The Sermon on the Mount contains three small word pictures that have become part of our every-day language; ‘Turn the other cheek, give them your coat also and go the extra mile.’ Yet I suspect quite a lot of the people using these phrases have no idea that they are the words of Jesus.
And although I rejoice that people who have never opened a Bible in their lives are quoting scripture, the downside is that the meaning may change – and that has certainly happened to Jesus’ examples of how to resist and react to injustice and evil.
I find that these decaffeinated interpretations are a bit of a handicap when trying to explain the pacifist position, as these are important verses for Christian Pacifists.
So, what should we make of these phrases? Here is one key example;
‘Turn the other cheek’
This is usually interpreted as – hit me again, I won’t stop you, – I will be passive, I deserved it anyway, worm that I am, – ‘play it again Sam’. That is much better than straight forward revenge and bloody noses all around, but neither surrender nor a punch-up is what Jesus meant.
He was passive during the time of His Passion – His arrest and trial, so there is a place for passivity, but for the rest of His ministry He was very active and in control of events. However, he was active in a non-violent way which upset many of His contempories.
Let us look a little more closely at that ‘other cheek’ where the clue to a more subtle meaning is that Matthew specifies the right cheek and not just any old cheek.
Not just any old Cheek
Try turning to a person close to you and with permission strike (gently) their right cheek with your right hand. Now let the struck victim turn the other cheek to have that struck as well with your right hand.
Now imagine this is an ‘honour society’ and the striker is a farmer and the struck one is a farm labourer who has upset the boss in some way. Or it is the lady of the house cross with her maid, or a check-out girl who has dropped a grocery bag or given the wrong change. We have all seen haughty customers from time to time. One side has the power and the other is vulnerable.
In a right-handed society the right cheek doesn’t get a powerful slap but a humiliating one. That insult slap has survived many centuries.
On the other hand, the striker can give a fair wallop with the palm of the hand to the left cheek, – but that open-handed blow in an honour society is a blow between social equals. It is not insult or humiliation, but anger, aggression or hatred.
The right cheek blow is not damaging to the face but it is damaging to the self confidence of the victim whose lowly status is reinforced. Does the person who has slipped up need to be humiliated as well as punished? And maybe they didn’t do anything wrong at all, their master had a hang-over that morning, or madam was a bit touchy.
So Jesus says, turn the tables, don’t be passive, don’t be wimpish, resist non-violently. In turning the other cheek you are saying that the first hit did not humiliate me – so try again, but this time as equals. Make your master or mistress think about their arrogance and your humanity, for both of you are children of God, both of you are made in God’s image.
This story models non-violent resistance as do the other two. This is non-violent action and it is very different from being passive and doing nothing, and it is also different from running away, and also different from an aggressive ‘an eye for an eye’ fight.
In this story Jesus suggests another way of dealing with aggression. And for its first 300 years the Church lived like that. Later it was only parts of the Church that kept to the pacifist tradition. The Anglican Pacifist Fellowship is a miniscule part of that tradition.
There is a verse nearby that has always seemed to me a bit of a nonsense. The verse says – ‘resist not evil’ and that is how it is in most Bible translations going back to Tynedale.
Surely, we should resist evil? However, Tom Wright’s translation says, ‘do not violently resist evil’ for the underlying Greek word has the implication of resisting as an army would resist, and that would not be in keeping with the Gospel. So, we resist evil but not in a violent manner.
A left cheek can be turned so violence is not overcome by further violence, but by creative non-violence. Jesus has given us a template for creative and appropriate ways to overcome the evils and injustices in our world. War cannot be called non-violent, hence the ‘no to war and all preparations for war’ of our Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.
Its power in the world today
This is not a weak position.
For example, in Christchurch, New Zealand, with the tragedy of the Mosque shootings a non-violent vision has recently been revealed. Revealed by the sympathy, love and life-affirming response shown to the victims. Revealed by the response of those so horribly attacked.
Let me finish with words you may know which harmonise so well with the verses in our Gospel reading. They were spoken by a man confined to a wheelchair by his wounds and spoken just 14 days after his wife was killed trying to save him.
These are his words:
‘I don’t want to have a heart that is boiling like a volcano. A volcano has anger, fury, rage – it doesn’t have peace. It has hatred, it burns itself within, and it burns the surroundings. I want a heart that is full of love, and care, and full of mercy, a heart that will forgive lavishly’.
Contributed by APF Trustee, Jonathan Hartfield – I Grew up in Hastings UK. Trained at St.Georges Hospital. Had an exciting and turbulent time in Nigeria in 60s. Moved to NZ in 1971. Worked as specialist in Obst &Gyn and later in palliative care in a Hospice. Retired from medicine in 2013. Ordained priest in 1986. I have 4 children 9 grand children. I am an enthusiastic gardener and a choir singer.
Disclaimer: This blog is intended to provide a space for people associated with APF to express their own personal views and opinions in order to promote discussion of issues relating to peacemaking and pacifism It is not necessarily a place where the official views of APF are expressed.