These are some of the best-known sayings of Jesus: turn the other cheek, pray for your enemies, go the second mile. And they’re also some of the hardest to understand. When I read these verses, I immediately start with my list of “what abouts.” What about the child who is bullied on the playground? What about the woman who is attacked in a dark alley? Are we really supposed to be passive in the face of aggression? Does Jesus really mean that we shouldn’t fight back when our basic rights or even our lives are threatened?
The Bible is full of stories about people striking back and giving bad guys what they had coming to them. Look at the story of David and Goliath. David met the giant’s taunts by knocking him cold with a rock from a slingshot and then cutting off his head, as gruesome as any Isis video. The oldest passage in the Bible, the very first verses that were written down, are what is called the Song of Miriam where Moses’ sister leads the women of Israel in rejoicing because their enemies have been wiped out, drowned in the Red Sea. And it’s not just in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the book of Acts tells how Ananias and Sapphira shortchanged the early church by withholding some of the income they had promised, then were struck dead at the feet of the apostle Peter. The book of Revelation is filled with graphic images of violent retribution against the enemies of God. There are plenty of heroes in the Bible who don’t turn the other cheek.
I personally find it hard to preach on this passage. Oh, I agree with it, in theory at least. But it does give me a thrill when the bad guys get what’s coming to them. Did you see that Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips that came out a few years ago? Somali pirates overran a freighter and took the captain hostage. I had a rush of adrenaline and gave an inward cheer when the Navy Seals took out the Somali pirates and freed Tom Hanks. It never crossed my mind while engrossed in the drama to ask WWJD – what would Jesus do?
It feels really good to see someone get even, for justice to be served. But retribution doesn’t last long. It’s not only Jesus who teaches that violence and retribution are short-term solutions. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist who wrote a book called The Art of War that is still studied by generals today, asserted that war is the failure of diplomacy. Retribution, whether among nations or individuals, doesn’t settle things. It just creates a cycle of violence, like the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys who fought each other for generations because they could never get even. Even though the Israelis have defeated the Arab states three times in war, the conflict rages on. Palestinians fight back through terrorism or random missile attacks, but the outcome continues to be a cycle of one side trying to subdue the other. Like family members that can’t stop fighting, the only solution is to find a different way of relating, some alternative to the old law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Even that law is misunderstood. It’s not a command to exact revenge for every wrong. It’s a restraint on revenge. It means that if someone takes out your eye, you can’t take out his eye and his tooth. You can only take an eye for an eye, no more. It’s not an invitation to a never-ending cycle of retribution.
On the cross Jesus showed how much more powerful God’s love is than any other force. There he died for us and freed us from all hatred and need for revenge. Jesus came to offer us a whole new way of relating to each other. He undermines violence and hatred at its source, by transforming us from the inside out. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes the new creation that he is bringing in. He shows us how we live as those who have been transformed by his cross. He describes the power of loving our enemies and praying for those who harm us.
When Jesus spoke these words, his country was occupied by the Roman army. A Roman soldier could force anyone who lived in a conquered territory to carry his pack for him. That was an act of forced submission that riled the people because it was a reminder of how powerless they were before their conquerors. Jesus, however, said to carry that pack an extra mile. Can you imagine how stunned a grizzled Roman soldier would be if the person he forced to carry his pack volunteered, out of love for the soldier as a person created in the image of God, to carry his heavy burden for him an extra mile? All of a sudden, the lowly peasant has snatched away the soldier’s power of coercion. The peasant is no longer carrying the burden because the soldier has forced him to. He’s carrying it of his own free will, out of love.
Some of the most powerful images of our age are pictures of those who exercise this kind of power that undermines force with love. Think of the pictures of the children in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 who were sprayed with fire hoses in the struggle for civil rights in America. They galvanized the country by their courage. Remember the picture from 1989 of that lone protester in Tiananmen Square in Beijing standing in front of a tank. The tank could have crushed him, but that young man showed greater power than any armored vehicle.
The kind of love that Jesus describes, the kind of love that he lived, is not a passive emotion. It’s not something that just reacts to what it has received. Jesus asks, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” Loving those who love us is admirable, and it’s not always easy, but the Corleones in the Godfather movies loved their family. Jesus is describing a love that can change things from the inside out, the way his love has changed us.
When Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was trying to convince Jackie Robinson to sign on as the first black baseball player in the major leagues, he realized the kind of abuse Robinson was going to receive because of his color. But Rickey told him that if he signed, he had to take what was dished out to him and not retaliate against the racism and bigotry he was going to encounter. Robinson asked him, “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” Robinson agreed, and look what he did for baseball, for America.
Love has the power to change those who are our enemies, but it also has the power to change us. I have a friend whose job includes advocating for stricter gun control laws. Gun control is one of those hot button issues where people on either side of the issue tend to demonize their opponents with labels and stereotypes. My friend feels pretty passionately about the issue himself. His brother-in-law, though, is a state official in the NRA who feels just as passionately about the other side of the question. You can imagine what some of their conversations are like at Thanksgiving dinner. My friend says that he is grateful for his brother in law because he loves him very much, and because of him he can never think of his opponents as “those people.” He is always remembering that he is dealing with human beings beloved of God, not abstract demons he has to defeat.
Jesus reminds us of the power of prayer to nurture that kind of creative, powerful love. He tells us to pray for those who persecute you. Not many of us are persecuted like those ancient Israelites who were forced to carry the pack of a Roman soldier. Not many of us nowadays experience the same kind of hatred that Jackie Robinson did. But there are people who irritate us and anger us and who may even be out to get us in one way or another. It’s those people whom Jesus also tells us to lift up in prayer. Something amazing can happen when we do. We can find ourselves free from the grip of anger or revenge that might hold on to us. We might find that they don’t dominate our thoughts the way they once did once we commend them to God. We are likely to find that something inside of us is different.
You can do that even in everyday places with people you don’t know. I find that airports are a good place to practice this. I can get very out of sorts in an airport, especially if my travel plans are disrupted. There are all kinds of people to get irritated with – the person who is slowing down the security line, the agent who represents the airline that has lost your bag, the blankety blank who cuts in front of you in the food court. Each one of those irritations is an invitation to offer up a little prayer and recognize that God loves them just as much as God loves you. You haven’t changed the world, but something is likely to change in you.
Until Jesus’ perfect reign comes at last, we’re going to have differences. There are going to be times when we have to use violence to resist violence. But in the end, fighting fire with fire only means that more gets burned. Jesus gives us an alternative. We don’t fight fire with fire. We fight fire with water. We meet anger with love. We confront hatred with prayer. We turn the other cheek. And love wins.