Bible Reading: Matthew 5: 38-48
mercy is as high as Heaven and your truth so perfect. I live in sorrow,
imprisoned. You are my light, your glory, my support. Behold not with malevolence
the sins of man but forgive and cleanse; and so, O Lord protect us beneath your
wings, and let peace be our portion now and forever more. Amen.
This was a prayer of Queen Lili’ulokalani of Hawaii in 1895, while she was under house arrest in Iolani Palace. The Queen had, by request, drafted a constitution that would eliminate the Republic, and restore the monarchy's authority and allow Asians to vote. She was overthrown by a consortium of American and European businessmen, who then annexed Hawaii to the US by force.
We might be forgiven for thinking Jesus is saying something new in our gospel reading for today. "In fact, he wasn’t. The principles of non-violent resistance were known in Babylon and Egypt, by Greek and Roman philosophers, and promoted in wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures. Proverbs 25 says "If the one who hate you is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. For you will heap burning coals upon his head, and Yahweh will repay you."
So let’s talk about “turning the other cheek”, “going the extra mile”, and “giving up your clothes”. We today have turned these into a kind of wimpy notion that Christians should be doormats. We have gone to extraordinary lengths to explain why, in the real world, being a doormat won’t work; then we rationalise our violence and retaliation. I put to you that Jesus was anything but a doormat. No one could get in people’s faces better than Jesus. He did it without malice or revenge, he never retaliated; he always spoke with truth, and always with love for the other person.
In “Engaging the Powers”, and “Jesus’ Third Way”, Rev. Dr. Walter Wink explains this passage as statements of non-violent resistance. The Jews were technically under the rule of the Romans, who grudgingly allowed them to practice their faith so long as they remained obedient to Caesar.
In Jesus’ culture, a back-handed slap to the right cheek was reserved for equals. The left hand was used for toilet functions, so would not likely be used for anything else, since that would shame the one doing the slapping. Usually, an open-handed slap with the right hand on the left cheek would be reserved for those people who were considered inferior. If that so-called inferior turned the other cheek, the perpetrator would be forced to do a back-handed slap, which was reserved for equals. So Jesus is saying two things - don’t resist your oppressor - turn the other cheek, which means your oppressor must then treat you as an equal.
It is a way of throwing the oppressor off-balance so that they have to look at their own behaviour.
Most people in Jesus’ time didn’t have more than two pieces of clothing - an outer garment which could be taken if one was sued. However, to surrender your inner garment as well, would leave you naked. Being seen naked would shame the perpetrator - and to see someone naked was more shameful than *being* naked.
Roman soldiers could force someone to carry their load for only one mile; they could not make a person do it for two miles. If that happened, the Roman could be in danger of losing his job, or maybe sent to outer Mongolia. So Jesus says if you are forced to carry it one mile, volunteer for two. Can you imagine the soldier chasing someone around trying to get his pack back so he won’t get into trouble?
Jesus knew exactly what effect these actions would have, and wanted to be really clear with the people who heard him what this meant. So we get the further statement to love your enemies. Jesus is saying that if you do these things out of a desire to get revenge for the way you are being treated, you have lost sight of the principles. Love - and actions taken in love and compassion - can show the perpetrator the injustice of their actions, and bring about change and redemption. Jesus is telling us that the point is the action, not the reception.
How can we adapt these principles for our time and place?
In the documentary "Praying the Devil Back To Hell" the Christian and Muslim women of Liberia formed a prayer alliance to stop the civil war. Every day they gathered across from the presidential palace to pray for peace. At long last the country’s many factions met in neighbouring Ghana for peace talks. After weeks of the talks getting nowhere, the women sat in the halls and in front of the doors, locking the "men" in until peace was agreed. When threatened with forced eviction, the women responded by threatening to remove the only thing they had left, their clothes. The men, who would be shamed at seeing their "mothers" naked, signed a peace treaty.
Rev. Marilyn MacDonald writes “Mahatma Ghandi not only 'drew from Jesus' but was very clear that his approach was a following of Jesus' way and teaching. His favourite hymn was 'When I survey the wondrous cross,'; he began each morning with a reading of the Beatitudes from Matthew. I remember, as a child in India when he was still alive, hearing that he would have become a 'Christian', except that when he decided to go to a church service, he was told that the church for coloureds was down the street. That was in South Africa.
Gandhi drew from Jesus - and without his actions, which eventually brought about emancipation and independence for India, would those results have come about? Ghandi was clear where he learned non-violent resistance.
Now, the actions of Jesus put the Romans in a position where they were shamed. Gandhi's actions put the British in a position where they were shamed. It doesn't mean that they did it on purpose to shame, nor does it mean that there is no care or compassion for the oppressors: it means the opposite, that they are converted by actions done out of love.
Neither Jesus nor Gandhi talked about “eros”, romantic love, or “philia, love between friends. Martin Luther King, another proponent of non-violent protest said of love: “. when we talk of loving those who oppose you and those who seek to defeat you we are not talking about eros or philia. The Greek language comes out with another word and it is agape. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive good will for all [men]. Biblical theologians would say it is the love of God working in the minds of ...human beings. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. When you come to love on this level you begin to love people not because they are likeable, not because they do things that attract us, but because God loves them; here we love the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does.”
Far from being easy, the kind of love and the kind of call to non-violent resistance to evil is the most difficult thing to do. Could we do it? Could we refuse to retaliate in anger? Would we? Would we say that our anger was justified and therefore God would stand behind it? I think in these passages, Jesus is saying - there is a third way, and it’s hard. But just as God is perfect, so we are called to strive to do the same, no matter how difficult it may be. Jesus knew it was not easy, he knew what the actions could mean, he knew that loving one’s enemies might require even a loss of life. We are called to resist evil actions, and love those who do them. Just as God loves. May it be so.
Acknowledgements Rev Fran Harp; Rev. Dr. Walter Wink