Last night, our community discussed chapter 2 in McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus. It is challenging to apply Jesus’ way in the public sphere. For so long, we have interpreted Jesus’ words, such as turning the other cheek, as applying only to one’s public life. And even in that case, it’s usually understood as passive “doormat” approach to evil.
Barbara voiced a valid issue: How do we apply turning the other cheek in a situation such as 9/11? Is turning the other cheek simply a passive response? Or is it a transcendent countermove, a third option between passive non-activity and violent retaliation?
This is something I need to explore some more, but I’ve heard that in Jewish culture, turning the other cheek was a much more subversive move than simply offering yourself for further abuse. Here’s what I’ve heard: When a right-handed person slapped someone’s right cheek, it was a slap by the back of the hand. This demonstrated that the “slapper” was above and better than the “slappee.” In other words, it was a insulting and shameful insult. It was putting the “slappee” in his humiliating place. But when the “slappee” offered his other cheek, it forced the “slapper” to slap with his open palm. This was reserved for striking an equal. If this is the case, then turning the other cheek forced the “slapper” to admit that the “slappee” was an equal, overturning the cultural social categories that often bound people.
Quite frankly, I don’t know if this is true or not. There are so many “urban legends” circulating through Christian teaching disguised as “cultural context.” In addition, in Matthew 5:39, “turning the other cheek” is preceded by the general exhortation of “Do not resist an evil person,” which in my opinion is even more challenging than turning the other cheek.
But whether it is the case or not, it makes me wonder if our response to 9/11 specifically and terrorism generally is flawed. We seem so eager to retaliate with bombing and aggression and simply slap the label “justice” on it. But it’s not justice. Don’t misunderstand me. I think those responsible for such horrific acts like 9/11 and other atrocities throughout the world should be held responsible and brought to justice. But biblical justice, the justice God’s people are to be implementing as Jesus’ body, is transforming and restorative justice. And that cannot be accomplished through military means.
What would the mature response have been? I can only wonder. But perhaps an appropriate “turning the other cheek” would have began with asking why would certain groups want to do harm to the U.S. We have got to face the fact that the U.S. is not an innocent victim.
And maybe a better response would have been to pour billions of dollars into global projects rather than into our military machine. If we’re going to go into such debt, shouldn’t it be for the cause of goodness in the world rather than destruction?
And perhaps we should have put more effort into transforming our foreign policy so that our global neighbors realized that aggression toward the U.S. is misplaced. We must also realize that when our leaders use the rhetoric of “democracy and freedom” most non-U.S.ers hear “rampant consumerism, hyper-capitalism and greed.” Maybe more energy should have been put into becoming a force for real transformation among the poor nations. This may sound overly simplistic, but could you imagine what would have happened if our leaders had corporately repented to our global neighbors for our foreign policy and made authentic attempts at becoming a better, transforming global citizen?
Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that I may be naive. But as a pastor, if someone complained that Jesus’ ways don’t work in the world on a personal level, I would have told them that Jesus’ way is a way of life from God’s future. And by living his life in the here and now, we embed a new and better kind of life in our present world. Such a life on a personal level becomes a seed for transformation. Is it difficult? Sure. Will it cause trouble? Yeah. But it’s how we embody, demonstrate and announce God’s kingdom and character in our world; it’s how we help bring God’s kingdom from heaven to earth; it’s how we form the building blocks of God’s renewed world, a world that Jesus will finally build when he reappears.
So if that’s true on a personal level, wouldn’t it be true at a national level? And that’s one of the tasks of God’s people — to be the prophetic conscience of the nations we live in by embodying it first at the personal and corporate level and then speaking it forth in public all the way up to the national level.
There is evil in the world. Acts of violence such as terrorism are evil. But so is retaliatory violence. And when we use violence to fight violence, then no matter who wins, the final victory goes to violence. And responding in a peaceful “third way” won’t make evil simply disappear. Jesus’ “third way” resulted in his crucifixion. But God is faithful to his people, his world and his ongoing project of renewing everything. He takes such death all the way through the other side into the resurrected life of a brand new world and a brand new way of living. Our vision as God’s people has to be big enough to see that; our prophetic voice has to be loud enough to proclaim it; and our personal and corporate lives must be strong enough to embody it.
But again, to be frank, we can’t call our nations to turn the other cheek if we don’t know how to do it on the personal level. We can’t think through a “third way” at one level without first owning it at the daily personal level that Jesus invites us to follow him into. It has to start there.
Here’s what I do know: in order to deal with all of the ambiguities of our present world and conditions, we must constantly hold onto the vision of God’s future renewed world. And one passage that holds my attention is Revelation 21:3-5:
“No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.”
It’s a renewed world without the damaging, distorting, deconstructing curse, a renewed world where heaven and earth are finally and fully joined together and God rules and implements his good rule through his renewed human stewards.