Not Slapping Back
February 20, 2011
Matthew 5: 38-48
If someone walked up to you and slapped you on the face, what would you do?
Well, probably after recovering from the shock, you would slap the person back.
Retaliation is the automatic human response. We can see it reflected in the way that people and even animals react with one another. The under lying implication is this: we must be able to defend ourselves. If someone comes towards us with violence we must be ready to push back with violence, because if we do not, the aggressor might get the upper hand and we could be revealed as cowardly or weak.
This basic principle of retribution is pervasive in our society. Ninety percent of our action films are based on some variation of it. Some person is wronged by someone else and finds a way to strike back, often with excessive violence. We struggle with this in our own lives trying to figure out how we should assert ourselves against those who would take advantage of us. We debate in our minds what we should say to our children about defending themselves against those at school who bully them. It is clear that the automatic response to violence is a response with violence in return.
This is what makes Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel so difficult. Jesus tells us that we are to respond to violence with non-violence, that we are to offer no resistance to the one who does evil, that we are to turn the other cheek. It would be difficult to find a more challenging teaching of Jesus in the entire Bible. But at least part of his strategy is clear. Jesus wants us as his disciples to be different. He wants us to stand out against the rest of society. We go back to what we heard two weeks ago where Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” We are to have a distinctive flavor. We are not supposed to be just like everyone else. You can sense this at the end of today’s gospel where Jesus says that if we only love those who love us, what good is there in that. Everybody does that. We have to be different. We have to be distinctive.
This is fine and good. But why has Jesus made this stance of non-violence the litmus test to being a disciple? And how are we to live it? Many great minds throughout the centuries have tried to understand the words of Jesus. On one side you have great thinkers such as Francis of Assisi, Dietrich Bonhoefer, Ghandi, who see in this teaching of Jesus, the central message of his gospel that we are to take a non-violent stance against evil. On the other hand there is a group which believes that Jesus’ words are beautiful but not realistic. They assert that Jesus’ command to non-violence is aimed at another world, a world better than the world in which we live. To them Jesus has set an unobtainable goal that we cannot reach. And if we were to adopt the stance of non-violence, evil would get the upper hand and would in time crush us.
So how are we to understand these words of Jesus, these challenging and perhaps unrealistic commands? Before we decide, it might be useful to us to look at the experience of Egypt over the last number of weeks. The so-called Egyptian Revolution carries two characteristics that pertain to Jesus’ teaching. Many of us know that the change of government in Egypt was occasioned by a movement of Egyptian youth, who networked with one another using modern means of communication such as Facebook and twitter. But what people do not know as well, is that the youth movement had been organizing over a period of time. It had been re-grouping since failed effort in 2005. During that six year period, the organizers of the youth movement consciously adopted a posture of non-violence. They were influenced by the teaching of an American philosopher, who lives in Boston, by the name of Gene Sharp. Sharp argues that the most effective way to topple a repressive regime is by non-violence, because the minute that the protesters engage in violence, they provide an excuse for the regime to use violence in response under the guise of civil security. So the young protestors in Egypt adopted that non-violent stance.
When Mubarak sent out thugs to try to scare them with violent repression, they did not retaliate. They absorbed the attacks that came to them in the square. When they were attacked (some of them fatally), other protesters moved into their place. By choosing a non-violent response, they revealed the injustice of the regime, that would use violence against its own people. Mubarak lost the respect of the Egyptian populace, and the government fell.
The first thing that this reflection upon the Egyptian experience shows us is that non-violence is not a sign of weakness or cowardliness. In fact, it takes great strength and discipline to refuse to use violence when violence is directed against you. This challenges us to find the strength to turn the other cheek, the strength to refuse to retaliate. It invites us to believe that we can achieve our ends without contributing to the increasing cycle of violence in our world. The Egyptian experience challenges us to witness in our personal relationships, in our family relationships, in our relationships at school and work, that we are those who believe that we can move forward without manipulating others, without contributing to an already too violent world. Jesus calls us to be different enough to believe that non-violence has a place in our society.
Jesus calls us to be distinctive, to be different, to be salt for the earth by adopting a policy of non-violence. The first thing that the Egyptian experience confirms about that teaching is that non-violence is not the choice of cowards but the choice of heroes and saints. The second thing that it confirms is just as important. It is a truth that Mr. Mubarak now knows all too well: non-violence works.
Imitating God’s Holiness
February 23, 2014
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 17-18; Mathew 5: 38-48
To understand today’s readings we have to understand what it means to be holy. When we think of holiness, we usually equate it with doing “religious stuff.” So a person who says the rosary, comes to church on Sunday, follows the Ten Commandments, and tries to do God’s will, is a person we would say is holy. But when we look at today’s first reading from Leviticus, it becomes clear that this understanding of holiness is insufficient. God says to Moses, “Tell Israel they are to be holy as I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Now, how is God holy? God does not do religious stuff. God does not say the rosary, follow the Ten Commandments, or come to church on Sunday. In what sense, then, is God holy, and how are we to imitate God’s holiness? He answer to this question is found in the Hebrew word for holiness. It means to be other, to be different, to be transcendent. God is clearly other, different from anything we have sensed or imagined. God is transcendent beyond our comprehension. So God is holy because God is different, transcendent, other. And we are to be holy by being different, by being other in the way we live.
This why the passage from Leviticus immediately goes on to tell us how to act. We are not to hate our brother or sister. We are not to seek revenge. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is not the way the world acts. People seek revenge. They hate one another, and they regularly put themselves before their neighbor. But Leviticus tells the people of Israel that they must act differently, other than the way people normally act. Then they will be holy as God is holy.
We usually see the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves as a teaching of Jesus, and indeed it is. But, Jesus is only echoing the Book of Leviticus. Jesus takes the teaching of Leviticus that we are to be different and intensifies it. He says not only are you not to seek revenge, you are not even to resist evil. You are to turn the other cheek. Not only are you to love your enemies, you are to pray for them. Now, who lives this way? Who in our world is turning the other cheek? Who in our world is praying for their enemies? Very few. Most of the people in the world, ourselves included, would prefer strict justice. We want an eye for an eye. We want to retaliate when people hurt us. We want justice. We want a recompense for what we have suffered.
But, that is the point. Both the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Leviticus challenge us to be different. They insist on this contrary way of living in order to demonstrate that those who follow the God of Israel, and those who follow Jesus are distinctive from the rest of the world. Now, such a high standard is very difficult to follow. I know I do not always follow it. There are times when I want to get even. There are times when I want justice rather than going the extra mile. This means that for most of us we will only be able to follow this teaching of Jesus some of the time. Many times we will fail to be holy. Yet, it is worth striving after God’s holiness, because acting in accord with it reveals a truth, and it is a truth that is both arresting and attractive.
A Hindu holy man was traveling a mountain road when he was beset by a robber who put a knife to his throat and said, “Give, me all of your valuables.” Immediately the holy man handed over his purse which had a few copper coins in it. The robber grabbed the purse, drew back the knife, and began to run away. “Wait,” said the holy man, “You don’t have everything, I still have a ruby hidden in my sandal. Here, take it belongs to you.” The next day the monk was on the same road and was stopped by the same robber who put a knife to his throat again. “What are you doing?” said the holy man. “You already have all that is mine. I have nothing else to give you.” “Yes you have.” said the robber. “I want what you have that made your free enough to give me the ruby yesterday.”
When we act in a way that is beyond people’s expectations, when we act in a way that is different, we open the possibility for new things to happen. We open the possibility to live in a new way, in a way that is beyond all the dead end options that our world continues to choose, in a way that is beyond the circle of violence that is gradually destroying us. So, whenever you have the opportunity, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, pray for your enemies because those actions might be different enough, other enough, to reveal a new way of living. In that way your holiness will be a sign of the holiness of God.
Love Your Enemy
February 19, 2017
Matthew 5: 38-48
We all know that the teaching of Jesus can be difficult. There are times where it places heavy demands upon us. But in today’s gospel Jesus seems to be asking for something that is impossible. He asks us to “Love our enemies.” Who can do that? How can we love someone who is trying to destroy us, or somebody who has betrayed us or lied to us? How can we love someone who has hurt people we love? Jesus’ command to “Love our enemy” seems to be beyond human capability.
Now I will not promise you that this homily will make Jesus’ command easy, but I think that I can say some things to help understand his words more clearly. Let’s first consider the word “Love.” Today when we think of love, we think romantically. We imagine being attracted to someone, seeking union or intimacy with someone. But this was not the notion of love at Jesus’ time. “Love” in the first century meant that we recognize that there is good in the person who is our enemy and that we seek to live with our enemy in peace. Now even if we understand love this way, Jesus’ command is still difficult. It is difficult to see good in our enemy or to live with our enemy in peace. But at least we realize that Jesus is not asking us to be attracted to our enemy or to seek union or intimacy with our enemy. Jesus’ command is not a romantic invitation. We are commanded to love our enemy. We do not have to like our enemy.
The second thing to appreciate about Jesus’ command is that it does not leave us defenseless. If our enemy is coming towards us to attack, if someone is seeking to harm us, we are not required to submit to that violence. We have the right to defend ourselves, to separate ourselves from someone who would hurt us. Jesus commands us to “love our enemy” not to “trust our enemy.”
So Jesus’ command does not ask us to “like” or “trust” the person who would harm us. But if we are to “love” in that sense what does it look like? On a national level, Jesus’ command to love our enemy does not prevent us from securing our borders or defending ourselves from terrorists’ attacks. But it does challenge us to recognize that there is good in the person who attacks us and to defend ourselves without basing our defenses on hate.
On a personal level Jesus’ command to love our enemy does not call us to endure abuse either within our families or without. Nor does it mean that we should allow ourselves to be manipulated time and time again. It does ask us to realize that there is value in the person who offends us and to wish that person well, even as we protect ourselves from his or her actions. Loving your enemy, then, does not mean liking or trusting your enemy.
Now even with these qualifications, Jesus’ command is still challenging. Perhaps that is why Jesus also says, “Pray for your enemies.” The best way to find good in our enemy and to live in peace is if our enemy changes. And only God can change human hearts. So as we try to follow Jesus command, it would be wise to bring our enemies regularly before the Lord in prayer, asking that God would change their hearts and our hearts, so that we can live in peace together.