Yesterday during our 7:30 a.m. Wednesday service, we discussed the Gospel passage we’ll hear at all 3 of our church services this weekend, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Jesus’ familiar words are powerful and clear, hard to digest and even harder to follow:
“I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt ….” (Luke 6:27-29).
While this, I imagine, is what “holy people do”, I wrestled with understanding this passage whenever I heard and really thought about it myself. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also ….” Really? Is this what Jesus really means? Doesn’t this condone physical and emotional abuse? And let violent abusers of power have their way? How can passivity in the face of evil possibly be “Good News”? Are we as faithful Christians supposed to be doormats, if we are to be true to our Lord and Savior? No wonder church attendance around the country is plummeting!
Then a few years ago, I was introduced to the work of Walter Wink, biblical scholar and theologian (Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in A World of Domination, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992). By delving deep into the historical, cultural, political and social context of Jesus’ time, Wink offers an enlightened lens through which to see the real picture being painted by Jesus: a picture of resisting violence non-violently by creating an opportunity for your oppressor to “wake up”, see the evil s/he is inflicting, and “repent” and change.
Take, for instance, Jesus’ hard-to-digest exhortation, to offer your other cheek to someone who has already struck you on the face. Matthew’s version is more useful in understanding what Jesus had in mind: “But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also …” (Matthew 5:39).
The word translated in English as “resist” is the Greek word antistenai which conveys “standing against” in a forceful, violent way. Jesus, therefore, is saying: “Do not stand against evil and violence in an evil, violent way, yourself.” There is another way, a different way, a “third” way. The example he uses highlights a situation common in Jesus’ day: a Roman backhanding a Jew on the right side of his face, to keep him in his place. By turning your face and offering the Roman your left cheek, you would be forcing your oppressor to either backhand you again with his left hand — which simply was not done, back then, because left-handed actions were reserved for private “dirty” tasks at home — or to slap you with his own right hand, which would be treating you as an equal. Jesus’ additional examples in Matthew’s Gospel, of “going the second mile” and “letting him have your cloak as well”, are similar, creative, non-violent responses to your abuser, turning the table on him to become more conscious and offering an opportunity to choose differently.
So as we hear Jesus’ words this weekend and remember the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., I invite us all to reflect and imagine what this “third way” might look like, applied to our own lives, communities and world.