For many people, these are amongst the hardest words in the Bible. It’s hard to believe that Jesus meant us to take these words seriously. Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, treat well those who treat you badly. Even the most devoted adherents to the idea that every word of the Bible is supposed to be taken literally chafe at the notion of taking this passage of Scripture literally. This leaves them in a tough position, though. How can you argue that passages like the creation story, or Jonah in the belly of the whale, or scriptures condemning homosexuals must be taken literally, but this passage doesn’t really mean what it says?
As I mentioned in a sermon a couple of month’s back dispensationalists divide the Bible into different dispensations. Their claim is that various sections of the Bible are meant for different time frames.
So their argument is not that the words of Jesus aren’t supposed to be taken literally, just that they aren’t supposed to be taken literally by us. They are meant for a different dispensation, after the rapture, which is another issue I have lots of problems with but we won’t deal with here. With this mind set they are able to both uphold the literalness of every word of the Bible, but comfortably reject those parts which make them uneasy.
It’s an interesting system that is held strongly by many of the most popular Christian personalities on Christian TV and Radio. The Left Behind books are built on this understanding of the Bible and they, of course, have been read by many millions of people.
If you listen to these people and read their books, they don’t offer much support for notions like loving your enemies or turning the other cheek in the international relations arena, at least. They have been the leading voices supporting the current and just about every war the United States has and will fight. They support the current administration’s use of torture. When one of them, John Hagee, heard that the President might encourage the Israelis to stop bombing Lebanon, he called and warned the President that the President would lose support in the evangelical community if he did such a thing. They aren’t really into taking Jesus’ call to peacemaking and non violence seriously.
Those folk, though, have only made more complicated what most of the rest of us do without the theological smoke and mirrors. We just look at what Jesus says and scratch our heads. We might sort of like to believe it, but it all seems so impractical and beyond what we know others and ourselves capable. Jesus may have been able to live this way, but not us. And what about those really bad people and nations out there? Does Jesus want us to give in to them? Isn’t that being irresponsible?
This is not easy stuff, but I do think it is something we do need to take seriously, to imagine that Jesus really meant what he said. It was C.S. Lewis who wrote, though, that “if we are going to learn how to love our enemies, maybe it’s not best to start with the Gestapo.”
Where we do start, I believe, is realizing that what Jesus is saying here isn’t some kind of advanced section on the SAT (Spirituality Aptitude Test). He’s not suggesting loving your enemies, blessing those who curse you, turning the other cheek, is a spiritual goal that only a few can hope to attain. Rather, he’s telling us it’s the only way things are going to get better for us and for this world and we need to start doing it yesterday.
For Jesus this is not a matter of being a spiritual high achiever, but living better lives. Now, as then, we are addicted to violence in this world. We have so much hopes for violence. We believe violence is what will solve things for us. Violence is our drug of choice. It gives us a feeling of security, it gives us a rush. There aren’t many better highs than when the enemy, the person who has hurt us, or the rival gets what they deserve. Retaliation feels wonderful.
Like all addictions, though, violence begins to control us. We need more and more of it. I am amazed sometimes at the commercials about the incredibly violent TV shows and movies there are. I don’t even watch the shows, but the commercials are loaded with violent scenes. Violence has hold of us.
Eventually, violence like other addictive substances, becomes our god, we think it is what will save us. Every junkie is looking for the next score, every alcoholic the next drink, every gambling addict for the next roulette wheel, because that’s what is going to make life better.
The Death Star gets blown up and thousands and thousands of storm troopers are killed. We cheer and feel really good. The terrorist gets shot up in a hail of bullets. The guy in the white hat wins the gun fight while the guy in the black hat writhes in pain in his final minutes of life. Sadaam Hussein gets hanged. Our side wins the war. We call it redemptive violence. It’s the violence that protects us, that saves us, that makes everything right in the world. Violence, we believe, is a good thing in the hands of good people. It saves us.
And this addiction to violence makes us crazy. We’ll do anything for its sake, for another fix. We’ll lie, we’ll doctor intelligence reports. We will dismiss the death of innocent people as unfortunate or question how innocent they really were. We will put the blame on the victims of violence and exonerate the perpetrators. We will kill the killers in our execution chambers, and be crazy enough to say it was for the sake of life.
Here is how crazy this addiction gets. Those Left Behind Books and way too many preachers have turned Jesus, the Prince of Peace in the Gospels, to the Warrior of vengeance in the Revelation. It doesn’t make any sense until you start to realize what addictions do to us.
So Jesus comes along as asks us if we want to keep living this way. Does violence, redemptive and otherwise, deserve what we are willing to offer it? Are we ready to understand what Jesus was saying the way Martin Luther King, Jr. understood it, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and pretty soon we are all blind and toothless.’ Or as Dr. Phil would say “The way you are living now, is that working for you?” And to paraphrase Coleman McCarthy who was just in town for the Peace And Conflict Studies Symposium, “wouldn’t we rather learn peace?”
Jesus wants us to take him seriously, not for his sake, but for ours. He wants us to give up our addiction to violence for the life he brings us; a life based on love not retaliation, a life based on forgiveness not revenge.
These weren’t the words of some idealist. He knew how really and awfully violent the Roman Empire could be. He felt it’s oppression every day, he saw it at work. He knew they were going to kill him. He knew how violent anyone can be. That’s why he gave us not only the vision, but good ways to resist violence.
He says here, ‘if someone takes your cloak, give them your shirt, too.’ He isn’t asking us to be wimps, but to creatively resist violence without resorting to violence. That shirt Jesus suggested you hand over voluntarily, wasn’t actually a shirt, but an undergarment. When corrupt landowners and business people had cheated people out of all they had, they would demand the only thing left, the person’s cloak. What Jesus is saying here is ‘sure give them the cloak, but give them your underwear, too.’ Then everyone watching would be not so much offended by your nakedness, but by the oppressor who left you in that state. It then is up to the oppressor to give you back all your clothes, or suffer the public shame of, literally, leaving you exposed to the elements.
In the Sermon on the Mount, which is Matthew’s version of this section of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, ‘if someone forces you to carry their pack one mile, carry it two,’ Jesus is, again, talking about a very specific act of non-violent resistance. The someone is actually a soldier. Soldiers were permitted to force a person to carry their packs. But they could only make you carry for them for a certain distance, say one mile. It was a serious penalty for the soldier to make anyone carry their pack any farther than the proscribed distance. So Jesus says when you get to the end of the mile you’ve been forced to walk by the soldier keep going. Again, you are not being a wimp. Suddenly, you have a rather odd scene of a Roman soldier forcing some poor peasant to surrender the Roman soldier’s pack so the soldier can carry it himself. It kind of messes with the image of the big, bad soldier.
The most famous of these sayings is, of course, ‘turn the other cheek.’ Here is what is going on. This all comes, by the way, from research of first century laws and customs done by Walter Wink.
When someone from a noble class wanted to punish or humiliate a slave or someone from a lower class, they would give that person a backhand across the cheek. For sanitary reasons, you weren’t allowed to use your left hand to strike an inferior, nor could you strike an inferior with an open right hand. But you were allowed to use the back of your right hand. So when you strike the slave and she turns the other cheek, you are suddenly confronted with a quandary. You can’t slap her other cheek with either your left hand or your open right hand. To do so would bring about social ostracism. You realize that the slave who has turned her cheek has not wimped out but changed the situation to her advantage. If you slap the other cheek you are in big trouble, if you walk away you have lost face before your peers.
It is courageous to do any of these things, not a cowardly response that it sounds like when you first read it. Jesus wants us to stand up to the oppressor, but he doesn’t want us to use the oppressors methods of violence. He wants us to break the addiction.
There are some people who have not ignored this passage at all, but used it to their own blasphemous advantage by suggesting that it is against God’s will for an oppressed person to challenge her oppressor. Throughout its’ history the Church has often endorsed such an abusive take on this passage, siding with the powerful at the expense of the powerless.
Jesus doesn’t say anything of the kind, though. He’s not coming anywhere close to suggesting we don’t challenge the oppression that is taking place. He is just suggesting we don’t challenge the oppressor on his home court. Make him come to ours. It’s no guarantee of victory, but the odds are a lot better. And it’s no worse than what we are doing now.
Loving our enemies seems like such a radical, impractical idea. But is it any more radical and impractical than God loving us? How much sense does that make for God?