All of us have experienced some sort of wrongdoing by the hands of others. It started out with other children who took our toys or bullied us when we were very small. And when that happened, most of us were taught not to fight back. But there were always some kids whose parents told them to hit back…to retaliate, with force if necessary, to protect themselves and their property. But that was not the way I was taught to be. I remember always sensing a tension in what I thought was really right when someone picked on me. But my parents always told me that it was better to give in than to be the kind of person who wronged others to get their way. And so I grew up thinking that there were two kinds of people in this world. There were the nice ones who never fought back and the evil ones who took what they wanted and did what they wanted to other people. I tried to avoid being one of the evil ones or anything to do with them. But it wasn’t that simple.
Not everyone is always nice or always evil, and that includes me. Sometimes those evil inclinations emerge inside of me also. In fact, I confess that my little sister still accuses me of being a bully when we were small children. Even my aunt remembers the time she gave us a bag of M&Ms to share and I tried to eat them all. I’m lucky my sister was taught to not smack me over it… and I learned to share and not be so greedy. In fact, I’ve become quite generous to others, thanks to my good Christian upbringing. My parents did such a good job with me that I actually used to get pushed around a bit too much by others. So where is the virtue and how do we cultivate it? And what have we learned that we pass on to our children and grandchildren about the practicality of our faith? I am sure I am not the only person who has questions about this “turning the other cheek” story.
As we grow older and grow in faith, we come to understand more about the lessons in the Bible. Just like us, they aren’t black and white tales of good and evil either. Those people who think that either dismiss Jesus all together as irrelevant, or they become frustrated score keepers that no one likes. The rest of us live in the grey. What does that mean? It means we keep living and learning, and reflecting on the Scriptures as we go. And we seek the wisdom of others who can help us. I like the writings of Protestant Pastor / Professor Walter Wink and Jesuit Priest / Professor Dean Brackley. These scholars helped me see that tough lessons like the ones we have today on turning the other cheek are not just lessons for children to keep them from becoming bullies. They help us with our adult problems and spirituality.
Here is what Walter Wink says in his book The Powers That Be, p. 98-111. Turning the other check is not just a call to passive submission to injustices. Wink reminds us that Jesus was never passive when it came to evil. There was nothing cowardly about the way he engaged with opposition. What Jesus does provide, however, is another way to resist evil that is not violent. We are to refuse to oppose evil on its own terms by defying it, not submitting to it. The challenge to us to stand up for ourselves and what is right without using violence is difficult for us because we are called to unmask the behaviors of those who wrong us as unjust. Jesus tells us how to take on not just individual evil doers but entire systems of cruelty and injustice. That is huge! But we are to maintain our human dignity and humanity by responding to oppression from the rules of God, not the rules of the oppressors, over which they hold all the power.
’t use their tactics. There is another way. Jesus’ teaching here liberates us from evil. We don’t have to fight it or submit to it. We can change the terms of engagement by breaking the cycle of humiliation. The most important message here, according to Wink, is that Jesus does not provide for us a way to “win” a conflict with an enemy, but rather a way to transform the enemy. We must not let evil even define our hearts, but rather act out of love.
The late Dean Brackley, S.J. also wrote about Christian love in the face of suffering injustices in The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, p. 186-191. Jesus was always in the midst of some sort of conflict and so are we. We need a spirituality that enables us to live with opposition and persecution. Jesus taught us how to stand up for ourselves in these situations. Brackley finds all of the lessons in the scriptures for how to do this. First we need to be a constant defender of truth and human dignity. Secondly we need to learn not to worry and to trust that we are in God’s care. Third, we need to accept our weaknesses and rest on God’s power. Fourth, we need to live in joy and gladness because we have a clear vision of God’s victory. Fifth, we need to act boldly and with courage. Sixth, we need to love our enemies. Seventh, we need to become more creative and clever in our resistance. And finally, we need to be in solidarity with others who suffer by participating in the Eucharist.
I pray today that sharing these brief summaries of the writings of two well respected Christian theologians will be helpful in reflecting on the difficult gospel message for today.