“Turn the other cheek.” It inspires an almost visceral reaction. Images of the Civil Rights movement dance with fears of persecution. I never knew what to do with this teaching – it seems too passive, reminds me too much of the time a dangerous, bullying classmate publically and repeatedly called me a fat b*****d and I had to stand there and take it because I was scared of what would happen if I didn’t.
I’m grateful for those who’ve taken the time to unpack this bit of the Sermon on the Mount, who’ve shown how Jesus confronts day to day acts of physical and social violence and offers ways in which those on the receiving end can reassert their dignity without perpetuating a cycle of violence. This makes sense, because we see how badly a violent revolution in that time and place would go in 70AD (TL;DR – Rome really knew how to slaughter a rebellious populace). Besides, Jesus is the Prince of Peace, right? That’s why he inspired non-violent revolutionaries like Martin Luther King and Gandhi.
Problem is, we seem to have limited this to the people who want to protest and revolt and throw off the shackles of social or economic oppression. We take the words of the Prince of Peace, words intended to inspire and craft a vision of a better word, and use them as a way of keeping people in line.
This is why you can’t take these things out of context. Jesus seems to be speaking to an audience who might find themselves getting slapped by a social ‘superior’, who might get sued for the clothes on their back by those with the means to take them to court, who a passing Roman soldier might intimidate into carrying his kit bag, and so he gives them ways to reassert their humanity in the face of those who’d take that dignity from them. But who’s pushing this gospel of peace to those soldiers, to the litigants, to those doing the slapping?
Well, Jesus certainly has plenty of run-ins with the establishment, and a couple of transformative encounters with local corruption. But the example that springs to mind is in Luke 3:7-20 – John the Baptist yelling truth to power. Here a bizarre, liminal figure, last of the prophets, tells tax collectors not to extort more than they’re supposed to collect. He tells soldiers to be content with their pay and to stop making false accusations. He calls out the king over his evil actions.
In other words, he’s railing against the violence of the elite. That’s partly because that seems to be his audience (he almost seems to end up becoming something of a jester figure to King Herod, weirdly enough), but also because that’s the only way to end a cycle of violence. We can’t expect the victims of violence and oppression to accept high-minded appeals to peace and non-violence without making the same calls to those in power; to use a current example, don’t expect Black Lives Matter protestors to following Martin Luther King without insisting that police are held accountable when the next person ‘accidentally’ dies in custody and have rigorous, ongoing training in peaceful conflict resolution.
This may sound like I’m making a political point, and I probably am, because our theology and spirituality has to be lived out in a political and social context. Jesus wasn’t just preaching hypotheticals – he was speaking to people who were getting punched in the face and getting their clothes stolen, and our discipleship is incomplete if we’re not going to condemn those doing the punching and the stealing, if we’re not expecting the privileged and powerful to hear the words of the Prince of Peace as well. Don’t go shaming a teenage girl who’s gotten pregnant and then make excuses when at least 400 church leaders sign up for Ashley Madison.
We forget that huge chunks of the Bible are written by the oppressed, the exiled, the occupied and the enslaved. For those of us who read it with a certain level of privilege, it’s easy to forget that it’s navigating a world where those within its pages need to figure out how to be faithful to God when the power structures of the world are against them, and while part of that is attempting to live peaceably but not passively, another part of it is refusing to accept the systemic evil that surrounded them. Heck, Jeremiah got both barrels for daring to condemn child sacrifice of all things. What sort of world do we tolerate when telling the oppression to stay peaceful while cheerleading the use of violence by the powerful?
“Turn the other cheek” is a beautiful teaching. But when we abuse that beauty to prop up evil, we commit a heresy of the powerful; we beat another nail into the hands of the Prince of Peace.