(Matthew 5: 38-48)
If you were to ask me what my greatest faith-formative experience was growing up, I would probably take you back to my 6th grade self, and a local community theater in Raleigh. I was in a children’s play there, as were a number of kids, one being another 6th grade boy named Mike. Mike was a bit of a showoff and loved being the center of attention; and he would typically garner that attention by picking on other kids and making them the butt of endless practical jokes. It was almost like he pre-selected a different kid each day at rehearsal: this will be the one whose life I make miserable. He was, admittedly, quite good at it.
For some reason I dodged his antics all those months, until the very last rehearsal before opening night. From the moment I walked in the door, it was obvious – I was the chosen one. All rehearsal long, Mike picked on me and harassed me, culminating with the final straw – the “pull-the-chair-out-from-under-you-before-you-sit-down-in-it” trick. Everyone saw me fall flat on my rear end, everyone laughed, and I was furious. As rehearsal ended, and nearly blind with rage, I got in Mike’s face and expressed my displeasure. He was visibly pleased with my reaction and made some snide remark.
And that’s when I lost it. Without even thinking, and totally out of my character, I swung a fist at him; a hard right hook across the left jaw. It sent him sprawling to the floor. The smack echoed throughout the acoustically-enhanced auditorium and everyone stopped in their tracks and stared at me. Mike stared at me. I stared at my fist – what did you do?!? Slowly Mike got up, still holding his jaw, glaring at me with pure anger and embarrassment, and then turned to leave.
Now in the pre-teenage boy manual, such actions cannot go unanswered. So I knew it was only a matter of time. Opening night two days later; and as fate would have it I was late getting there. Everyone else had come through and left the dressing room; it was just me. And then a knock at the door, and in walked Mike. Just the two of us – mano e mano. He came right up to me and said, I thought you’d be in here. And I said, Yeah. And then something happened that I can assure you is nowhere in the pre-teen boy manual. In a measured and sincere tone, Mike told me that he was a Christian and that Jesus had taught people to turn the other cheek – so that’s what he was going to do. After which he literally turned his cheek, stuck out his right one, the one I didn’t hit before.
I was stunned. Was this another joke? He seemed to read my mind: I’m serious, he said, go ahead. I won’t hit back. I was stunned. I finally told him no, that’s not what I wanted. I was sorry for hitting him the other day. He straightened up and said he was sorry for being suck a jerk. How’s your rear end? he said. Ha, ha, ha, I said. We both laughed. He extended his hand for a handshake and I shook it. We walked out of the dressing room together, just as the curtain was raised on opening night.
I have no idea where Mike is today. But what he did that day will forever remain a part of how I see this passage from the fifth chapter of Matthew. Because every time I hear it, every time I read it, it is not Jesus I see offering the other cheek, but a twelve-year old boy in a theater dressing room.
Which is not a bad thing, really. Sometimes it’s important to imagine scripture in different ways– not changing the story, just changing the scenery. And the more I think about this Matthew passage, these words that Jesus spoke to the masses on the mountainside that day, the more I realize how important it is for us to do this.
See, there’s a typical understanding of this passage that, I would submit, can be somewhat problematic. Here’s the understanding: Jesus is about unconditional love and enduring suffering in his name. So we, too, should welcome the suffering when it comes. Not just tolerate it, but welcome it. If we are hit on the left cheek, we offer our right. If someone asks for our coat, we gladly give our cloak. And if someone other than a friend we exercise with makes us walk a mile, we offer, before they even ask, to go a second. We should rejoice, the thinking goes, in being martyrs; letting people walk all over us in Jesus’ name!
Here’s why that is problematic. It is either a strange lead for us to follow, or it is a dangerous lead. Strange because our society does not know what to do the martyr complex these days, other than view it as a sign of weakness and certainly not strength. Does that mean we’re saying that Jesus was weak?
Or – dangerous. Think about it. A few times in my years of ministry, in counseling situations or casual conversations, I’ve actually had folks who try to justify their spouse’s physical abuse by citing Matthew 5. So “turning the cheek” in their mind becomes honoring marriage vows. Which, I tell them, it most certainly is not and never will be; and it could instead be argued that those marriage vows were broken with the very first swing. And this is the time to seek help and to take care of themselves.
So whether it is a strange understanding or a dangerous one, the bottom line is that we North American Christians tend to miss the boat with what’s going on here. So if you’ll allow me, I want to break things down and get a little technical, okay? This is going to require using your imagination. Has it ever seemed odd to you that Jesus would mention someone specifically striking your right cheek? Why the detail – what difference does it make? It doesn’t make a difference – unless the person doing the striking is right-handed. And with all apologies to the lefties out there – my wife and my Dad included – it’s probably a safe assumption to make, given that some 90% of the population are right-handed.
So how exactly does a right-handed person strike someone on their right cheek, as Jesus describes it? Well, it can’t be with an open fist, can it? Think about it – you’d hit their left cheek. No, it has to be a backhand. And you don’t backhand someone if you’re in a fight with an equal, do you? You backhand someone who is inferior to you, who can’t legitimatly fight back. It’s not about inflicting injury as much as putting them in their place. It’s as if to say, I’m the superior here, and you are less than me.
Now think about that, and think about the audience Jesus is speaking to here on the mountainside: Jewish peasants at the mercy of Roman rule. Do you see what Jesus is describing here? He’s not painting some hypothetical about some random guy hitting you. He’s describing a very specific scene that those people undoubtedly saw over and over again every day: a Roman solider – a superior – striking a subordinate Jew.
Now Jesus knows – as everyone on the mountainside knew – that striking back is not an option. You’ll get killed for that. But you can’t just stand there and take it. So what can you do? You can do as Jesus says. You can turn the other cheek, the left one. Think about it. It won’t work with a backhand; it’ll disrupt the blow. And even if they do adjust to hit you, they’re forced to make an open fist – which means, in an ironic sort of way, that they’ve now elevated you to their own status.
But see, there’s so much more here than just “helpful self-defense tips from Jesus.” Turning cheeks and second miles is about making a statement – about not letting the powerful and influential have their way with you, but also not fighting fire with fire. It’s about finding that “third way” that does something amazing – resist oppression without becoming the oppressor. Some have a name for this sort of thing: they call it nonviolent resistance.
In his teachings and preachings Jesus boldly painted a picture of a world far different from the one he and everyone else lived in – a world where all people were valued; where the meek and hungry inherited the earth; where the power structures were turned on their heels and where love reigned supreme. This was just an idea, a goal, a dream he spoke of; and yet it absolutely terrified those in control. They understood the power of hope and promise in the hearts and minds of the people. And that is why they worked so hard to bring about an end to this man. It was Jesus’ message of turning cheeks and second miles that led him straight to the cross.
And us? We are people following Jesus’ lead. We long for the day when, as the writer of Revelation says, death and crying and pain will be no more; as the prophet Isaiah writes, the wolf shall live with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and as Joel proclaims they shall beat their swords into plowshares and war will be no more.
But it’s so hard, isn’t it? It is so hard to figure out that “third way,” much less actually do it. It’s not really in our DNA. When we are struck, our immediate urge is to strike back. When someone tells us they want us to go another mile, we are tempted to tell them exactly where it is they can go. It is a vicious cycle that never ends.
And then every once in a while, something happens that stops that cycle cold in its tracks. It happened in one instance back in May 2007 at, of all things, a Klu Klux Klan rally. In the midst of all that hatred, the kind that makes you sick to your stomach and causes you to want to respond in like kind, a group of people did something extraordinary. I don’t know if you’ve heard what happened, but my friend David Lamotte did – and it inspired him to write a poem. And as I share it with you, I ask that you imagine the scene playing out in your mind. It’s called White Flour:
The day was bright and sunny as most May days tend to be
In the hills of Appalachia down in Knoxville, Tennessee
The men put on their uniforms and quickly took their places
In white robes and those tall and pointed hoods that hid their faces
Their feet all fell in rhythm as they started their parade
They raised their fists into the air, they bellowed and they brayed
They loved to stir the people up, they loved when they were taunted
They didn’t mind the anger, that’s precisely what they wanted
As they came around the corner, sure enough, the people roared
They couldn’t quite believe their ears, it seemed to be – support?
Had Knoxville finally seen the light, were people coming ‘round?
The men thought for a moment that they’d found their kind of town
But then they turned their eyes to where the cheering had its source
As one their faces soured as they saw the mighty force
The crowd had painted faces, and some had tacky clothes
Their hair and hats outrageous, each had a red foam nose
The clowns had come in numbers to enjoy the grand parade
They danced and laughed that other clowns had come to town that day
And then the marchers shouted, and the clowns all strained to hear
Each one tuned in intently with a gloved hand to an ear
“White power!” screamed the marchers, and they raised their fisted hands
The clowns leaned in and listened like they couldn’t understand
Then one held up his finger and helped all the others see
The point of all this yelling, and they joined right in with glee
“White flour!” they all shouted and they felt inside their clothes
They pulled out bags and tore them and huge clouds of powder rose
They poured it on each other and they threw it in the air
It got all over baggy clothes and multi-colored hair
All but just a few of them were joining in the jokes
You could almost see the marchers turning red beneath white cloaks
They wanted to look scary, they wanted to look tough
One rushed right at the clowns in rage, and was hauled away in cuffs
But the others chanted louder marching on around the bend
The clowns all marched along with them supporting their new friends
“White power!” came the marchers’ cry — they were not amused
The clowns grew still and thoughtful; perhaps they’d been confused?
They huddled and consulted, this bright and silly crowd
They listened quite intently, then one said “I’ve got it now!”
“White flowers!” screamed the happy clown and all the rest joined in
The air was filled with flowers, and they laughed and danced again
“Everyone loves flowers! And white’s a pretty sort!
I can’t think of a better cause for marchers to support!”
Green flower stems went flying like small arrows from bad archers
White petals covered everything, including the mad marchers
And then a very tall clown called the others to attention
He choked down all his chuckles, and said “Friends I have to mention
That what with all the mirth and fun it’s sort of hard to hear
But now I know the cause that these strange marchers hold so dear
“Tight showers!” the clown blurted out, and hit his head in wonder
He held up a camp shower and the others all got under
Or at least they tried to get beneath, they strained but couldn’t quite
There wasn’t room for all of them, they pushed, but it was tight
“White Power!” came their marchers’ cry, quite carefully pronounced
The clowns consulted once again, then a woman clown announced
“I’ve got it! I’m embarrassed that it took so long to see
But what these marchers march for is a cause quite dear to me!”
“Wife power!” she exclaimed and all the other clowns joined in
They shook their heads and laughed at how mistaken they had been
The women clowns were hoisted up on shoulders of the others
Some pulled on wedding dresses, “Here’s to wives and mothers!”
The men in robes were angry and they knew they’d been defeated
They yelled a few more times and then they finally retreated
And when they’d gone a black policeman turned to all the clowns
And offered them an escort to the center of the town
The day was bright and sunny as most May days tend to be
In the hills of Appalachia down in Knoxville, Tennessee
People joined the new parade, the crowd stretched out for miles
The clowns passed out more flowers and made everybody smile
And what would be the lesson of that shiny southern day?
Can we understand the message that the clowns sought to convey?
Seems that when you’re fighting hatred, hatred’s not the thing to use
So here’s to those who march on in their massive, silly shoes
Don’t you wish you could’ve been there to see that? Turning cheeks and second miles, changing this world of ours, changing us. Thanks be to Mike! Thanks be to clowns! Thanks be to God. And may all of God’s people say, AMEN!