Monday, February 21, 2011

Turn the Other Cheek

Scripture for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany includes Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

On these late Epiphany Sundays we’re hearing Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, piecemeal, not all at once. Our Lord’s social vision is deeply challenging, and hearing it in installments may give us all we can handle at one sitting.

Hearing verses from Leviticus, the law book of Israel, helps us gauge how novel Jesus’s teachings were—and were not. To borrow language from St. Paul, Jesus is both laying a fresh foundation—I find his insistence on loving our enemies boldly revolutionary, don’t you?—while he’s also building on the ancient foundation of enlightened Jewish law. We hear an example of ancient inspiration in the command not to harvest all the square footage of a field: leave some for the poor. Like loving your enemies, not claiming every square foot you’ve got coming to you might be called unnatural. But this shows how law can breed in us finer instincts and a higher nature.

Today’s portion of his sermon shows Jesus tearing down an ancient keystone that he declares unworthy of any further obedience, and that is the standard of retributive justice, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Once upon a time, that had been a step up the evolutionary ladder from wild unrestrained revenge. But here, two thousand years ago, Jesus declares it uninspiring, not suited to undergirding his social vision, inadequate to describe and advance the Kingdom of God.

Notice how Jesus reaches into the gutter of ordinary violence to find inspiring standards for human behavior. And if I’m not mistaken, he implies—without saying it, but it’s there between the lines—it may be pillars of society, and it may be the emperor’s soldiers, who are the worst evildoers. Any thug can strike you on the cheek, but Jesus’s hearers would instantly recognize the heavy hand of the wealthy who would sue a poor farmer, unashamed to sue the pants off him (or, in this case, to take his coat), and the even heavier hand of the emperor’s finest, soldiers who ran roughshod over people in the street. Those armored keepers of the Pax Romana were authorized to press ordinary people into carrying soldiers’ packs and commandeered supplies one mile, and they surely weren’t above making that two miles.

“Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”

Mary Gaitskill has a fiction piece in the last New Yorker, a chilling tale of a now responsible citizen who as a teenager cultivated fantasies of domination, twisting him to try what he was thinking. Stealing a pistol from his friend’s home, he hitchhiked one day and was picked up by a woman who fitted his fantasies (older than he’d wanted, forty or so, but still good-looking). Adrenaline rushing his system, he pulled out the pistol and threatened to shoot this woman if she didn’t drive him to a certain place. Instead, she instantly pulled over, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “Go ahead. I’m ready.” Pointing to her forehead, she ordered him, “Put it right there.” Opening her jacket, she directed him, “Or there. Come on, honey. Go for it.”

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go, for the boy. He felt power draining out of him, lost his nerve. “Get out of my car,” the driver said to her dangerous passenger, “You’re wasting my time.”

There’s more to that story, more than I need to tell you. You may find it surprising that I’ve told you what I have—and I have because I can’t help seeing it as a powerful variation on the expected passive stereotype of what it means to turn the other cheek. In this story, the author creates a turning of the cheek that saves a woman’s life. Though she is left a victim of assault, she has wielded authority in a potent compliance that resists an evildoer by disarming his mind. In a moment of life or death, this woman chose life.

No, I’m not forgetting that Jesus commanded his disciples not to resist an evildoer. But I’m sure that he did not have in mind this woman’s dilemma. I expect he was asking his disciples to reject the insurgency of the Zealots, the super-patriots who would turn every struck cheek and commandeered cloak and forced second mile into an assassinated Roman soldier or a murdered Jewish collaborator. You may recall that Zealots appeared in the crowds around Jesus, even in the circle of his disciples were one or two who had, or still had, the Zealot in them. Jesus put them on notice that zeal which becomes hatred, zeal which becomes violence, cannot advance the Kingdom of God.

Every day for weeks now, we have watched tens and hundreds of thousands of zealous people demonstrating in the public squares of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya, walking along the razor-edge, on one side their peaceful protest, on the other military and police response.

Images from Egypt show persevering demonstrators bandaged from yesterday’s wounds, ready again to run the same risk, turning the other cheek, day after day. This turning is not passive: it is powerful, a matter of life and death, and its results are changing the very course of history.

And we hold our breath, praying that what results from this courageous confrontation makes for peace and not a swapping of one tyranny for another.

We might do well to take from Jesus’s prompting to not resist an evildoer the message that in the present whirlpools of social upheaval we should suspend judgment that could label certain parties and factions as evil. It will take all emerging parties and factions to create a democracy in Egypt. In as long-settled a democracy as our own, we struggle to love our political opponents and social adversaries, but we know it is the right struggle to reach across congressional aisles and to hold our elected leaders to look beyond their own narrow partisan interests and make responsible decisions for the common good of us all.

And what Jesus holds us to is spoken in that breathtaking call, “Be perfect, as your God is perfect.” If ever a word needs opening-up, it’s that English word “perfect”. The Greek word it wants to translate is better heard in the phrase “all-embracing”. Be all-embracing, as your God is all-embracing.

There is the social vision of Jesus. It describes how he calls both church and state to be, though I believe the reign of God he advances cannot be contained in either church or state. The reign of God embraces all, requires all to practice a revolutionary love of enemies, opponents, and adversaries. To resist the evil of treating people as evil. To perfect an embrace that turns the other cheek with courage and potency that reaches the mind, and changes it.

Mary Gaitskill’s story “The Other Place” appears in the February 14th-21st , 2011 issue of the New Yorker