I remember being down in Mexico one time when my grandparent’s neighbor came to the house with a machete, cursing my grandfather. I don’t remember the source of the guy’s irritation—maybe one of my grandfather’s dogs had killed one of his chickens or pigs—or knowing this guy, maybe one of my grandfather’s dogs didn’t bow appropriately in the presence of one of the guy’s chickens or pigs. I really don’t remember, only that he was vexed enough to swing a machete around my grandfather.
Now, I’m not a violent man, but you don’t get to threaten my family with a machete without me getting my econo-size load of dander up. I said, “Grandpa, do you want me to take care of this guy?”
What I was going to do to a man flailing away with a machete wasn’t immediately clear to me. But I was, as we used to say in the mountains, fixin’ to find out.
My grandfather, a former marine who wasn’t necessarily opposed to violence gave me one of those impatient grandfather-side-eyes, and said, “Just let me take care of this.”
I figured that one of two things would happen: either my grandfather would beat this man senseless (or maybe I’d have to) or he’d cave in just to keep the peace.
It didn’t turn out that way. My grandfather put his hands up and said, “Señor, do you really want to kill me?”
The angry neighbor shook his head. But of course that didn’t take care of the matter of his chicken or pig or whatever it was.
“Well, if killing me’s not at the top of your to-do list, perhaps together we can figure out some way to fix this. I’d rather have you as my neighbor than my enemy. I’m willing to buy you a new chicken to save us both a lot of heartache. Because if you kill me, you’re going to have a lot bigger problems than a dead animal—and me, I won’t have any problems anymore, but all the abandoned children I’m raising certainly will.”
The angry neighbor put the machete down, and my grandpa put his arm around the guy and walked him back to his house.
This or that.
Generally, that’s how we’ve been taught to treat Jesus’ odd lesson from the Gospel today: You can be strong and violent or you can be weak and passive. Your choice.
And because we know that Jesus couldn’t possibly mean that we should be passive, could never choose the negative side of the binary, commentators have spilled a lot of ink trying to get Jesus not to say what he said.
“Well, you know. Jesus didn’t literally mean “turn the other cheek. He meant, you know, be nice . . . well, pretty nice.”
“But Jesus didn’t mean” as one commentator suggested, “for us to let someone hit us twice without trying to defend ourselves against bodily harm. Only a nut teaches something like that.”
See how it works? You can be violent and strong, or you can be non-violent and a nut. Your choice.
But what if the world isn’t made up entirely of either/or-s, split down the middle, drawing a line between good and evil, strong and weak, violent and nonviolent?
What if there’s another way? What if Jesus is pointing to the radical nature of God’s unfolding reign, and setting down the ground rules for those who want to participate in it.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus does something radical. He talks about violence and retaliation. That he doesn’t insist that his followers become ancient Judean versions of Batman, confronting evil and beating it down, should surprise no one who knows much about him. Unlike other messiahs, he’s not a leader for whom retribution is the primary motivation.
On the other hand, Jesus doesn’t insist that his followers become a doormat to anyone with a surly attitude and the power to enforce it either. Unlike popular conceptions of Jesus’ ethics, he isn’t laying the groundwork for what Nietzsche called “slave morality”—the denial of true goodness and nobility by making a virtue of necessity in insisting that weakness and humility are instead good and noble things.
Nietzsche complains that because of Jesus Christians have ruined morality by convincing everyone that weakness is a good thing. Because of Jesus and his focus on self-sacrifice, Nietzsche says, servility, cowardice, and impotence have displaced power, courage, and strength as virtues. Rather than Batman, Jesus gave us Dilbert.
In our passage for this morning Jesus tells his followers to do something different, something odd, something so outrageous that it suggests nothing short of revolution. He breaks the binary, the either/or. Instead of saying, “You only have two choices, either fight or roll over and die,” Jesus gives us a new way to respond to those who would hurt and humiliate us.
As David Lose says, “Jesus isn’t trying to modify the rules of the world [in which the strong prevail]. He’s not, contrary to prosperity preachers, inviting you to figure out how to make the most of this world or have your best life now. And he’s not even inviting you to find a safe port amid the storms of this world. Rather, he’s starting a revolution by calling the rules of this world into question and, at the very same time, redeeming this world that he loves and that will, in due time, put him to death.”
How does he do this?
He starts out with the Lex Talionis—the “law of retaliation.” You know, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The punishment should fit the crime. Pretty standard feature of ancient law. One of its primary aims was to prevent the escalation of violence in blood feuds: Your retaliation can only mirror the violation done to you—you don’t get an extra pound of flesh.
But Jesus says, as satisfying as an eye-for-an-eye is, I want you to do something crazy: If somebody strikes you on the right cheek, I don’t want you retaliating by hitting that person on the cheek. That would be the sane, acceptable, eye-for-an-eye thing to do. Don’t start any fights, but you don’t necessarily have to walk away from them either.
No. Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to upset the current power arrangements that tell you that your only options are hitting back or walking away. I want you to respond by offering up your left cheek.
If you hit someone standing opposite you on the right cheek, if you’re right-handed, you have to do it backhanded. A backhanded blow, in the ancient Near East wasn’t a blow intended for physical harm. It was, much like today, a blow of contempt. An insult. The way a master struck a slave or a parent struck a child. It was a display of power.
To refuse either to fight or surrender, to offer up the other cheek was to choose a third way between violence and capitulation. It was a non-violent choice that exposed a system designed to control and humiliate. I don’t have to fight or run away. I can retain my dignity on God’s terms—and not on yours.
The same thing happens with the next example Jesus gives. “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”
What’s going on here?
In Deuteronomy [24:10-13], we’re told about a system in which a poor person borrows money, offering a coat as collateral. However, the lender is to bring back the coat at sunset, so the poor person won’t have to sleep in the cold—an act designed to preserve the dignity and the well-being of those who literally have nothing left to give but “the shirt off their backs.”
So, in Jesus’ hands, we have the lender taking advantage of the poor by demanding payment . . . with the threat of the keeping the coat. Jesus says, “Don’t attack the unjust lender, but don’t just cave in either. Give your coat. Then take off the only other garment you have, your cloak, and hand that over too.”
In other words, show the world what’s going on. Reveal a humiliating system that keeps you under the thumb of the powerful. Stand there naked for everyone to see. You can respond to the one shaming you by revealing just how shameful this whole system of injustice really is—with a few people holding all the clothes, and everyone else having to walk around naked.
Go the extra mile? Same thing. In the Roman Empire, soldiers had the right to compel a subject person to carry the soldier’s pack for up to a mile. Soldiers were not, however, allowed to abuse people—or they could be punished themselves. By going a second mile, you could take back the initiative, revealing the abuse of power and placing the soldier on the defensive for fear of being punished as an abuser.
Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you? In a culture in which you lend money to those who can repay you as a way of accruing honor to yourself, Jesus offers, as Warren Carter points out, “an alternative system without exploitation, reciprocity, and self-aggrandizement.”
Give to anyone who begs. Easy. The system already allows for that. Giving to those who beg from you is a way of showing mercy.
But it’s not enough. Jesus adds a revolutionary new wrinkle: Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. Here’s a way of subverting a system built on maintaining power arrangements . . . by refusing to keep score, by rejecting the notion that there are some who are deserving and others who are merely dead weight.
You see what’s going on here, right? Jesus calls his followers to play by a different set of rules—not one that surrenders, but one that requires great imagination and courage to shine a bright light on a system that thinks violence and resignation are the only possible options, to subvert an arrangement that only understands domination and submission, to challenge the human habit of thinking in binaries.
Oh, come on. Be realistic. You can’t oppose the powers of this world without exerting power yourself. Everybody knows that. Either go big or go home.
How can privileged people make a difference in a world where police offers repeatedly kill black men with impunity?
I mean, seriously, what would that even look like in our world today? Only a nut teaches something like that.
There was a great story in the Huffington Post a few years back, headlined: 84-Year-Old Nun Sentenced To Nearly 3 Years In Prison For Nuclear Plant Break-In.
Here’s what happened: Sister Megan Rice, and two other peace activists, broke into a nuclear weapons complex and, over the course of two hours, defaced a bunker holding weapons-grade uranium. The demonstration was intended to expose the security problems in the nuclear weapons industry.
In explaining her actions, Sister Megan Rice told the judge: “This is for the next generation and it is for these people that we’re willing to give our lives.”
“In her closing statement, Rice asked the judge to sentence her to life in prison, even though sentencing guidelines called for about six years.
“‘Please have no leniency with me,’ she said. ‘To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest gift you could give me.’”
You see what she’s doing, right? She’s neither resisting the evil done to her, nor caving in and doing nothing. She’s subverting a system that would throw little old nuns in jail to make an example of them for everyone else. The message is clear: Stay in your place, keep your head down, mind your own business.
But Sister Megan Rice follows Jesus. She says to the powers-that-be: Here’s my left cheek; strike that one too. Here’s my coat and my cloak. You want me to do three years? I’ll do twice that; I’ll do six, or ten, or twenty. Heck, I’ll give you the rest of my life . . . just so everyone will know how ridiculous this system is, just so everyone will see how you keep your jobs by pushing around little old nuns.
But this shouldn’t surprise us. Sister Megan Rice learned this right from Jesus. She understands that Jesus knows how to end a fight.
If you have the courage to go poking around at the foot of the cross, there’s an 84-year-old nun I bet you’ll bump into there.
She knows. That’s how you start a revolution.