john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK



    Loving your enemies - by turning cheeky

    Bratton Clovelly, Sourton,
    20/2/2011


    Leviticus 19.1-2, 9-18, 1 Corinthians 3.10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5.38-48



    'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.' One of the most misunderstood sayings of Jesus, and a misunderstanding which has been responsible for putting thousands - maybe millions - of people off Christianity over the years.

    Christianity is for wimps, is the criticism people have when they hear this part of Jesus' sermon on the mount. It's for people who won't stand up for themselves or for others who are being mistreated, bullied, persecuted.

    And that criticism seems to be justified by the other part of Jesus' sermon, where he says, 'Do not resist an evildoer.'
    'You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.'
    The preacher Walter Wink [1] asks his congregations to give him their reasons why they don't like this passage, they think it's bad advice so don't obey it. Here are a few of them:
    You lose your underwear. You're taken advantage of. How many cheeks do you have? It ought to be about somebody else. It's damn foolish. You'll never get anywhere that way. If you let him get away with it this time, he'll do it again. You're a doormat for Jesus. It makes you unsafe. I don't want to get beat up. It would lead to domestic violence against women and children and everybody. It hurts. It's humiliating. We like to sue people. We'd have a lot of one-eyed people who gum their food.
    Surely Jesus didn't want us to be doormats - did he? The one who promised us life in all its fullness (John 10.10), our strength, our rock, our saviour, the one who spent his whole ministry resisting evil and who on resurrection day triumphed over evil for all time - have we mistaken his words and as a consequence completely lost their meaning?

    Walter Wink says we have - by going into the detail about the translation from the original Aramaic, Wink insists that what Jesus actually said was this: 'Do not react violently against the one who is evil.' Do not react violently against the one who is evil - do react, do resist evil, but don't do it violently. 'Don't mirror the evil that you're attacking. Don't become the very thing you hate.' Do not react violently against the one who is evil - 'If we had that translation, think of what a difference it would have made in Christian history.'

    It would certainly have helped us see more clearly that when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he is not asking for us to roll over and let them do whatever they want to us: rather, he is asking us to show our love for them by resisting the evil in them. He doesn't want us to passively accept people who are doing wrong to us - he wants us to resist their wrongdoing and by our resistance to challenge their behaviour and show them how different and how much better things could be between us.

    I'm drawing on the preaching and writing of Walter Wink because he offers a surprising new look at Jesus's teachings, which excites me, and I hope will excite you too. Turning the other cheek, giving up your cloak, and going the second mile look very different from this perspective. Because they are all examples of Jesus showing us how we can resist evil, without violence, but with love: and enjoy a bit of mischief, too, in the process. Because these three illustrations aren't what we've been led to believe, over the years. Let's take a fresh look at them.

    'If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.'

    [Demonstrate that a right-cheek strike would have to be with the right hand, as in Jesus' society the left hand couldn't be used to touch anyone, and that would be a backhander - a gesture of insult, a symbolic blow used to humiliate the person on the receiving end. People slapped their slaves in this way; Romans gave backhanders to Jews and parents kept their children in their place just like that.

    [Demonstrate that turning the other (left) cheek gives the person the opportunity to land a good punch (with their right hand). But that this punch is the punch of an equal - not a put-down like the slap was. So what the person is doing who offers their left cheek to someone to hit them, is saying - 'I won't let you put me down, I won't accept your backhander, if you're going to hit me then hit me as an equal - I'm the same as you, I'm as good as you.' It's resisting the evil in another person: the evil which causes them to put others down, it's loving the enemy, but it's not reacting violently against them.]

    Now clearly, turning the other cheek is a high-risk strategy; but whatever the outcome - whether you still end up getting slugged or not - it makes a very clear point.
    It may seem far-fetched that people would take that kind of a risk, but in fact, in South Africa, during the end of the apartheid era, children [...] began to take that kind of risk. They stood out in front of the military vehicles and yelled, "Freedom, freedom!" and dared them to run over them. It was like they had suffered enough. Their parents were courageous enough to take the stand, and so these children took the initiative in the struggle against apartheid. [Wink]
    It cost many of them their lives; but their stand contributed to the eventual victory over the evil of apartheid in that land.

    Now this risky way of loving one's enemy, this cheeky way of resisting evil, lies behind the two other illustrations which Jesus used that day: 'If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.'

    'If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well' - the scene before us is a courtroom, and it's a debtor's court. There were many of these in the Roman-occupied land of Jesus' time as the Romans used their ownership of land to hide their assets from the tax people, and to obtain as much land as possible they raised interest rates from 25 to 250 percent, to foreclose on the peasant farmers to get the land into their hands.

    And so Jesus invites us to imagine a man who has secured himself a loan using his cattle or moveable property and, not being able to keep up repayments, has lost that, and then given his land as security and lost that too, and become a landless peasant. He may well have lost his home and family as well. And now he stands in court opposite his enemy all he has is the clothing on his back - actually two items of clothing, his coat and his underclothes. The law said that the creditor could sue a man for his coat, leaving him with just his underclothes, but Jesus tells the man to strip off completely in court: 'If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well'.
    [Now], if you give them your undergarment, that means you are stark naked. And in Jewish society, curiously enough, shame was not just on the naked person, but on the person who sees your nakedness. Remember the story of Noah who's drunk and naked? His son sees him and he's cursed for looking on his father's nakedness. So, Jesus is saying, "Whoever takes you to court and sues you for your outer garment, take off you undergarment, as well." And there you are, standing in the court in your all-togethers, bringing shame on the creditor for having put you in that situation. And then can you imagine marching out of court, naked, and people coming from the alleys and bazaars wanting to know what happened. 'My creditor got my clothes.' And then marching down the street, 50 to 100 people, [you can imagine, all of a sudden], they're having a demonstration there. [Wink]
    Where does the power lie now? Jesus has turned things round again. The enemy has been loved, but challenged, by the man's astonishing act of protest.

    And the same goes for Jesus' last illustration: 'If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.' Roman soldiers were allowed to stop civilians in the road and force them to carry their pack. But they could force then to do that for one mile only - after that the soldier had to take the pack again, or pick on another civilian to take it forward. Any soldier breaking that rule was liable to a court martial. So if the civilian decides to be generous, loving his enemy beyond what he and the soldier know to be legal, refuses to give the pack up after a mile and continues walking with it another mile, then the soldier is no longer in a position of power over the civilian - as they pass the first milestone the roles are suddenly reversed, the soldier is panicking, pleading for his pack back before any of his superiors sees what is happening, the civilian is happily proving to his enemy that he has his dignity, he has his strength, he is in control of the situation now.

    Can we love our enemies? Pray for our persecutors? Without being weak and feeble, without losing our integrity or our dignity? In his sermon on the mount Jesus shows us that we can.

    Jesus shows us that we can resist evil without becoming evil - that we don't have to fight violence with violence (for violence is like a religion in our culture - it is what we turn to to sort out our problems, it is what we trust to put things right - but it is not our religion, and anyway it doesn't work, in fact, it just escalates and destroys.).

    Jesus invites us to be creative in loving our enemies - to find ways of showing them that we care about them enough to challenge their bad behaviour, to try to shock them into seeing themselves and us in a different way.

    These strategies carry risks: we might still get thumped or sued or used. But they also give us dignity and transfer strength to us. We might give this some thought - have I got an enemy who needs resisting? Someone who hurts me and puts me down? How can I challenge their behaviour, lovingly, non-violently, can I even have a bit of fun doing it?

    Turning the other cheek, giving up the cloak, going the second mile - they're not expressions of weakness at all; they're just the opposite. Embracing their true meaning and living it out can turn our lives into celebrations of Jesus and his non-violent revolution of love.



    Notes
    [1] The writings and preaching of Walter Wink (and his wife June) have influenced me greatly. This sermon borrows heavily from Nonviolence for the violent, a talk given at the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship GA Peace Breakfast, Louisville, Kentucky, June 13, 2001 and transcribed by Marilyn White on the Presbyterian Voices for Justice website. Essential Walter Wink writings include Naming the Powers; Language of Power in the New Testament, Unmasking the Powers; The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence, and Engaging the Powers; Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Go to www.walterwink.com for more from the man himself.