Who Gets to Turn the Other Cheek? (Matt 5:38-42; Luke 3:7-20)

Gustave-Dore-Jesus-Preaching-the-Sermon-on-the-Mount-620x320“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.

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Listening for the Voices of Prophets (Luke 3:1-20)

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A wild-eyed prophet preaches repentance out on the edge of town. His cry is for justice, his cry is for mercy, and with every baptism he builds a road through the desert for the Saviour to come.

And when he talks to tax collectors, he doesn’t tell them to eat the right things, he demands they stop taking more money than they should, that they stop getting rich through the poverty of others.

And when he speaks to soldiers, he doesn’t send them to the synagogue. He insists they stop extorting money from those under their power, he insists they cease their false accusations against the public they patrol.

When he meets the general public, fishermen and carpenters and farmers and shepherds he tells them to look after each other, to make sure no-one is left in need while someone has the resources to help them.

And when he confronted kings, demanding that they end their immorality, well, that’s what got him killed.

John the Baptist lived in the wilderness, he wore animal skins and ate locusts, yet even out there on the fringes, he knew what was happening back in town and he spoke into it. And yes, he proclaimed the coming Messiah, but in the meantime he railed against injustice because he lived in the light of a different Kingdom, and in that Kingdom, justice can’t be separated from faith. In that Kingdom, the prophetic is practical, the prophetic is proactive.

There are tensions in society right now: protesters on the streets in Ferguson, in the UK, in New York, in Thailand, in Hong Kong. And, true, there’s a lot of white nose in these protests, but there are also urgent questions that demand answers, questions about race and class and democracy and justice, and if a cry for justice is rising up, then now’s the time to listen out for prophetic voices, voices that speak God’s word into agonising situations. We need to listen for these voices, to hear their call, even when those speaking don’t look or sound like us, even when they challenge us and our tenuous assumptions. Because they’ll be a call to repentance in there somewhere, and a call to do things better, but don’t hold your breath waiting for God to prop up an unjust status quo.

We live in interesting times, and there are a million voices out there, most of them ranting on Twitter. But now’s the time to cut through that. Listen for the voices that don’t get much airtime. Listen for the voice of Christ cutting through the static. Listen for the voice of the prophets and, where you can, turn that prophecy into practice.