Tricky Jesus 1 - Turn the other cheek
Last Sunday, New Zealand lost a great man, in the person of Sir Paul Reeves. To me, one of the most significant dimensions of Sir Paul's heritage is that he was a son of Taranaki, someone who stood in the lineage of his Parihaka tupuna Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi. Sir Paul's efforts throughout New Zealand and the world, to find common ground and to resolve conflict through peaceful dialogue, were in the spirit of the Parihaka legacy – a legacy of passive resistance, of non-violent opposition to oppression.
And so I thought it fitting to begin this new sermon series on the parables and difficult sayings of Jesus by revisiting that challenging part of the Sermon on the Mount that we find in chapter 5, vv38-42.
You have heard how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer no resistance to the wicked. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if someone wishes to go to law with you to get your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone requires you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Give to anyone who asks you, and if anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away.
The original law of 'eye for eye and tooth for tooth' is found in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and strange as it may sound to us now, the intent of this law was actually to limit disproportionate revenge. In a newly formed, tribal society, it is easy to imagine people going over the top in their retribution of offences done against them, or indeed their slaves. One example of this is in Genesis, where a descendent of Cain crows: “I killed a man for wounding me, a boy for striking me.” It's the kind of thing you expect from the Sopranos, or Sons of Anarchy – a delight in revenge that's violently incommensurate with the nature of the original crime. And so the Lex Talionis, 'eye for eye' law has the social function of constraining the natural impulse to strike back in rage when you've suffered an injury.
What is Jesus doing with this law? And how can we accept his teaching when it seems to advocate not only putting up with violence and violation without complaint, but actually asking for more? And what does offering 'no resistance to the wicked' have to do with the Parihaka tradition of non-violent resistance that I started off talking about?
As he is doing throughout this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is taking Old Testament law, and finding its inner principle – the spirit, rather than the letter of the law. And invariably, the spirit of the law, the 'new standard' of Jesus, is higher and harder than the former, external standard. His teachings are aspirational, ideals to strive toward as we grow and mature, rather than accommodations to our weakness.
I hear him saying “at a certain time in our history, we needed external rules to tell us what we could and couldn't do. These laws were and are necessary for governing society. And they were set at a level that was realistic for a human society to live by. But I am here to teach you how to be the kind of person who is so transformed by your relationship with God, that all that is good and humane about the law will arise spontaneously from within you, and become part of your character. This won't happen straight away, and you will fall short of this way of being, but with God there is forgiveness, and when my Spirit lives in you, you will have extra help to live a life that flows from God.”
So in this teaching, where he refutes the 'eye for eye, tooth for tooth' idea, he isn't just providing limits on revenge and retribution, he's challenging us to rid ourselves of the impulse to revenge altogether. Our natural, defended, animal response to being hurt is to hurt back. Our reptile brain, when threatened, reverts to only two options – fight or flight. So if someone comes at us fists swinging, or with a legal writ seeking to screw money out of us, or if someone makes unjust demands of our time or our energy, our hind brain rises up and we either run away, or we raise our own fists or our voices, get our own lawyer and sue for damages and costs along the way, or enter into extensive complaint procedures against the person who has wronged us.
Jesus says that there is another response. And in exploring this other response I don't want us to be too literal minded. Just a few verses earlier, Jesus was advocating cutting off our hands and plucking out our eyes if they are leading us into sin. You don't see too many people following that suggestion to the letter. When Jesus says – 'offer the other cheek, give your cloak as well, and go two miles instead of one', I don't think he's seeking to re-traumatise the traumatised, or turning a blind eye to abuse, or wanting to turn people into weak doormats incapable of righting an injustice when they see one. I think he's being deliberately poetic and rhetorically memorable with these statements. They're meant to be surprising. In essence, I think he's saying: “find a creative response based on giving and forgiving, that lets you opt out of fight or flight.” Or, “When you're provoked,and your adrenaline kicks in, and all your defence mechanisms come into play, what can you do to stop being an object that's being 'acted on', and instead become a subject who acts and chooses freely?” How will you, in your every day life, become a peace maker, rather than someone who just reacts, and reacts in a way conditioned by a tendency to revenge?
I'd like to make a demonstration here of one of the ways I've read this passage interpreted, that may cast some light on the link between this teaching of Jesus and the principle of non-violent resistance.
[Invite someone to come forward and establish which is their right cheek. 'Strike' them with a back-hander onto their right cheek. Then have them offer the other cheek.]
Now while that might have been a too literal engagement with the passage, what that demonstrates to me is how it's one thing to hit another person in a fit of anger or a momentary reaction, but it's quite another thing to deliberately and cold-bloodedly engage in an act of violence. What [xxx] has done in that situation is upped the stakes. They've brought light and clarity into the situation by naming my casual, and under-the radar, and possibly habitual, violence for what it is – not in words, but in the action of saying – 'let's be clear exactly what the dynamic is here. You are going to hit me, and I am not going to hit you back. Will you live with that?' When a systematic or unthinking act of oppression is taking place, and those on the receiving end don't just cower in a corner, or engage in understandable but predictable acts of outrage and return violence, but instead engage in a surprising, creative act of exposure, then the tables are turned and the original perpetrator is exposed for what they are.
That's what happened at Parihaka. After a series of acts of resistance by the people of Parihaka, continuing to occupy confiscated land, and going on ploughing land that had been taken from the tribe and given to settlers, the government ordered troops to storm the village. But instead of defensive fighting, the agents of colonial violence were met by hundreds of children, skipping and singing and offering food. You could argue that Jesus' teaching meant that when the land grab was going on, the people of Parihaka should have given up their land and added in a few extra acres to boot. But what they actually did was, I think, closer to the spirit of the gospel. They did not engage in violence, the currency of war and killing that was taking over the whole country. They did not exact revenge. They held their spiritual centre, and they came up with ways to make it quite clear to the government of the day that what they were doing was wrong...as wrong as it would have been for them to shoot the children who greeted them on 5 November 1881.
This teaching of Jesus puts a spoke in the wheel of retribution that otherwise just goes on turning and turning. Reconciliation can only come when one party, usually the one that has been wronged, refuses to see themselves as a slave or a victim to the situation that is unfolding, and instead sees themselves as having something to offer, something to give. And all that can be given, sometimes is forgiveness.
We see this borne out in Jesus' own life. Later in the gospel of Matthew we will see him being arrested, and rebuking his followers for getting out their swords and fighting back. 'Put your sword away,' he says to his disciple, 'for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.' And he healed the ear of the man who was arresting him. Jesus allowed himself, in the end, to be mocked, beaten, and killed, rather than to fight back and possibly spark insurrection and more killings. In Luke's gospel we hear him say 'Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.'
Those of us who follow Jesus are unlikely to suffer in our bodies the way that Jesus did. We are unlikely to be asked to die rather than fight back. But all of us confront situations regularly where our hind brain rises up, our cheeks flush red, our fingers twitch on the computer keyboard, our voice gets harsh, and all we want to do is strike out, hurt the person who is hurting us, flame them, shame them, hit them and annihilate them. To us in those moments Jesus says, 'don't be a slave – a slave to a cycle of vengeance, or to your baser instincts. Be creative. Love calls you to keep your centre, and if you can, respond to this situation with such generosity that the ill will of the other is laid bare. Give your tormentor the gift of realising the smallness what they are doing, by staying a large human being yourself.'
Which brings me back to the large human being that I started off by talking about – the late Sir Paul Reeves. In 2009, he was part of a team that completed a $25 million Treaty land settlement with the government. Parliament approved the settlement, and the Crown apologised. Sir Paul replied on behalf of his people, with a statement of forgiveness, the first time that had happened from the tribes that have settled treaty claims. 'And now it is finished' he said, and went on to say 'Our forgiveness comes from our painful history...and apology, forgiveness, leads on to the greatest prize, which is reconciliation.'
As reported in the NZ Herald, Sir Ngatata Love, also part of the Te Atiawa claim, said that gesture said much about Sir Paul's faith and character. "The way he thought was if someone you know humbles themselves, then people must be dignified and say, 'We now move on'."
When someone chooses to be humble, that calls out dignity from the other. Violence and contempt breeds more violence and contempt. Humility that is chosen and not compelled, brings out the best, most human, response in others. This is what Jesus taught us. This is how Sir Paul lived, in imitation of his Master. Let us go and do likewise.