February 20, 2011

Concerning retaliation and love of enemies

Many Canadians are passionate about hockey; if you want to start a lively discussion go to your local Tim Horton’s and announce that you think fighting in hockey is a sign of being deranged.  Those who play the game will soon educate you about “the code”.

A few years ago—ok, more than a few—I was invited to play in a hockey game with the team of a neighbouring church.  During the contest I took exception to the liberties one of the opposing players was taking with our goal tender; I decided to have an up close and personal conversation with this player in an effort to curb his incursions.  During this discussion the self-appointed enforcer of the opposing team interjected himself into the conversation; as we stood nose to nose exchanging our points of view over the behaviour of his teammate—hockey gloves ready to be dropped—it occurred to me that as the minister of a church this was not likely a helpful example.

When I played hockey I was always much fonder of Jesus’ saying “it is more blessed to give than receive”; not so much his saying to “turn the other cheek”.  I want you to know that this hockey incident occurred long before I became the minister of Central United Church.  I am much calmer today; though, as I have been participating in the committee dealing with the manse and learning of the intricacies of our town’s bylaws some of those feelings from hockey incidents come flooding back.

“But I say to you”, said Jesus, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”.  This is one of the sayings of Jesus that everybody knows; it may indeed be widely known but what does it mean.  Is Jesus saying that Christians should never defend themselves?  Is he advocating we become the world’s doormats?  His code seems way too dangerous in a violent world; we prefer our own codes.  I invite you to reflect with me today about retaliation and loving the enemy.

1.  ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  This saying cited by Jesus forms the core element of three older testament texts (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21).  We modern gentiles, however, fail to understand something crucial: “eye for eye” means only an eye for an eye, no more than an eye for an eye.  Because human depravity is what it is, whenever our “eye” is taken (as it were) we want to retaliate by taking eye and arm and leg.  In other words, “eye for eye” was a limiting device: the Israelite was to limit the severity of the retaliation to the severity of the offence.

Some referred to it as a principle of proportionate retaliation; “an eye (in retaliation) for an eye; a tooth (in retaliation) for a tooth”.  Even though the principle had a limiting effect many took the law to mean that you were obligated to seek retaliation—some even relished in insisting on it.  Retaliation is the subject Jesus is talking about when continues with “but I say to you”.

Jesus goes one step farther: “So far from limiting your retaliation,” he insists, “don’t retaliate at all; “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”.  In this pronouncement Jesus, quite simply, renounces retaliation. To “turn the other cheek” is just that: to renounce retaliation.

Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.”  When a right-handed person punches someone else, the blow normally lands on the assaulted person’s left cheek.  A backhand blow, however, lands on the right cheek.  For an Israelite a backhand blow is more than an assault.  It’s the rudest insult as well.  In fact a backhand blow (unlike a closed fist punch) does very little physical damage.  It’s little more than a slap.  Yet because it’s backhanded it’s outrageously insulting.  It does vastly more damage to our pride than a punch does to our body.  “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek…” says Jesus; “if anyone not only assaults you but insults you outrageously as well, don’t retaliate.  My followers have renounced retaliation.”

In the same paragraph Jesus insists, “Do not resist an evildoer.”  What follows—turn the cheek, give your cloak, go the second mile, give and lend—is an amplification of this sentence.  The point is that in the context of retaliation we are not to set ourselves against one who does evil.

But are we not supposed to resist evil?  Jesus taught us to pray “deliver us from evil”; surely we are to work for the things we pray for.  Indeed we are to resist evil, even as our Lord resisted and rolled back evil whenever he came upon it.  Still, the context of our Lord’s pronouncement is crucial.  In the context of cheek-turning our Lord means this: “When someone does evil against you, don’t you launch yourself on a vendetta against him personally.  When someone assaults you slightly but insults you greatly don’t fly back at her in a spasm of revenge.  Don’t think it’s up to you to even your own score.”

In Jesus day public servants were poorly paid; to compensate for this the law allowed them to compel citizens to take on certain tasks—go one mile.  However much the people were annoyed by the Roman occupier who laid this unjust burden on the people; however much this roils the follower of Jesus—rather that set themselves against the public servant to make their life difficult in retaliation—the follower is to go the second mile.

2. It is important to clarify some misconceptions of Jesus’ teaching.  To renounce retaliation--to turn the other cheek is not to make a virtue of low self-esteem, of pathetic lack of self-confidence.  We are all aware of people who have no self-confidence.  They regard themselves as insignificant and useless.  They look upon themselves as doormats, and to no one’s surprise they invite victimisation as doormats.  We mustn’t think that to turn the other cheek is to glorify “doormatism” and glorify as well the invitation to victimisation that goes with it.

We must never confuse our Lord’s going to the cross with “doormatism.”  “No one takes my life from me” he insisted; “I lay it down of my own accord.”  Others may think he has “victim” written on his forehead.  In fact he hasn’t: he lays down his own life.  No one else takes it from him.  They may think they take it from him, but he knows the difference.

It doesn’t mean that we aren’t to protect ourselves; it isn’t un-Christ like to lock your doors.  You are not obligated to hand your wallet again to the person who has just stolen from you.  What Christ calls from us is to renounce that urge to get even or to retaliate or to treat with disrespect or to write off.  One day some folks tried to push Jesus off a cliff; he didn’t allow them to do it; at the same time he didn’t turn and throw them over the precipice.

In a similar vein it does not mean that we are to give up on seeking justice; to turn the other cheek is not to turn a blind eye to public justice.  Christians must uphold justice.  A society without justice quickly collapses into unruliness, and unruliness is eventually subdued by brute force without concern for law or fairness or human decency.

Also, to turn the other cheek is not to overlook the ill-treatment currently visited on other people.  Jesus certainly “turned the other cheek” on the cross.  Yet whenever he came upon heartless people abusing defenceless folk; whenever he saw vulnerable people exploited, he acted forthrightly and formidably.  Here’s the difference.  Jesus never looks the other way, never turns his head, when he sees defenceless people abused; but he turns his cheek when he’s abused himself.  He never turns a blind eye to the abuse of others; but he will turn a blind eye when he’s abused himself.

3.  Let’s face it.  One of the reasons we like retaliation is it tastes sweet; when media mogul Conrad Black was sent to jail many took delight perceiving that this somehow evened the score for his being arrogant in their eyes.

Friends, please note that the sweetness only disguises the poison, the deadliness.  It is for this reason Jesus tells us to renounce retaliation not simply to limit it.  Think of all the energy wasted in plotting retaliation that could have been put to much more productive ends.  Ultimately, to avenge ourselves (or even try to) is simply to augment the world’s evil; it’s to be overcome by evil.

4. Another reason we reach for retaliation is tied up in our identity.  We have learned that we need to insist on who we are; standing our ground, making sure we get everything that should be coming to us.  The truth is, fragile people fear that unless they retaliate, others won’t know who they are.  Our identity is tied up in all of this.

This is played out in marriages.  A husband, at the end of a bad day, explodes at his wife over some small thing—“are you really so useless that you never (fill in blank)”.  Wife, now insulted and hurt, feeling that her very identity has been challenged, lashes out in retaliation with a sarcastic response plus a dig at something she knows her husband is particularly sensitive about.  Husband can’t let that lie so he responds with additional slams. The ante gets upped with each ensuing exchange.  Both have an image and identity to maintain.  The thing that puts a stop to this is when one decides not to retaliate.

As Christians, we must recall that our identity isn’t something we forge for ourselves and then spend the rest of our lives shoring up.  Jesus Christ forges our identity for us and maintains us in it.  Our Lord tells us who we are.  He can tell us who we are just because he, and he alone, has made us who we are.  Because our identity is rooted in his action upon us and not in anything we do to ourselves, our identity in him can never be at risk.  Were our identity self-fashioned it would also be the feeblest, frailest identity imaginable.  Since, on the other hand, we are who we are on account of his having made us who we are, we can always know who we are and be who we are regardless of what others think we are.  Let them think.  We don’t have an image to maintain.  We don’t have an identity to preserve.  Jesus Christ does this for us.

5. ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.”  Apparently many thought that God’s command to love your neighbour meant only the neighbour—you can understand why the man one day asked Jesus—who is my neighbour.  “What are the limits of my obligation to love”, he wondered.  Some even thought that since only the neighbour was to be loved this obligated hatred of enemies.

“But I say to you”, said Jesus, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”.  The command to love the neighbour, according to Jesus, placed no limits on who was to be loved.
There is a sentimental myth that goes this way; “If only we were more loving, we’d have no enemies”.   Jesus loved without limit, patiently submitted to slander and contempt, endured torment and death for the sake of any and all, and still had enemies.  It simply isn’t true that love invariably fosters love in others, that love invariably undoes the enmity strangling someone else’s heart.  The same sun that melts ice also hardens clay.  Love poured upon some people hardens their resistance into hostility.

Insofar as we are identified with our Lord we shall never lack enemies ourselves, and shall never lack them just because he never lacked them.  We live in a world characterized by enmity.  As Christians we are realistic we know we don’t inhabit a Pollyanna world.  Therefore we are going to admit that our enemies are just that: enemies.  Enemies aren’t friends in disguise.  Enemies can hurt; they’re dangerous.
Since enemies are dangerous, they can’t be trusted.  Yes, we are to love them and pray for them.  We are to love them, says Jesus, as he loved them to the end.  Jesus typifies this love citing the heavenly Father’s love who sends sun and rain on the enemy too.  But nowhere does our Lord tell us to trust them.  He didn’t trust them himself.

One kind of danger is what our enemies can do to us outwardly.  They can slander us, cheat us, exploit us, ruin our chances for promotion at work, turn our friends against us, and so on.  None of this is to be discounted.  At the same time, however, our enemies present an inward danger.  It’s one thing for us to be hurt; one thing and no small thing.  Yet a much greater matter is our being rendered embittered people, cynical and joyless.    The worst kind of damage that our enemies can inflict on us is to turn us into haters.

Jesus calls us to love and pray for our enemies; it’s important for our enemies that we love them and pray for them. (On one level it’s important for them, plainly, since as long as we love them and pray for them we won’t harm them.)  To pray for our enemies is to be taken out of ourselves, away from ourselves, away from our injuries and resentments and grudges.  It frees us for living.

Jesus’ call to love and pray for the enemy also helps us to see that the enemy who causes us to suffer is suffering far more himself.  Think of the insecurity and cowardice of heart that gives rise to bullying. Think of the person whose hostile rage immobilizes us and silences us.  Her terrible rage is born of terrible frustration, and frustration is nothing more than helplessness.  It’s only as we pray for her that we can get beyond our own upset and see that she is so frustrated herself that she can’t cope.

When we pray for our enemies our own wound, while gaping perhaps, is no longer in danger of infecting.  And when we pray for our enemies we understand as never before the prayer of our Lord concerning his enemies, “Father, forgive them, for they are blind to their own heart-condition.”

One final word; Reconciliation is never won through retaliation and peace will never come by hatred.  39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; ... 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.