Dealing with Abuse
Scriptures: Matthew 5:38-48, Romans 12:14-21
In 1982 the Academy award for best picture went to a movie about Mohandas Gandhi. Early in the movie Gandhi leads a struggle for human rights in behalf of people of color living in South Africa. This is back when Gandhi was young and still had a lot of hair. He meets a white clergyman named Charlie Andrews who wants to help. As they walk down the street, Gandhi, the Hindu, quotes Jesus to Charlie Andrews the Christian minister, and here is what happens: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ft4eTzhaUAc (scene 3, 17:43-19:36).
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Did Jesus really mean that? In the era of #metoo, when women are finally speaking out against sexual harassment and abuse, isn’t this scripture a dangerous step backward? Where would we be if everyone in the world had turned the other cheek to Hitler? Where would our justice system be if every time people brought suit we simply gave them whatever they wanted?
To me the most disturbing misuse of this scripture is in situations of domestic violence. A battered wife or an abused child should never … NEVER … be told by their pastor simply to turn the other cheek.
There is a reason Charlie Andrews considers these words of Jesus “metaphorical.” In many situations they seem inappropriate if not plainly destructive. But I don’t think Jesus is being metaphorical in this scripture passage; I think he is being illustrative. He is using vivid examples to illustrate a point.
The key to this scripture is in verses 44-45. [Slide] Jesus says,
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
The key to this scripture is to look at other people the way God looks at us, the way a parent looks at his or her own child. Think about it. Loving those who do not always love you back, helping someone from whom you don’t expect to get anything in return, caring for someone who sometimes takes a wild swing at you—isn’t that a description of parenting? Parents must keep on loving their children, even when they don’t get much love in return, which is what God does. But that does not mean we tolerate or condone anything they do. [Blank slide]
Last year an ABC news station in Washington, D.C., broadcast a story about a father in Maryland who called police when he found a journal belonging to his teenage daughter with detailed plans for carrying out an attack at her high school. When police searched the home, they found a shotgun that the teen had purchased, along with ammunition and a collection of bomb making materials: pipes, fireworks, shrapnel, caps, and fuse material. The girl was arrested and taken to the psychiatric wing of a hospital. Police credited the father with averting a disaster.
When Jesus says we should love people as God does, he is not opposing accountability. Jesus is not against stopping people from doing bad things, any more than we would be opposed to someone who took action to stop our own child from doing bad things.
But how does that fit with turning the other cheek, or letting someone defraud you of your coat, or allowing an enemy military officer to commandeer your donkey and make you carry his supplies, and then going with him an extra mile?
These are examples—illustrations—of Jesus pushing us to think outside the box. They are almost humorous, when you understand the culture. For example, think about the statement: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek…” If someone hit you with their right hand, they would not hit you on the right cheek; they would hit you on the left cheek. So if they hit you on the right cheek, it means either they hit you with their left hand, which no one in the ancient Middle East would do—in the ancient Middle East the left hand was used for other purposes that I won’t describe—or it means they slapped you with the back of their right hand, to humiliate you, like challenging someone to a duel. So Jesus says, “When someone slaps you with the back of the hand, instead of immediately slapping them back, turn to them the other cheek, as if to say, ‘I am not that easily humiliated; try again.’” Jesus is not saying we should lie down and let someone hurt us or abuse us. He is saying, “When someone tries to provoke you by humiliating you, don’t take the bait. Don’t be dragged down to their level of injury and retaliation. Show them an alternative to the endless cycle of retribution.”
A similar thing is going on in the next example when Jesus talks about someone who sues you and takes your coat. Our English translation does not quite capture the drama of this example. In Greek it says literally, “If someone sues you and takes away your undergarment”—that is what the Greek word in this verse means literally—“if they sue to take your undergarment, then give them your outer-garment, too,” which means you will walk out of court naked. How is that for a protest? “You want to take away my clothes! Go ahead. Here, have all of them.”
In both cases Jesus suggests a shockingly unexpected response—a response that breaks the usual cycle of injury and retaliation. The goal, Jesus says, is not to defeat your enemy with power or violence or even snarky postings on Facebook. The goal is to open up a new possibility of love—a new way of relating that does not simply repeat the past.
In the movie Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye says, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and soon the whole world will be blind and toothless.” We have seen that pattern between factions in the Middle East, warring tribes in Africa, and political parties in the United States. We try to control the behavior of other people by punishing them, and only end up creating more animosity.
Jesus offers an alternative: to look at other people the way God looks at them. Every morning, God gives another day of life to bad people as well as good people. Every moment of every day, God gives breath to people who are honest and to people who tell lies, to people who work hard and to people who exploit the labor of others. God loves people the way a parent loves a child, seeking the best possible life for them. But that does not mean God condones wrongdoing.
I have shared this example before, but it is a great example for this scripture passage. Lewis Smedes, a former professor at Fuller Seminary, tells of a man named Joe who owned a bakery on the edge of a poor urban neighborhood. One day as Joe was closing his store three kids from the neighborhood walked into the store, pulled a gun, and cleaned out Joe’s cash register. Then, as they were leaving, one of the kids, a boy named Sam, inexplicably shot Joe in the stomach.
Thankfully Joe survived, and while he was in the hospital many people from the neighborhood came to see him, including Sam’s parents who expressed deep remorse about what Sam had done. Finally, one day Sam himself came to the hospital to ask Joe’s forgiveness. In response Joe did two things. First he testified against Sam at his trial, and Sam was sentenced to a year in juvenile detention. Joe made sure that Sam was held accountable for his actions. But when Sam was released a year later, it was Joe who helped him find a part-time job. The job was working in Joe’s bakery (Forgive and Forget, p. 47).
That’s the kind of unexpected response that Jesus illustrates in this scripture passage, a response based not on retaliation but on the love of a parent for a child, the kind of love God shows us every day.
Near the end of the movie Gandhi, Gandhi faces a new dilemma. Having won independence for India from Great Britain, he must now deal with fighting between Hindus and Muslims within India. Deeply disturbed by the violence that his countrymen are now committing against each other, Gandhi goes on a fast—a hunger strike—determined not to eat until the violence stops, even if it means his own death.
In this scene near the end of the movie, Gandhi lies on a cot seriously weakened by his hunger strike. Suddenly he visited by a young angry Hindu militant who has been fighting the Muslims. Here is what happens: www.youtube.com/watch?v=GORZLseVx8E (scene 27, 254:47-256:14)
The key to Jesus’ teaching is to see the enemy, not as your enemy, but as your own child, and to treat them that way, because that’s how God treats us.