When I was a kid, I went to the Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum in Chicago. In the gift shop I saw and bought a 1 ½ inch square of plastic that had the entire Bible printed on it. If I put it under my microscope and patiently adjusted the focus I could see, though not comfortably read, the words of all 1200 pages of the King James Bible. I was excited because I had seen machines at the library that would allow you to read microfilms of books and newspapers. I figured someday they would make a handheld version that would read books on little squares like my micro-Bible and I could carry my whole library with me in a cigarbox. What a glorious future I imagined!
The future did me one better. I now have a Kindle on which I have several translations of the Bible, commentaries, Bible and medical dictionaries, books by Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, and St. Augustine, histories of the church, of the middle ages, and disabilities in America, all the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe and every one of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. And it is smaller than a cigarbox. If necessary I can also access these books on my smartphone.
We live at a time when the science fiction tropes of my childhood are becoming fact. Seeing that it encompasses everything from optimistic Star Trek to the dystopic vision of Brave New World, I am not sure whether this development heartens or disturbs me. On the one hand, we have tiny devices in our pockets that can access practically all of the information in the world with a computing power greater than the room-sized computers that got us to the moon. On the other hand, we have drones, or as I like to think of them, flying robots of death. And even our computers have a dark side, allowing others to gather information on us, which can be used to steal our identities or, we are assured, serve us better and keep us safe from terrorists.
Just before the revelations that our own NSA was collecting data on every phone call and computer search we make, my wife and I got hooked on a show called Person of Interest. In it a rich eccentric computer programmer has created a machine which can monitor all electronic data—phone, computer, security cameras, etc—for the government. It is supposed to search for clues to imminent terrorist activities but it also picks up indications of individual crimes of violence. The government sees these as irrelevant but Harold, the programmer, has built a backdoor into the software and the machine gives him the social security numbers of those who are either going to be perpetrators or victims of personal violence. Harold has recruited some disillusioned CIA assassins and cops to help prevent the crimes he is tipped off about. It's a smart and compelling show but often the solution to the threat of violence comes down to more violence.
In a particularly intense episode, one of the good guy cops was captured and tortured for having incriminating evidence about the bad guys. He refuses to tell them where the evidence is and his son's death is ordered. The bad guy uses the good cop's phone to call his son so he can hear his boy die. Then a good guy assassin saves the son, and the tortured cop manages to turn the tables on his executioner and garrotte the bad guy with his own handcuffs. And I found myself cheering as he killed the bad guy! Afterward I wondered why I was so uncharacteristically reveling in such bloodlust.
You expect violence in Person of Interest but in the recent Star Trek movie the climax was Spock, the emotionless, rational Vulcan, pummeling the bad guy into unconsciousness. And in Man of Steel Superman kills the bad guy with his bare hands. Here we are in the 21st century and while our technology has progressed tremendously, our morality has emphatically not. We still think might makes right; that the end justifies the means.
Recent studies have shown that getting revenge on people who have done us wrong, or even just thinking about it, activates the same part of the brain that gives us pleasure. The researchers call it “sweet” revenge. As Dr. Edward Hallowell, author of Dare to Forgive, admits about revenge, “It feels so good. It's a wonderfully triumphant feeling.”
So what Jesus says about loving our enemies in today's gospel (Matthew 5:38-48) goes against some of our strongest feelings. In view of the brain imagining study, you could even call his command unnatural. And what's unnatural is bad, right?
To call something natural is merely to say that it happens in nature; it doesn't tell us whether it is good or bad, helpful or harmful. After years of studying our closest relatives, the gentle and caring chimpanzees, Jane Goodall discovered to her horror that they also go to war and even indulge in cannibalism. Some animals eat their young. Or practice incest. It is all natural behavior. Does that make it morally right?
Aspirin relieves pain, reduces fever and inflammation and taken in low doses over time can prevent heart attacks. It is an artificial compound designed to mimic the properties of willow bark. It is unnatural. Does that make it bad? On the other hand, poison ivy and nightshade are both natural. Does that make them good?
It is natural for people to wish harm on those who wish them harm. So natural that, while, as we see in Leviticus 19, the command to love your neighbor is not in fact followed by the words “and hate your enemy,” we can all think of Old Testament passages where it would be easy to deduce that idea. Israel was a little country surrounded by bigger pagan countries and even empires; it had to fight to establish itself and to continue to exist. So they hated their military enemies and their religions of sex and human sacrifice. In Psalm 139:21 & 22, the psalmist says to God, “Lord, don't I hate those who hate you?...I hate them with a perfect hatred. I consider them my enemies.”
It's an understandable sentiment but that doesn't make it right. Jesus wants us to transcend that. He wants us to be better than animals or even than the natural man. Because all of the righteous violence in the world has not stamped out the existence of violence for evil reasons. Revenge engenders further revenge. Violence begets violence. If I strike you on the cheek, the odds are less in favor of you turning your other cheek than they are of you striking me back. And striking me harder than I struck you.
Which is why the Lex Talionis, the law of tit for tat, is found in the Old Testament. We also find it in the earlier Code of Hammurabi. And while today we see the principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as savage, it was actually a method of limiting violence. Rather than letting any and all members of a family or tribe avenging a wrong done to one of its members (usually by killing and/or wounding any and all members of the perpetrator's family or tribe), an appointed judge was to use this guideline of proportionality. The idea was if someone injured someone so severely that he lost an eye, no more than an eye could be taken from the offender. You couldn't cut off his hand or take his life. And of course this rather quickly became a matter of payment rather than literal maiming. Jewish law laid down a method for assessing the payment based on the 5 elements of the offense. If found guilty of injuring another, the person was liable for the victim's injury, pain, healing, loss of time, and the damage to his dignity. You can see the origins of today's legal liability and compensation laws.
But what Jesus is asking his followers to do is not to insist on one's legal rights. In Jesus' time, to strike someone on the cheek was a grave insult and the aggressor could get a stiff fine, just like today. You couldn't legally keep a person's outer cloak; if they were poor it might be the only way they could keep warm at night. A Roman soldier could only make you walk one mile, to, say, carry his pack. Jesus says “forget about your rights; rise above them.” If you turn the other cheek, you are in effect saying, “I am able to take your abuse. I am able to absorb twice the abuse you've showered on me. I am not a person of vengeance and violence. I am a child of God and I trust in him to administer justice.” By acting in such a manner, the victim is not acting the victim. He is in fact confronting the person who struck the blow with the question of what kind of person he is. Is he the kind of person who would beat someone who refuses to fight back? If so, he is revealing himself to be inferior in self-control and brings dishonor upon his name and reputation. That was especially powerful in the honor/shame society of Jesus' day.
And it has worked in history. Gandhi adopted the idea of non-violent resistance in response to the oppressive governing of India by the British. He organized peasants, farmers and laborers against the excessive land taxes and discrimination. Protesting the salt tax, he led his followers on a 250 mile march to the sea to make salt the old fashioned way. Through many other acts of peaceful civil disobedience and non-cooperation with the British Raj, through many imprisonments, and by denouncing violence on either side, Gandhi shamed the British who thought themselves to be a very moral nation. Eventually it led to the British quitting India and letting them have their independence.
Martin Luther King did much the same thing. His followers would march and sing gospel songs and the sight of these peaceful people being knocked down by the torrents from fire hoses and attacked by dogs made a lot of Americans feel that this did not look like a very Christian way to treat people. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act banned discrimination. I remember the race riots that broke out in the late 60s and early 70s after the emergence of the Black Power movement and I can't help but think they would be worse were it not for Dr. King's nonviolent campaigns.
I saw non-violent resistance work in my own life. Once when I was taking a public bus home from high school, a bully, his crony and I were the last kids aboard and I knew we would be getting off at the same stop. And he was loudly declaring what he would do to me once we got off the bus. There was no way I could take on this Neanderthal and his minion. I was scared. But I said to his taunts,”Sure, you can beat me up. You're a lot bigger than me. And what will that prove? That you can beat up someone smaller than you. Anyone can. Beating me up won't make you a big man. It will only show that you can beat up someone who can't possibly hurt you because they are smaller and weaker.” When we got off the bus, he looked at me in disgust, pushed me into some bushes and stalked off. I had spoiled his fun by showing him how ridiculous his beating me up would make him look. I defeated him not with pugilism but with perspective.
In turning the other cheek, the victim is breaking the cycle of violence. The natural response is to retaliate. The natural response is for each side to escalate in response to the other side. But if one side brings that evolution of the conflict to a halt, it can prevent worse damage. It can also open a door to talking rather than fighting.
Ah, but doesn't taking it lying down merely embolden the aggressor? That's why Jesus doesn't say, “just take it” but “turn the other cheek.” That's not taking it lying down but taking it and still standing. That's not cowardice but courage. It is a way of saying, “You haven't defeated me. I can still act. I can still make my own choices. And I choose not to fight.”
It is also not saying, “What you did is not bad.” That is an issue that Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber had to deal with when the 10th anniversary of 9/11 fell on a Sunday and so by cosmic coincidence did the passage from Matthew where Peter asks if he should forgive someone who wronged him 7 times and Jesus says 77 times. Is that saying it was OK? she fretted. And then she remembered a fellow Lutheran pastor named Don. He did the funeral for Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters. Because of that, he had to leave his job at his church. In her book Pastrix, the Rev. Bolz-Weber writes, “...Don had the gall to think that the promises given to Dylan by God at his baptism were more powerful than the acts of evil he had committed. It helps me to think about Don because I realize that he wasn't saying what Dylan Klebold did was OK. He was defiantly proclaiming that evil is simply not more powerful than good, and that there really is a light that shines in the darkness and that the darkness can not, shall not, will not overcome it.”
Jesus came to bring peace, not only between God and human beings but also between people. And not just between our own people. It is easy to say that “love your neighbor” doesn't include enemies. And that when Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” he was only talking to Christians about other Christians. Or when he said, “Whatever you do to the least of these my siblings, you do to me,” he was only talking about Christians clothing and feeding and visiting in prison other Christians. If you look at these things in this way, we are still free to hate our enemies. And we find ways to make even our fellow countrymen, our fellow Christians, our fellow Lutherans or Episcopalians into our enemies. But by Jesus saying “Love your enemies” we have no one left to hate. We can't hate the rich or the poor, the Republicans or the Democrats, the gays or the straights, the legal or the illegal immigrants, the Muslims or the Jews or the Wicca or anyone else. We must love every one of them. Because God created every one of them in his image. Jesus died for every one of them, whether they know it or not, whether they acknowledge it or not. God so loved the WORLD...not just some of it, not just the lovable people, not just the reasonable people, not just the admirable people. Or else the gospel is a sham.
Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..” Why? “...so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.” And he concludes this passage by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Are you perfect? I'm not. And so if Jesus says that's the direction I must be taking, then I will have to stop hating people, stop demonizing them, stop wishing them ill. I will have to stop writing people off as a lost cause, which is what hate is. Because God doesn't. And thank God he doesn't. Or I wouldn't be here. And neither would any of you. God is a God of hope and faithfulness and love--love more powerful than hate, more powerful than evil, more powerful than any negative force out there. And because he is, we can turn the other cheek, we can go the second mile, we can love our enemies. Because greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world. He who is in us is he who was struck on the cheek, and whipped and spat upon and crucified. And he who is in us is he who rose from the grave, big as life, stronger than ever. He did that to save us, all of us. But not all of us know that. Not all of us have responded to his love. So rather than pushing anyone away, we need to draw them to us in order to draw them to him. We need to stop being belligerent and start being believers in God's power and mercy and grace. We need to be brave enough to unclench our fists and offer our hand to our enemies. And if we get slapped, that's a small price to pay for the privilege of demonstrating the unstoppable love of the God who doesn't write anyone off.