Turning the Other Cheek without becoming Someone’s Doormat
This sermon on Matthew 5:38-48 shows how we can apply Sermon on the Mount lessons to stand up for ourselves without resorting to retaliation.
Have you ever listened to the news and wondered what country we live in? I heard this week that threats of violence against federal agencies, federal agents, and their families have increased more than 100% in the last year. The guy in Cincinnati thought he’d load all his weapons in his car and take on the FBI. People stockpiling weapons, ready to fight a civil war.
One of the alarming aspects of this trend is how much of their language is interwoven with the language of our faith. They’ve convinced themselves that God is on their side and against their perceived enemies and wills them toward violence.
The Sermon on the Mount Prescribes Non-Violence
Just so we don’t go down the rabbit hole, I thought it would be good to be reminded of the foundational teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus presumes dealing with conflict with non-violent methods. He was called the Prince of Peace who came to establish more peaceful ways. He never inflicted violence on anyone–even when he was being crucified. In the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you repay no one evil for evil.”
That’s right. The Bible says an eye for an eye, but Jesus says don’t follow that. Instead, follow a different path. In the sermon on the mount, he talks about the necessity to let some things go and work toward forgiveness and reconciliation wherever possible. The Christian presumption is always toward non-violence. It’s a strategy that works. It worked with Gandhi in India, it worked with Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights movement, and it worked in South Africa against apartheid.
Jesus his listeners to imagine three scenarios. One where you turn the other cheek if struck. Second, you give your undergarment if you are sued for your outer garment. Third, if you are forced to carry a pack one mile, carry it two.
Are we supposed to let people treat us like doormats?
But pastor, who can do that? Doesn’t that just permit people to treat you like a doormat and take advantage of you? How can it be good just to let people get away with that stuff? I agree. This is one of those passages where the Bible takes on a whole new light if you take the passage in its original context and understand simple principles that everyone in Jesus’ audience would have taken for granted.
Biblical scholar Walter Wink examined the details of three scenarios of turning the other cheek, giving an undergarment when sued, and going the second mile, and here is what he discovered. Wink argues that we are taught that we have two instinctive responses to danger: fight or flight. Wink argues that Jesus teaches us to aim at a third way of dealing with it–through non-violent resistance.
Turn the Other Cheek.
We might think this is about a fistfight. But the key to this passage is the detail, “if someone strikes you on your right cheek. . .” In that culture, there were rules about what you could and could not do with your right and left hand. The left hand was reserved for bathroom activities, and one was not allowed touch, someone, with your left hand, let alone throw a left hook–even if he was a lefty. So the only way one could strike a right cheek is to backhand the other person. Backhanding someone was a socially acceptable way of humiliating someone, of “putting them in their place.”
You couldn’t backhand someone of equal stature to you–there were big penalties for that, but you could knock an underling around. Who did the backhanding? Masters to slaves, men to women, parents to children, Romans to Jews. It was a degrading, dehumanizing assault to one’s spirit.
So what is Jesus getting at when he says to a band of peasants to turn the other cheek? When the left cheek is presented to the attacker it is not possible to backhand the underling–his or her nose gets in the way. He might strike you with his fist, but he cannot backhand you. He might have you flogged and severely punished, but what he cannot do is degrade and humiliate you with the backhand.
So what good is turning the other cheek? It sends the message that you will not participate in your own degradation and humiliation. ‘Your backhand has failed to achieve your goal and it has lost its effect because I’m not going along with it. You are going to have to treat me as an equal and punch me, or do something else, but you do not get away with ‘putting me in my place,’ I am a child of God and you are not superior to me. Do what you will, but I’m going to stand up for myself and my God-given human dignity.” Remember how Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent?” Turning the other cheek is the brazen refusal to give consent.
I cannot help but think about Rosa Parks. “I will not move to the back of the bus.” Jesus’ way is not about responding to violence with more violence but it is about taking a stand for your own worth and value and accepting the consequences. Turning the other cheek is a way of saying “I reject the rules of how the world usually works–here is my stand.” It’s not about being a doormat; it’s about refusing to let anyone treat you as a doormat and anything less than a full child of God made in God’s very own image and a person of sacred worth.
Shedding the Undercloak.
Again a small detail reveals deeper meaning. Jesus talks about what to do if you are being sued for your outer garment. We still hear people say, “I’m going to sue the shirt right off your back.” Jesus is talking about someone literally being sued for their shirt. There were laws where the poorest of the poor could put up their clothing as collateral but the lender had to return the garment before sundown.
If someone is suing you for your outer garment, it means you’ve already lost all your money, your land, your home, all your possessions. It’s what happened when there was absolutely nothing of value left. In Jesus’ day, it was happening all the time to people because it was an unjust economic system that exploited the poorest of the poor until they were driven into indentured servitude in a way that hardly anyone ever escaped.
Jesus seems to be saying then, “Here is what you do when you are poorer than poor and being exploited. You show up to court and you expose the injustice of the system. Give your outer garment but don’t stop there, give the undergarment, too. Let them see you naked, let everyone see just how awful and corrupt the system is. The genius of stripping the undergarment is that it rendered you ritually impure to look upon someone’s nakedness. Remember the story about Noah’s son who looked in the tent and saw Noah naked? What happened? The son was cursed; not Noah. If you saw a naked person, you would have to practice purification rituals but to acquire everything required by the rituals, it would cost you more than the outer garment was worth in the first place. Get it? They gain nothing. And the creditor will be exposed not as a reputable money lender but as someone so consumed by greed that it has made him inhumane, robbing a poor person of everything.
Jesus isn’t suggesting that you give in to oppression and injustice. If the injustice in the system is bleeding you dry don’t let them treat you like a doormat, no make yourself a human billboard if need be to expose what it really going on. Jesus is suggesting creative even humorous non-violent approaches that expose the powers. He doesn’t say give in; he says stand up and take the initiative. Turn the tables on them. Show the system for just how ridiculous it is and then things may turn around. Sometimes lampooning the system draws just the right attention.
In our world there is all sorts of economic exploitation and predatory lending schemes (including some student loans that got sold to other lenders). Maybe we are given permission to call them out.
Go the extra mile.
To us it usually means giving maximum effort. You get to the Olympics by going the extra mile in your training, working hard. Let’s break it down. Jesus says “if someone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Who could force you to go one mile? Roman soldiers who were occupying the Jewish lands. They lugged around lots of gear including heavy 60-80 pound packs, plus their weapons. As they went from one town to the next, they’d make local village peasants carry their gear. No matter what you were doing, a soldier could come up to you and make you carry his stuff. Whole villages would run away and hide to get out of carrying the heavy equipment that symbolized the fact that they were not free.
Eventually this brutal treatment antagonized folks and led to uprisings so the emperor cracked down and established a military code that said a soldier could only force a person to carry his pack for one mile, then he’d have to either find someone else, or carry it himself. Jesus says if you are forced to carry a soldier’s pack, don’t stop at one mile. Go two, throw the brute off balance. Can you imagine the Roman soldier getting to the end of the one mile mark? “Give me the pack back.” But the peasant says, “No, that’s okay, I don’t mind, I’ll go a second mile.”
“What are you trying to do? Get me in trouble? Are you insulting my strength?”
“O, not at all.” And he keeps walking.
The soldier is suddenly thrown off-balance realizes he might get in trouble and has to beg to get his pack back. “No, you really need to give it back.” The whole idea must have made people giggle when they first heard this. Imagine what would happen if the commanding officer caught a soldier who has disobeyed orders by having a peasant carry a pack the second mile. “But he wanted to carry it two miles. Really!”
“Sure he did. To the stockade with you!”
In all three of these scenarios Jesus is addressing people who have had “to bow and scrape before their masters and who have internalized their role as inferiors.” Now they are encouraged to take a step, even if it is a small step, to regain their dignity, and their rights as God’s children. Walter Wink compares it to the small first steps in South Africa under Apartheid when cleaning women began calling their employers by their first names. That step led to so many more, and eventually, Apartheid collapsed (Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Walter Wink p. 26).
Jesus says these little protests should never be done out of hatred or malice, lest you become what you hate. They shouldn’t be violent. But they should be clear about what you will stand for. Sometimes there are things in this world that you have to stand up for, and each person’s dignity is one of them.
Jesus insists on love. Sometimes you make sacrifices for others, and sometimes you “let things go” to keep the peace, but it should be your decision to do that, not someone else’s. Sometimes you are called to bear your cross, but it is one that you decide to take on your shoulders, not something that someone else gets to hoist upon you.
No one, especially the church of Jesus Christ, should encourage people to suffer humiliation, shame, and degradation. And frankly, the church has allowed these passages to be turned into texts of terror and told oppressed people to subject themselves to their masters, to submit to abusive husbands, and told by the beneficiaries of corrupt economic and political systems that it’s God’s will for them to be lesser but “don’t worry, someday you will walk on streets of gold.”
It’s time for all of that to stop, for someone to hear Jesus in context and realize that we are all connected and meant to live in safety and peace.
You are not a doormat
So here is the good news: if you’ve been suffering because you’ve let people walk all over you because you think Jesus told you that you are supposed to be a doormat and that you are not supposed to think that your life matters, you get to start doing what my GPS says it’s doing all the time–recalculating. Think again. Jesus was all about liberating people, helping them to have abundant lives, not lives of terror.
You are not a doormat, you are God’s beloved child. You don’t have to bow down to bullies. The most loving thing bullies is to hold them accountable and let them know that their behavior is not acceptable. Why is that most loving? Because if no one ever stands up to them they believe that it’s okay and others get mistreated and the bullies themselves wind up pretty lonely and small.
As Christians we’ve got a lot of making up to do, because over the last 2,000 years too many have misunderstood and made things worse for people. I do not for a moment believe that Jesus’ big idea was to make people feel miserable in abusive situations. He wasn’t trying to make people to lie down as doormats; he was trying to make disciples who would stand up and change the world by saying there is a third way between fight and flight and that is to use the principles of nonviolence for change that have been used by Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu. It takes guts and sacrifice, but it works.
I’m willing to guess that if you aren’t feeling like Jesus’ lesson was aimed right at you, you know someone who would love to know that they don’t have a Christian obligation to feel like a doormat. It’s much better to say, “I am a person of irreducible sacred worth, with a heart full of love and I will stand up for myself and remember that I have the power to decide how I will react in any situation–and I will not let you rob me of my dignity. Not only that, but I will oppose any effort that treats people like doormats.”
Jesus is kidding with this turn-the-other cheek business, right? I mean, it sounds like if we’re mistreated we’re to suck it up and ask for more. “This cheek isn’t bloody yet, go ahead.” With all of this turn the other cheek and giving away all your stuff and going the extra mile, doesn’t it sound like Jesus is advocating naive and dangerous responses where you are supposed to let people treat you like a doormat and walk all over you? Doesn’t it sound like you are just supposed to take it when people do bad things, that accountability and consequences aren’t important?
This passage has been used by people with power to tell people with little status that they are just supposed to take it. Oppressed and abused people are told to quit complaining. “Heaven will be better, don’t make waves. Maybe it’s your fault. Submit more fully to you abusive spouse.” The evil that has been excused and justified with this passage is staggering.
Let Peace Begin with Me
I spent my life wishing this stuff wasn’t in the Bible because I’ve seen the suffering that people endure and it breaks my heart. Biblical scholar Walter Wink was disturbed by it too, because it just doesn’t seem consistent with the picture that is painted of Jesus as being the embodiment of compassion. He got to digging into the context of the passage and it changes everything!
The first thing Wink pointed out is the verse about not resisting evil is an inadequate translation. The word isn’t really resist, it means don’t react violently. I get that; don’t repay violence with violence–that gets us nowhere. Gandhi famously said that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves a toothless and blind world.
I’m always amazed when Christians justify violence or war or the death penalty by saying, “The Bible says ‘an eye for an eye’.” Yeah, right before Jesus says don’t do that. The Prince of Peace was all about poking a stick in spokes of the spinning violence wheel saying it’s got to stop somewhere. Let it stop with you.