesn’t work the first time, it has failed. By turning the other cheek, you are defiantly saying to the master, ‘I refuse to be humiliated by you any longer. I am a human being just like you. I am a child of God. You can’t put me down even if you have me killed.'” Turning the other cheek brings you eye to eye with your assailant. And that puts you in the defiant position of insistence that the bully is neither more nor less human than you are.
When the people of Mother Emanuel forgave the murderer in their midst, they didn’t say he hadn’t done anything wrong or dismiss the way he’d wreaked chaos in their community. But they didn’t try to hurt him the way they had been hurt by him. Instead, they rose above his shameful behavior. They looked for the human being inside that bully, and forgave him for the sake of Jesus. They turned the other cheek. And we, too, are called to face down those who want to belittle and diminish us or any of God’s people. We are called to be imaginative and clever but not cruel.
And that’s why the Civil Rights workers in the 1960’s trained their protestors to take all kinds of racial slurs and physical abuse without striking back. That’s why brave black teenagers at a lunch counter in a segregated Woolworth’s let themselves be mocked, have sodas and mustard poured on them, but never lowered themselves to respond. They were claiming their humanity in the center of inhumanity, and right in front of TV cameras who made sure everyone could see who was maintaining dignity in that scene. But what does it look like to turn the other cheek in 2017 in Madison?
It might look like a parade of people in pink kitty hats announcing that “Women are people too.” It might look like harboring families in church buildings—literally, sanctuaries—so that they won’t be divided by deportation. It might look like an art gallery removing all its art created by immigrants for a day in order to drive home how diminished our society would be without their contributions. Probably you can think of other examples of turning the other cheek. The guiding principle is that the resistance announces the equal worth of all people, especially—but not only—those who are being mistreated.
Maybe these actions sounds foolish to you. What good can come out of black kids being beaten for refusing to leave a lunch counter? What difference does a parade around the Square by people with clever signs make? Does it change the fact that these are tiny gestures against bigger, stronger, and more fierce opponents? Don’t forget Paul’s assurance that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God,” and that God’s foolish teachings like “turn the other cheek,” might have a deeper wisdom than one first sees. Remember that in the book of Judges, after the people of God marched around the walls of Jericho blowing their trumpets day after day, the wall collapsed!
It isn’t easy to stand firm in the face of bullying and violence. It’s tempting to either fight fire with fire or to crawl under the covers and do nothing. Jesus gets that, just as he gets everything we experience. Jesus knew exactly how it felt to have people say and do hateful and cruel things to him, to wonder if anything he said was getting through to people. He experienced physical torture, wrongful imprisonment, unjust conviction, and execution. But Jesus never struck back, never bullied anyone. With all of his miraculous power, Jesus never once used it to take away life, or make anyone feel smaller or less important. Everything Jesus did, he did so that people’s lives would be richer, healthier, stronger, and more lovely—even people who bullied him! Jesus offered himself, his whole life, for everyone: for me, and for you, and, yes, for our enemies.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That is really hard. That’s probably why Jesus commands it, rather than just suggesting it as a good idea. Why do it? What happens when we bring our enemies into God’s presence? Sometimes it makes it possible for us to erase the boundaries we create of who is superior and who is inferior, who is a friend and who is an enemy. It isn’t up to us to save them; that God’s job. But we are told to bring them into God’s presence. And there we all are—sinner and sinned against—utterly dependent on God’s mercy and grace.
Praying for our enemies helps us resist, for it actualizes Paul’s admonition to the church: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you?” When we take seriously the idea that we are God’s house, living bricks and mortar, we move closer to being our authentic selves. We grow toward being perfect as our father in heaven in perfect. St. Augustine would invite people to eat the Lord’s Supper with these words “Receive who you are” and then he would send them off urging them to “go become what you have received.”
~Pastor Susan Schneider