Turn the Cheek

Unbounded Love As Resistance: Standing against Sin and Evil, Part 2

Part 1: Love command as interpretive framework for the Sermon on the Mount

Part 2  Love command as Standing against Sin and Evil

A careful reading of Matthew’s version of Jesus’ teaching turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) reveals a humanizing act both for the one being struck and for the one striking the other. When a right-handed person strikes one on the right cheek, that person has back handed the other.  The back handed strike isn’t what takes place between equals. This isn’t a fist fight. This is an insult, an assertion of superiority over an inferior. Jesus’ instruction to turn the left cheek is to demand to be struck as an equal, or at least to prevent the insult from being repeated. This symbolically says “I’m your equal, I do not accept your terms. I will not strike back but if you wish to strike me again you must punch me like you would your equal.” This is love of enemy, seeing the enemy as human, like you, and insisting that your enemy also recognize your humanity.

Thus, when the elder King confronts the police officer for calling him boy, he was turning the other cheek (see part 1). He refused to be dehumanized by acting on Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek. This was a fulfillment of the command to love one’s enemies and inspired an entire generation of African-Americans to do likewise. Clearly, nonresistance to evil is neither acquiescing to, nor acceptance of dehumanization and oppression. Non-resistance of evil is choosing to in the face of evil act from the stand point of radical love. It transforms confrontations between the oppressed and the oppressor by humanizing and equalizing both parties. One who follow’s Jesus’ teaching, refuses to accept a dehumanizing act and simultaneously refuses to react in kind. This is what Jesus means when he speaks of loving our enemies.

This radical love both defines and empowers non-resistance. Non-resistance of evil proclaims, “I will not only treat the oppressor as human, but also with the dignity I demand from, and for all people, because we are all human and therefore all equally deserving of a beloved, dignified humanity.” The very same dignity an oppressor expects for themselves. A Christian response to oppression must invite the oppressor to both see the oppressed as equals and unmask any dehumanizing tactics employed by an oppressor. This approach to Christ’s teaching should inform every action in which a Christian confronts oppression.

In a paradoxical moment of great extremity Dietrich Bonhoeffer admitted that there are instances in confronting injustice, such as his moment in opposition to Hitler, when love of neighbor comes into conflict with love of enemy, e.g. Joining the plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer recognized that in such extremities it might be impossible to maintain the unity of Jesus’ teaching of demanding humanity for all including the evil person. One may be required by Jesus love ethic to fail in loving one’s enemy, when the enemy is an oppressor and love of neighbor demands standing with and for the oppressed. Bonhoeffer did not attempt to explain away Jesus’ connecting hate and murder. The assassination of Hitler (even the attempt of it) lead him for the sake of Christ and the demand of love to violate Jesus love command in the name of love. Bonhoeffer admitted that his participation in the assassination plot was a failure of the demands of love and the Gospel for the sake of love and the Gospel. Bonhoeffer accepted this guilt and threw himself upon the grace of God.

Love of enemy, turning the other cheek, and non-resistance of evil support an ideal of radical love and radical humanization of all people. It also attempts to jar an oppressor out of their inhumanity. This radical love can also lead to an ethical paradox that traps us in the human inability to uphold Jesus radical love ethic. In those moments, the best we can do is embrace our flawed humanity and throw ourselves upon the love and grace of God. Such is the resistance of the disciple of Jesus Christ, member of the church the body of Christ. Some interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount attempt to protect us from the ethical contradictions taking this teaching seriously can lead to. Many interpretations treat Jesus’ teaching as a method of avoiding sin. But Christian monastics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr (as well as many others) show us that the life of the Church isn’t merely the avoidance of Sin, but a direct confrontation of sin which will exposes our human limits as well as our complicity with Sin. This radical confrontation is undertaken in the name of Christ and by the power of the cross so that Sin, injustice, and oppression may be driven out of our minds, our hearts and out of all creation. These are acts of exorcism dependent upon the work of God in Christ Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Unbounded Love as Resistance Part 1 and 2, is the second part in a three part reflection. The first part is on hope, “Hope as Virtue and Discipline” and the final reflection is “Building Upon a Foundation: Practicing the Sermon on the Mount”  These for blog posts make up a beginning sketch of my theology of resistance.  They are reflections that come out of reflecting on hope and the sermon on the mount with the Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconciler, between November 2016 and February 2017

Unbounded Love as Resistance: The Sermon on the Mount (part 1)

Jesus’ Love ethic as the interpretive center of the Sermon on the Mount

There is an extremism in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, parallel in Luke 6 as the Sermon on the Plain). Many in the history of the church have attempted to soften the teaching or restrict the application of the teaching to a class of Christian. Part of this radicalism, is Jesus Christ getting at the root of Sin, injustice, and unrighteousness. The sermon on the Mount is also, an articulation of Jesus’ ethic, the way of life or being for his body, the Church.

This ethic or way of life is nurtured in the soil of the Torah. The teaching is enriched by going beyond surface adherence of the commands of the Torah, so that one can dig into the richness of the Torah as life. This ethic also has its source in a radicalization of the Love command taught in the Torah: Love of God and neighbor as self. Jesus accepts this Love command as a summary of the Torah. In the sermon on the Mount love of neighbor (if neighbor is taken as someone one knows and with whom one shares an affinity) is radicalized as love of enemy. This radical neighbor love exposes how we justify our failures to live by the Torah and love of neighbor by cordoning off from ourselves certain others. We know this well: treatment of our in group (whatever that might be) stands in stark contrast to our treatment of the out group. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes explicit that the way of love Jesus shows and exhorts us towards doesn’t allow us to hate anyone even those who may harm us, that is our enemies.

Jesus’ love ethic and love command has two elements. One aspect is seeking to be neighbor to all (shown in the parable of the Good Samaritan told in answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?”. The answer to that question is the seeming non-sequitur question “Am I a neighbor?”). The other is love of those who do not return my love – love of those who hate me and seek my demise, even death.

If we conceive of love only as sentiment, we make pure nonsense of Jesus’ teaching. This radicalized ethic shows that the basis of love for Jesus isn’t only an emotion but also an action that extends love to all possible persons and all circumstances. Jesus’ teaching tells us that what is usually grounded in an emotive response to familiarity and affinity, is deeper and grander than our habitual way of understanding love. Love is more human and more divine than we realize or usually notice.

The Sermon on the Mount or Plain needs to be interpreted from this extreme love ethic rooted in the Torah and its summary as “Love of God and love of neighbor as self.” radicalized by removal of any limit we might put on “neighbor”. This is accomplished first through focus not on others but the self being a neighbor in any and all circumstances, this focus on self being neighbor and in the command to love one’s enemies.

Love of Enemy, Resist not the evil person and turning the other cheek

To hear correctly Jesus’ teaching on love of enemy, resisting not the evil person and turning the other cheek we must keep in mind that they occur in the portion of the sermon called the antitheses; “You’ve heard it was said (interpretation of the Torah…. but I (Jesus) say to you (new teaching on the Torah)…”. When we look at this section from the perspective of Torah summarized as love of God and neighbor as self, we can see this section as rooted in Torah and not it’s rejection. Jesus always has the Torah as the basis of the radicalized way of living and being he leads his disciples into, and moves it towards the extremity of the Torah’s meaning at points almost seeming to enjoin doing the opposite. Except that the Torah is never abandoned, but s clarified trough Jesus’ teaching. This is what is going on in the antitheses. Jesus isn’t questioning Torah but offering a different or new interpretation based on the love ethic.

Jesus’ teaching to ‘resist not evil” and turn the other cheek are often interpreted without reference to the love ethic. As often as not these sayings of Christ have been interpreted by powerful and privileged Christians to insist that the poor and the oppressed not upset the status quo, and endure their lot in life. While also being interpreted as not applying to Christians exercising the power of the state. There are interpretations of love of enemies, turning the other cheek and resist not evil all which subject the one suffering evil or oppression to accept the dehumanizing condition in the name of Jesus Christ. Jesus teaching is turned into a defender of the status quo, rather than a uncompromising insistence on love that upend established order.

James Cone in his book on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X recounts Martin Luther King Jr’s account of influences of Kings child hood in Atlanta and of the example of his parents as key to his views. One of the incidents Cones recounts from Kings autobiography is an incident of King’s father being pulled over by a police officer when King was a child.  Cone quotes King as saying that the elder King didn’t turn the other cheek but that the elder King insisted on being treated as a “man” and an equal. When the police officer called the elder King “boy” the elder King’s reply was that the younger king in the car with him was a boy but that he was a man. Turning the other cheek in Martin Luther King Jr.’s account is the opposite of standing up and demanding that one’s humanity be recognized in the face of degradation, oppression and injustice.

If this is Jesus intended teaching (accept and don’t stand against dehumanization) then what sense can we make of the Beatitudes, when what we see in the Beatitudes is the humanizing of those who are being dehumanized. When the Beatitudes are together with the command to love enemies, then we have a radical stance against dehumanizing any human being whatever they may do or have done, or however monstrous we may view the other. To refuse hate, even to refuse to hate one’s enemy but instead to love them, is a humanizing way of life that has no boundaries.

Jesus Christ’s love ethic is meant to humanize everyone and to eradicate within each of us the desire and need to dehumanize those who threaten us. We will next explore, In part 2, “turning the other cheek” and “resisting not the evil person” from this perspective of Jesus’ ethic as a humanizing way of life, that refuses all forms of dehumanization, and the ways in which this radicalism can lead us into a contradiction that is the very nature of our call as the church to confront (not avoid) Sin, unrighteousness, and injustice.

A prologue to this post is Hope as Virtue and discipline. The prologue this post and the following two posts on the Sermon on the Mount entail a sketch of my theology of resistance.

Leave your thoughts on how you’ve been taught to understand “turn the other Cheek” and “resist not the evil person.” How does viewing Jesus’ teaching from the perspective of a radical interpretation of the Torah from the perspective of love without bounds, including those who seek to harm us, reinforce or challenge interpretations of the sermon on the Mount you believe or have been taught?