Epiphany 7, Year A, 2011

I have a confession.

I have a big problem with our Gospel lesson today.  Rather, I have a problem with the way this text has been used in the Church.  This gospel lesson has been used as a justification for people staying in abusive relationships and I have to address that before I can move on and preach the text.

Domestic violence is a huge problem in the world and in our community.  Domestic abuse—whether verbal or physical—is not limited to other classes or races.  Some of the worst domestic violence cases I’ve encountered were situations in which both partners had multiple degrees and extremely high incomes.

There is almost certainly at least one couple in an abusive relationship here today.

Historically, the Christian church has not done a great job of helping victims of abuse leave their partners.  Passages like the one today have been quoted to victims—often women—and these women for generations have been told to turn the other cheek and to stay faithful to their vows.

I want to be very clear that I, with great confidence, do not believe Jesus was addressing people in abusive domestic situations here.  Remember, last week we read verses 21-22 of this same chapter,

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

What is domestic abuse if not a violent combination of anger and condescension as described here? Jesus unequivocally condemns abusive behavior.

If you are currently in an abusive relationship, or you are not sure but you think you may be in one, please contact Father Paul or me. Our conversation will be confidential and we will try to get you the help that you need.  You can also contact the organization Woman Space, who are experts in these matters.  Their web address is womanspace.org.  Their chaplain, Susan Victor, is wonderful and will be leading our adult forum next Sunday.

Okay, moving on to the text.

We are still hearing The Sermon on the Mount and Jesus is still referring to Hebrew Law and then upping the ante.

The old law, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was developed to stop people from trying to right wrongs with disproportionate violence.  This way, if a sheep was stolen, the sheep needed to be replaced, rather than the other farmer’s farm being burned to the ground.  The law was designed to rein in our impulse for revenge that escalates our conflicts.   It’s a pretty good law!  It’s sensible!

But Jesus turns the tables and tells his audience that if they are slapped on one cheek to offer their other cheek!  And if someone steals their coat, they are to give them their cloak as well!

At first it appears that Jesus is encouraging victimhood, that the Christian’s role in the world is to be pathetic and taken advantage of.  But Jesus knows that the power of God is not going to be shown through spectacular acts of revenge—anyone can enact revenge.  The power of God is shown through strength of character and through love.  And really, what shows more strength then calmly and steadily turning one’s face to receive a second blow?  And imagine if a Roman on a horse came by and stole your coat, how better to illuminate the bad behavior of the Roman than by offering him your cloak, which was the only garment you had left to keep you warm.

What shows more strength than loving your enemies?  It does not take much character or will power to hate your enemies.  If your upstairs neighbor plays his music too loudly, and won’t turn it down when you ask politely, it’s much easier to call the police than to bake the guy some brownies and ask him nicely one more time.

Walter Wink, a professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn University, supports the view that Jesus is not asking his followers to be victims. He believes the word for resist—antistenai—is mistranslated here, since the same word is used to describe warfare in other parts of the Bible.   He believes Jesus intends to communicate that his believers should not resist evil violently. Wink argues that Jesus resisted evil all the time, whenever he encountered it, so it would not make sense for him to tell his believers not to resist evil.  Wink believes Jesus is trying to stop the cycle of violence. [1]

Martin Luther King, Jr. understood the power of this point of view.  Rather than interpreting “turning the other cheek” as blind acceptance of the abuse of power, he used the text alongside Ghandi’s teaching to help create the peaceful protests of the Civil Rights era.  In 1964, Gunnar Jahn, who was presenting King with the peace prize, quoted King as saying,

If you will protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written [in future generations], the historians will [have to pause and] say: “There lived a great people – a black people who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.” This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.[2]

King demonstrated to us that turning the other cheek, refusing to respond to violence with violence, can change an entire country.  We saw similar protests earlier this month in Egypt, which also affected great change.

And maybe the great large scale non-violent protests do have something to say to us about our personal struggles.

Maybe there is something to be said for maintaining one’s dignity and continuing to act in a kind a loving manner when someone is trying to dominate or take advantage of you.  Of course that does not mean we have to yield to the demands of the person with power.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue, because I’m hearing from more and more of our kids about bullying in school.  Even our little second and third graders are trying to figure out what it means to stand up for yourself, but still be a kind and loving person.  How do we teach kids about the injustice of the world?  That people behave in rotten ways, even people who are not inherently rotten?  How do we so root them in God’s love that they can move confidently through life, knowing their valued place in the world?  How can we help prepare them to be non-violent resisters, who don’t accept bullying as the status quo and help to change the culture in their schools?  Seriously, if you figure this out, please let me know!

In the meantime, those of us who are adults can start to act out resisting evil in a way that show the evildoers that we are different.  Yes, we will stand up for ourselves.  But we will conduct ourselves with the highest ethical behavior.  We will not bully back, or slander, or slash tires, or gossip.  We will not throw a punch or destroy someone’s credit rating.  We will protect ourselves and our families, by distancing ourselves from the evildoers, or by going through appropriate legal channels, but we will also treat the person who torments us with dignity and we will pray for them.

This may seem difficult when our blood is boiling, but Jesus is looking out for us when he ups the ante on these laws.  He knows that perpetuating the cycle of violence only brings harm to everyone involved.  He knows that living a life of dignity and restraint will help us not only be more faithful Christians, but be happier, to boot!

When we learn how to lovingly and firmly resist evil; when we find a way to see the humanity in our enemy; we are given a kind of freedom.  Jesus shows us a way to live our lives in which our identity is so rooted in being children of God that our enemies’ behavior does not define us.  We may not feel stronger than our enemies, but God is always stronger than evil and we belong to God.

Thanks be to God.

[1] http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/wink_3707.htm

[2] King, Martin Luther as quoted by Jahn, Gunnar in his 1964 speech presenting King with the Nobel Prize.  http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/press.html


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