Mocking a Self-Serving Politico (in a way she or he never suspects)

Unknown

 

 

I. Supporting Leaders Who Make Decisions We Do Not Understand

A mature way of deciding whom to support as leader of some group small or large is to elect or show public support for the person we believe to have the values and the courage to make the decisions necessary to benefit the greater number of people in the group or society or nation. That is a more reasonable political commitment in the case of those of us who are permitted the democratic processes than the age old political promise charade, which almost never works.
The politicians in order to be elected give promises about what they will do to better the economy or to better the joblessness situation or to minimize the possibility of war. And we keep going to the polls voting for people who tell us what we want to hear in their political promises only to be disappointed in many instances because when a person takes the reins of leadership of whatever organization she or he heads the reality is perhaps quite different than what that the person who aspired to office understood or expected.
That being the case, I say again, the mature way to select a leader whether it’s by voting or simply showing support is to elect someone or endorse someone or stand with someone whom you believe has the grit and the foresight to make the best decisions that she or he can make given the curveballs that affect institutions as well as individuals. In the case of a first term senator or congressperson or president in this country, there is no way even with involved briefings to know what it’s like to face the barrage of challenges to the well-being of the nation that must be dealt with on a daily–well, an hourly–basis. And so making promises about what will be done specifically at every turn is naïve.
Some years ago in either a Sunday morning Forum when we had those after Gathering or at a Wednesday night discussion, Dr. Steve Fifield who was actively attending our meetings in those days introduced us to an Oklahoma pastor, kind of a radical charismatic, fundamentalist, mega-church pastor, by the name of Carlton Pearson. Carlton Pearson was a product of Oral Roberts University, and upon graduating he became closely associated with Oral Roberts himself, and the practice of Pearson’s preaching and pastoral work was very much in line with the conservative, healing-oriented ministry that Oral Roberts made famous.
To Carlton Pearson’s credit he lived by the rule of seeking truth rather than by the rule of coloring within the lines at all costs. And as a result one day, the Reverend Pearson who had done his share of preaching on God’s love woke up and realized that in his mind–and I certainly agree with him–that divine love and a burning eternal hell are incongruous.  If one exists, the other cannot. Carlton Pearson, and again we’re on the same page here, went public with his confession that, despite long years of vivid sermons  about an eternal burning hell, he could no longer believe in hell or even leave a place for hell in his theological framework.
Pearson thought his congregation–very large, very wealthy, very loyal he thought–would stand behind him and support him in this discovery made as he sought truth, but he was sadly mistaken. And when he told the congregation of his beliefs, all hell–if you please, broke loose. People stopped coming in droves; large numbers attending his preaching services dropped to handfuls. With the people went the money; the building was lost.  The church for all practical purposes went out of business.
These days, Pearson after a long struggle has bounced back.  He has a new crowd following him who could be conservative theologically but still accept the pastor’s perspective that there is no eternal burning hell.
The dynamic here is very similar to what goes on in choosing a politician in what I called a moment ago the mature way. Someone whom I endorse as my leader, I must support sufficiently enough to allow her or him to make decisions based on the new information that comes her or his way. It’s not about promises. It’s not about performing according to my prescribed expectations. It’s about dealing with the real stuff of life as it comes to my leaders’s attention. In the end, that’s a much stronger leader than one who tries to live on promises that may reflect the circumstances of the past but very well may not anticipate the future.
A real leader makes decisions for my best interest based on the information at her or his disposal, much of which is unknown to me.  Same with Carlton Pearson though in a very different realm of endeavor.  He had preached a burning eternal hell where so called sinners are punished until it made no sense to him, and he lost a great deal in order to tell the truth to those who had chosen him as their spiritual leader.  He lost big time to own his convictions. Even though he didn’t initially think the pain would reach the level it turned out to reach he did not shrink from acknowledging where he believed truth had taken him.
When Silverside Church calls a pastor, and, as far as I know, that isn’t going to happen again anytime soon, the invitation whether it’s spoken directly in this particular way or implied is not to become a dictator, but to join the community for the journey of seeking truth.  “Join with us and lead by enthusiasm and conviction, by challenge and loving reminder.  Above all, be on your journey to seek truth.  Stay on course.  Share with us what you see; don’t try to cram your conclusions down our throats, but give us the freedom to agree with you or to disagree with you.”
Now, if you been around Silverside any time at all you know all those things are self-evident and hardly worth saying except to those who don’t know.  It’s very important because the pastor who begins a journey with the congregation cannot promise where she or he will be theologically or socially six months down the road or twelve months down the road or five years down the road. If she or he has never changed, never had any new insights, has never had to face the congregation with a potentially unpopular stance that he or she has discovered while seeking, something is wrong.
Years ago, the brilliant New Testament scholar, Frank Stagg, was chatting with some folks at a coffee event, and I happened to be in the conversational circle when somebody asked him why he refused to sign the document Southern Baptist fundamentalists were forcing all seminary professors to sign if they wanted to keep their jobs.  Dr. Stagg responded by saying, “Even if I believed all of those creedal statements, which I do not, if I’m open to the pull of God I might be at a different place tomorrow. So let me not make promises today that the new insights of tomorrow could force me to change.”

 

II. Bittersweet with Barely a Hint of Sweet

Why was Jesus on the way to Jerusalem the last time he, unbeknownst to him in all probability, made the journey up to the Temple and the holy city?  Passover.
As Jesus made his way into Jerusalem giving the foundation for what we now call Palm Sunday or as more modern liturgical scholars call it Passion/Palm Sunday, the crowds that formed around him and made a pathway for him and waved branches and shouted out praises to him did so only because they thought Jesus might well be the one who could give them what they wanted:  a militaristic Messiah as many of those in ancient times had envisioned a Messiah. They wanted somebody who could marshal the forces in some kind of way, someone who could redouble the potential impact of the Jewish minority in the face of mighty Roman power. They wanted somebody who could lead them to defeat Rome and therefore to claim hopefully, once and for all, freedom for the Jews.
The irony in the story, and by the way the story is filled with irony, the irony at this point in the story is that Jesus hears the shouts of a crowd of people, not a throng and not an innumerable sea of faces and voices and branches, shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  For them, he was only as good as his ability to fulfill their expectations, only as good as his willingness to be who and what they demanded that he be. One wrong move, which by the way didn’t take very long, and he was nothing. He was nobody. He wasn’t worth their time or effort, much less their hope.
He was on his way to Jerusalem to commemorate the feast of Passover. To say he was going to celebrate the feast of Passover would be to give a nuance to the event that could be called into question. Certainly there were aspects of the history of his forebears and their path to liberation worth celebrating, but in the midst of the celebration shadows were immovable. The feast of Passover was a formal recalling of the bloody, narrow escape of the Hebrews from the control of Egyptian overlords. The liberation involved a dark side; they jumped from the frying pan into the fire as it were. They were in agony because of the maltreatment they received as slaves to the Egyptians, and they’d suffered plenty before their unusual pathway to freedom opened up to them.  Nor would their freedom be instantaneous. They left the slavery of Egypt and found themselves as the story is told on a forty year journey before they found the place that according to their interpretation God wanted them to plant themselves. Before and after their full liberation, let me remind you, the shadows were immovable. With the sweet came much bitterness.
If you have ever participated in a Seder meal with Jewish friends or family members, you know what the core of Passover is all about. It relives through the symbolism of food items the various aspects of the very risky Hebrew escape from Egypt. On the Seder plate there must always be some bitter herbs to stress the bitterness of that set of experiences.  Horseradish is often used for this aspect of the symbolic meal.  It is no feast they are eating.
Matzah is almost always served.  The Hebrews fled Egypt so quickly, there was no time to wait for yeast bread to rise.  They originally woofed down unleavened matzah in their desperate attempt to escape bondage.  Moderns remember that precarious window of opportunity with matzah.
Chariest is a mixture of apples, cinnamon, wine, and nuts. It is symbolic of the mortar the Hebrew slaves used when being forced to build Egyptian structures.  The hint of sweetness, just barely there, acknowledges that freedom did finally come.
Karpas is a vegetable, celery for example, dipped into salted water–symbol of the rivers of tears shed due to abuse, fear, pain, hopelessness.  The participants at the Passover Seder taste the pain of their ancestors.
Zeroah is the only meat included in the meal if any at all.  Sometimes, it is only a shank bone of lamb. In ancient Jeruselum, the Hebrews recalled the Passover by sacrificing a lamb in the Temple, roasting it, and consuming it on the eve of the Exodus.  The sacrificial mutton was eaten quickly, again.  When the word or signal to leave came, they had to go in haste.
Beitzah is an egg roasted in its shell and placed on the Seder plate to symbolize an ancient Jerusalem sacrifice in addition to the lamb.  The egg symbolizes mourning; the egg also symbolizes new life, but it doesn’t eclipse the long season of mourning that preceded freedom.
Jesus is not entering Jerusalem in a festive mood. Yes, there is the warmth of fellowship he will undoubtedly enjoy as the Passover meal was typically celebrated with one’s family and/ closest friends. But the somber underpinnings of the event as I’ve  already described with participants throughout the period of commemoration.
This was not the coronation for Jesus; this was not a confirmation that he was the long anticipated messiah. This event commemorating agony in the past would be the catalyst to death.
When Jesus ate the last supper with his closest followers in an upper room somewhere, rented space seasonally available for small groups of those commemorating Passover, the mood was not upbeat, and though the food might have been plentiful served around the Seder plate, it was a somber gathering. Topics of conversation included how to serve others including outcasts, who would stay with Jesus and who would betray Jesus when times got tough, some hints of what life might be like Rome did what Jesus expected they eventually would do–namely, do him in; this Passover, next Passover, sooner or later.  It did surely seem inevitable to him.
And so when we mark Palm Sunday, Passion/Palm Sunday with elation we are grabbing hold of a very tiny part of the experience from Jesus’ perspective, and we often forget that the elation turned to stagnation when Jesus didn’t act on cue from would-be followers. They needed to hear him talk of weapons of war and strategies for defeat, not about washing the feet of the people no one wanted anything to do with. All or almost all the voices having claimed as he entered Jerusalem that he was the one who had come from God quickly resented and/or forgot him. Except for his dying moments on the cross, the pitiful procession into Jerusalem followed by several days filled with sadness were the lowest moments of Jesus’ short life.

 
III. Justice and Juxtaposition
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan are remarkable contemporary New Testament scholars who specialize in the study of Jesus and his teachings as well as his historical and cultural context. A few years ago they wrote together a study on the last week of Jesus’ life, and in that book some specifics about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, which previously to my knowledge had only been hinted about and not studied with depth for the most part, were powerfully clarified. It is my understanding that while writing the book Drs. Borg and  Crossan were actually in Jerusalem.
As to the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, which has been touched on in some of the earlier readings in today’s Gathering, everything about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was carefully planned. That much is not new.  A significant amount of that scholarly investigation goes back a long way and in particular to what was a very popular book by Hugh J. Schonfield in the 1960s titled The Passover Plot.   In that book Schonfield discussed in detail how every single aspect of Jesus’ plan to enter Jerusalem was carefully thought through but kept under wraps for fear of Roman interference.  Details were laid out in advance and then carried through when the time was right–everything from the time Jesus would make his entry into Jerusalem down to who would provide the donkey on which he would ride.  It was planned with intricate care and detail by Jesus himself; his closest followers knew nothing until the time came to put the plans into action.
What was new for me was the detail that Borg and Crossan added in their book, proposing that Jesus’ means of entry into Jerusalem was as intentional as the time of day he would ride. They proposed that he intentionally planned to juxtapose himself and his mission over against Pontius Pilate and Pilate’s mission. Jesus enters in a powerless and pathetic manner–but peacefully. How Pilate enters in dramatic contrast is with all the military trappings imaginable both to underscore the power at his command as the Roman Emperor-appointed Governor over the Jews and to underscore Roman military power in general.
Get the picture in your mind, and once you do you’ll likely never forget it. Jesus appearing pathetic, really–utterly powerless-looking, riding a mother donkey with her baby colt tagging along beside her–enters on one side of Jerusalem.  On the other side of Jerusalem at about the same time or at exactly the same time Pilate rides in astride his mighty steed with his personal and military  entourage tagging along behind him.
We can imagine it, but we can’t see it.  Borg and Crossan help us get the point.  Pilate had all the signs of massive military power at his disposal.  Jesus, said our team of scholars, is riding a little donkey–recently a mother and still nursing her colt.  Jesus wanted to present the most unmilitaristic image he could present.
Jesus was literally living out his, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” beatitude.  Also he was showing Rome, his already committed followers, and those who would follow him IF he promised to be what they wanted him to be exactly what he was about.  This donkey ride was his powerful nonverbal confirmation that he was not militaristic in any way.  Rome had absolutely nothing to worry about in that regard; those who wanted a warrior Messiah or a new king did.
The enthusiastic group of people outside Jerusalem who for a while believed he was the militaristic Messiah their ancestors had longed for and taught them to long for quickly realized, though not instantly for some reason, that Jesus was not about their intention for him. In hours or days, as I said earlier, he was nothing to them. This is not to say they wanted him to die. That was not the case. They simply had no use for him anymore because he didn’t fulfill their expectations as a potential leader.
They did not trust him to make the decisions that had to be made in the face of the realities he had to deal with. Even in his own inner circle there were those, notably Judas, who would not give up on the idea that Jesus really was the militaristic Messiah longed before from olden times and that when the going got tough enough Jesus would show his true colors by coming out fighting and gathering armies all over the place to support him.
Let us not focus too much on how the people at Passover misunderstood Jesus. They were not the first to misunderstand him, and they have not been the last to misunderstand Jesus. We know in our own time how widely Jesus is misunderstood, how his teachings are twisted and abused for personal gain and manipulation of blind would-be devotees. There are those who still believe we can turn Jesus into a militaristic figure, one that blesses their war efforts. The enemies may change, but the crusade mentality still pops up now and again.
Jesus is not a Rorschach figure, someone we can shoot up on the screen of our imaginations and see him as whomever we want him to be for our purposes, blessing our concerns and our efforts and our hopes and aspirations as if he had no identity other than what people in his time and people since then have superimposed upon him.  If you want to benefit from Jesus’ legacy, you must remember the Jesus on the little donkey communicating nonverbally, rejecting his finest opportunity to become a super power.

Advertisements

Spirituality and Politics Don’t Mix!

Weston_Cleansing_The_Temple_sm

 

 

I. “Mr. President/Madam President, May I Pray to My God?  I Have Already Prayed to Yours.”  Scary!

The smallest country on the globe was the epicenter of the most pivotal world news of this week.  Vatican City once again saw the white smoke from the Sistine Chapel’s chimney wafting toward the heavens signaling the election of a new Pope.  An hour and a bit later, Francis I stepped out onto the Chapel’s balcony, immediately out of our sight to stand on an elevated platform intended to raise him above his fellow cardinals and asked the throngs packed into St. Peter’s Square and the millions watching and listening via various media to bless him before he blessed them.
Not only had he taken responsibility for leading the world’slargest entity of institutional Christianity, but simultaneously he had become the absolute monarch of the tiny–800 and a few citizens–though unutterably powerful theocracy, Vatican City.  To say that there is no separation of church and state there is laughable; it is to waste one’s breath.
Though many in our country have forgotten, disparaged, or ignored the great gift from our founding mothers and fathers–a or the dominant reason this nation was founded, namely separation of temple/church/mosque and state–the preservation of absolute religious liberty is required in order for the United States to be the United States.  More than a few countries among the 195 or so total nations on this globe have not been able to claim such a gift.  “The degree of separation varies from total separation mandated by a constitution, as in India and Singapore, to an official religion with total prohibition of the practice of any other religion, as in the Maldives” (Wikipedia).
Pope Emeritus Benedict, during his active papacy, made the statement that Christians are most persecuted religious group in the world.  That wasn’t a un-thought-through generalization.  Vatican researchers have recently reported that about 75 out of every 100 people persecuted by governments are Christians.  The top ten culprits according to an organization called Open Doors are:

1) North Korea
2) Saudi Arabia
3) Afghanistan
4) Iraq
5)   Somalia
6)   Maldives
7)   Mali
8)   Iran
9)   Yemen
10) Eritrea

Open Doors statisticians help us with the numbers.  As of the end of last year estimates were that some 100 million Christians had been persecuted around the world in 2012.
If that number reflects 75 percent of the total number of people persecuted in a 12 month period then all together there would be something like 134 million people persecuted–7 million people more than the population of Japan.  You might mention this to anybody you know who thinks separation of religious institution and state is unimportant.
While King James I of England was busily watching over the work of the teams of translators who would eventually release his Authorized Version of the Bible (aka the KJV, King James Versionof the Bible) in 1611, he was also persecuting Roman Catholics as well as non-Anglican Protestants.  Those persecutions initiated the longings in the hearts of many, especially the persecuted Protestants, for true religious liberty; eventually that led to visions of a “new world” in which the government had no role whatsoever in how a citizen practiced her or his religious values.
In some of written materials interpreting a Library of Congress exhibition called “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic,” this summary was offered:

 

Many of the British North American colonies that eventually formed the United States of America were settled in the seventeenth century by men and women, who, in the face of European persecution, refused to compromise passionately held religious convictions and fled Europe. The New England colonies, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were conceived and established “as plantations of religion.” Some settlers who arrived in these areas came for secular motives…, but the great majority left Europe to worship God in the way they believed to be correct. They enthusiastically supported the efforts of their leaders to create “a city on a hill” or a “holy experiment,” whose success would prove that God’s plan for God’s churches could be successfully realized in the American wilderness. Even colonies like Virginia, which were planned as commercial ventures, were led by entrepreneurs who considered themselves “militant Protestants” and who worked diligently to promote the prosperity of the church.

 
Simon Brown writing in the blog, “Wall of Separation,” discussed in Friday’s blog post the decision by newly confirmed CIA director, John Brennan, not to place his hand on a Bible when he took his oath of office.  When Brennan took the oath to assume the responsibilities for overseeing the work of the CIA he chose to place his hand on a copy of the Constitution rather than on the Bible, which is the most frequently used book on which people
taking oaths in this country place their hands. Brown pointed out in his article that there is no constitutional requirement that anybody including a president of United States place his and someday her hand on a copy of a Bible, that is the collected holy writ of Judaism and Christianity compiled in a single volume.  As we would expect, the religious right can’t say enough bad things about Brennan now, and those who are unwaveringly committed to the separation of religious institution and state are praising him for his decision.
Why indeed would the Bible be used at all within a civil context in a religiously pluralistic nation? Why would a Bible, which contains indisputable demands not to swear at all, be used ostensibly to add credibility to someone’s stated devotion and loyalty to perform a significant task?  Maybe you’ve heard about such biblical admonitions such as in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is reported to have said, “Don’t take any kind of an oath–whether you are swearing by appealing to something less than divine or by heaven itself, which is God’s abode.”  Oops!   Similarly, in the book of James, also in the fifth chapter there, James–possibly the brother of Jesus–spits it out in plain Greek!  “Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear–not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’  Otherwise you will be condemned.”
The Bible is a distinctively Christian compendium.  A fair number of US Americans have chosen religious pathways other than the Christian one, and the only way the freedom to be a Christian can be protected in this country is to preserve with equal zeal the right of any citizen not to be a Christian.

II. One Angry Rabbi

The seemingly incongruous story about Jesus entering the great Jerusalem Temple and overturning the tables of the moneychangers and the sacrificial-animal sellers before chewing them out is another in our collection of stories about the subversive Jesus. This subversive act is not as subtle turning the other cheek and going the extra mile; nor is it intended to subvert government.  This act subverted the hierarchy of organized religion.
The first thing traditional interpreters are inclined to do is to soften this story or put all the on the people who drove Jesus to such an extreme.  If we were to take all of the stories about Jesus and the sayings attributed to Jesus that sound angry or dismissive or unrealistically demanding we would have a Jesus who would be very unappealing to the masses.  As it is, those stories are set in larger collections of materials that can be used to deflect the sting and, thus, make Jesus more appealing to the average spiritual seeker, to the seeker who isn’t terribly comfortable with even subtle subversiveness or conflict.
The moneychangers in the Temple precincts, it could be argued, we’re simply doing their jobs. They were doing their jobs in the same way that those who sold sacrificial animals were doing theirs. When one came to the Temple, which for many was not a frequent occurrence, sacrifices were supposed to be offered. And someone who came from a great distance might prefer to purchase a sacrificial animal after having arrived at the Temple rather than to  bring some kind of animal a great distance was supposed to be in pristine condition for sacrifice.
In this case what appears to have made Jesus angry was that the moneychangers and those who sold sacrificial animals were doing what the tax collectors did. They were charging exorbitant commissions in order for their fellow Jews to be able to comply with Temple demands. In the case of tax collectors, as you have heard no doubt, they were charging exorbitant taxes and skimming way off the top profits for themselves. They were taking money that should’ve been used by their fellow Jews for family support and self-support.
When Jews went to the Temple, they had to offer a sacrifice and had to pay a Temple tax. OK, I’m all for clergy pay and facility upkeep, and I say that in an entirely non-self-serving manner!  But we don’t ask you to pay up around here before we will let you in the door or before the pastor will visit you in the hospital.  Services aren’t for sale.  Well, I WOULD charge if you asked me to burn a sacrifice for you, and it couldn’t be an animal!  Just so you know, I wouldn’t keep your money; I’d contribute it to the Capital Fund to pay for ceiling replacements and heaters.
There was a religious group in Wilmington, I’m not sure they’re still here, that bluntly pointed out in their marketing stuff that if you made an appointment with a pastor there would be a charge.  I will not be critical.  I will simply say that I don’t understand that tradition, but it seemed to me very much like the Temple tax or the requirement to sacrifice.  One preacher called the Temple tax a “pay to pray” fee!
Jesus went into the Temple precincts as he had on many occasions, and he saw the same commercialism he had seen every time he’d been in the Temple since his first visit at the age of 12.  What pushed him over the edge this time isn’t clear; maybe he’d just had all he could stand.  Or maybe he’d run into some folks outside who’d been turned away because they couldn’t pay the fees.  All of that is nothing more than my speculation, but what is clear–and all four Gospels report this story, which is a rarity–is that Jesus was as angry as could be.
He stomped into the and money-changing area, and he started yelling and turning over tables and tossing coin tills right and left.  Onlookers were surprised in general, and those who knew Jesus were surprised enough to be totally shocked.
When he calmed down enough to be understood, the people heard him exclaim, “This is supposed to be a place for honoring God, and you’ve turned it into a money-making racket on the backs of those who just want to find a closer connection to God.”  The irony was that Rome, for the most part at this point, didn’t interfere with how the Jews chose to worship their God; so here the government wasn’t interfering, but organized religion itself was.
Here was government keeping its nose out of religion, and, instead of enjoying that freedom, religion steps in and usurps the freedom by creating hoops that they insisted had to be jumped through to get to God in any kind of way.  It was precisely a political stumbling block, though religious politics and not civil politics.  To fairly represent the context in which Jesus and his fellow Jews lived, I have to point out that as far as Judaism went there was no separation of synagogue and state, but Rome was the true political boss.  Though Rome didn’t have to be constrained by consistency and after Jesus’ time would shamelessly force it’s Emperor Worship on the Jews, during Jesus’ lifetime this was not the case.  Rome wasn’t interfering with the spiritual freedoms of the Jews, but the Jews’ own religious structures were.
Religion getting in the way of spirituality.  Religious politics and payments more important by far than enhancing spirituality.  This is exactly why more and more people in our time are saying that they are spiritual and not religious–and forgetting churches and other religious institutions completely.  Religion has become for them an impediment to and not a catalyst for spiritual empowerment.

III. The Necessity of Privacy and
Independence to Practice and
Nurture Spirituality

I am opposed to public prayer in public schools, and this is my reason. If someone is designated to lead a public prayer then she or he inevitably reflects her or his own theological biases in the words of the prayer.  Ideas, assumptions about God are clearly, unavoidably, passed along to the students who are more or less forced to listen to the prayer.
I’m not opposed to a daily time of thoughtful meditation for students starting out with a very limited time frame when the children are smaller and perhaps asked to think for a few minutes in a day about things they’re thankful for or something to that effect. The time for private prayer, which cannot be stopped or interrupted anyway, will be offered to those maturing students who would like to have such a moment for that kind of thing.
The school official who prays publicly in the public school is an extension of government in the sense that that person has been approved as suitable by the school board or the local government to share directly or indirectly thoughts about God.  What if that person has thoughts about God that are diametrically opposed towhat the students’ parents are teaching them?  What if the prayer contradicts what the student is being taught where she or he goes to sabbath school?  Does an extension of any government entity have the right to create such dissonance?   I don’t think so.
People say to me, and I don’t hear it as much as I used to, “Well, they took the prayer out of public schools, and now all hell is breaking loose not only with our young people but also with society at large.”  I hardly think public prayer is what controls individuals or the masses.  If prayer functioned in such a way as to benefit society by managing bad behavior for the majority of those who heard such prayer, then we wouldn’t have any trouble with ridiculous politicians in the United States because both the House and Senate have had chaplains going back to the country’s birth.
I don’t think there should be a chaplain in the Senate or the House unless the person’s responsibility is to provide pastoral care for lawmakers who need it knowing that the those who take the responsibility seriously carry heavy weights on their shoulders. If lawmakers wish to gather in small groups with like-minded colleagues who want to pray together or bring in a spiritual director of some sort that’s great.  But it’s a whole different story having someone verbalize a prayer for a larger secular group in which there are bound to be captive hearers (such as impressionable children in schools) who must in this country have the freedom to believe what they have already been taught about God or that there is no God to pray to.  No government entity should be influencing or trying to influence the religious practices or thoughts or actions of any citizen.
In 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut–evidently a minority voice among Baptists in the State at that time (and by the way there were not yet Northern Baptists over against Southern Baptists)–wrote to President Thomas Jefferson, still in his first year in office, to complain about how they were being treated by their elected political leaders.  According to the letter, written by a committee of representing the whole Association, their political leaders had made it clear to the Association, which loved religious liberty, that the only liberty they had to enjoy was what the government meted out to them as a gift or favor.  Rather than investing energy in those with limited powers, they made their concerns known to the top person, the President of the United States.  I have done the same thing, and I have several letters from President Obama telling me the Elsmere Police cannot push me around!  (Ha!)
Here is the core of President Jefferson’s famed letter responding to the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut:

 

To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.  Gentlemen:…..    Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties……Th Jefferson
. Jan. 1. 1802.

 

One of the weighty matters on which all, as far as I know, Silversiders agree is that freedom of thought, in matters of religion and otherwise, is non-negotiable.  Thus, we can offer you no creed.  Regarding spirituality, no one here is going to say, “It’s my way or the highway.”  Instead, as we bask in our freedom to find spiritual inspiration wherever our individual spirits take us–to secular writ or holy writ; to a seat close to our choir or a font row seat at a Mozart symphony concert; to the bubbling Brandywine River or a natural wonder in Peru or the architectural beauty of our sanctuary.    I am empowered by the story of Jesus turning over those tables and admonishing the managers of the profiteering, moneymaking processes built on holy ground.  I hope you are as well.  What his actions teach for our context, I believe, is something like this:  “Enjoy the freedom for which your government provides in the public pursuit of your religious ideals, and for God’s sake don’t let supposedly spiritual institutions rob you of your freedom to exercise your spiritual leanings and longings in ways that only your own inner self can nudge you.”

Carry a Pack a Mile (second sermon in series, THE SUBVERSIVE JESUS)

I. Subversive Art and Jesus as Artist

Carol Becker, writing on the subversive potential of art:

At its best, art serves a different master than capitalism, one whose values are not so readily discerned. Although its place in the order of things is not always clearly articulated, no one would publicly advocate a society that did not, at least in theory, encourage creative expression as manifested in art. A society without art seems unimaginably impoverished. The necessary tension between the longing embedded in the people’s desire for a fuller life, a more complete self, and the world in which they live would have one fewer outlet. What is almost unspeakable, what cannot be contained is allowed to live through the form of art. This is why at times art is perceived as subversive, not simply because it presents a world that appears immoral or licentious, as is frequently thought, but because it reminds people of what has been buried – desires their deepest selves dream but cannot manifest within the existing system.

Contemporary artist, John Sheridan, is one of many who think that Leonardo Da Vinci was a subversive artist. Sheridan believes Da Vinci’s greatest painting, which was a fresco, was “The Last Supper,” and it like all other masterpieces of his is a subversive piece. Sheridan describes its very placement, painted on the original fresh concrete of a chapel wall, as intended to give the impression that Jesus and his disciples are sitting in an extension of a larger room. Leonardo, hardly enamored with institutional Christianity, still wanted to stress that Jesus was one of us–seated as it were in the next room. As Sheridan described it,

It was a sophisticated egalitarianization of what had by then become an inordinately hierarchical and politicized conception of Jesus’ relationship to the average person. The bureaucracy of the Church had created a maze of religious and conceptual red tape in order to commune with the spirit of God. Its middlemen had to be dealt with first. Leonardo flattered them and simultaneously subverted them by including them in the same [conflicted] space as their [would be] Messiah.

Sheridan calls Da Vinci “utterly pagan,” with tremendous regard for Leonardo and his brand of paganism. “There is no record of him expressing contempt for religion, but his actions, his bearing, his art, and his whole way of life contradict what the church and state publicly decreed were the proper ways to behave.”
Da Vinci’s art was for sale to the highest bidder even though the paying customer had values that contradicted Da Vinci’s(or the only bidder, whichever was the case). He had personal morals, but he still had to earn a living; this could only be done by appearing to work through the publicized principles of the power institutions of his time. “Everything that he was had to be couched behind an apparition of conventional modes of presentation [in his artistic compositions] so that he could remain free.”
“The Last Supper” takes that frozen moment in time when Jesus tells his closest male followers that one of them, only 12 possible culprits, will betray him.

The wave of reactions running through the apostles anchors them in the physical world. Their well-realized faces and expressive gestures radiating out from the central figure of Jesus is an enduring legacy of a time when humans were felt to be capable of great things, in great ways, and that, even with inevitable human failing, people were felt to be worthy of our attention and our passion.

“The Last Supper,” who knew?

Jesus may have had some artistic skills. Have you noticed or heard? This is a story about Jesus’ ministry included in John’s Gospel:

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.

That word translated “wrote” in the New Revised Version of the Bible from which I have just read can just as correctly be translated “drew.” In dealing with this potentially explosive situation, Jesus knelt twice and DREW something in the sand. Sand art. Subversive sand art.
The woman’s accusers were status quo types, and they were entirely correct about the woman’s moral failures and the established legal response. Enacted laws, in any country including our own, may be immoral from beginning to end.
Jesus had nothing to say to those who wanted a killing that day. If you remember from last week, he was subtly subversive. So, he drew a couple of figures in the sand. We have no idea what the figures were that Jesus drew in the sand, somehow they subverted the prevailing standards. As a result, a woman lived, in spite of the clear cut status quo.

II. Oops! We’ve Just Passed the Two-Mile Marker!

This teaching from Jesus about going the extra mile has made its way into popular maxims as one of the ways of saying that a good person does more than is required of her or him. If we are going to be good people we don’t just do the minimum especially when we are asked by somebody for help. As a matter of fact, Jesus’ admonition to Jews to carry the backpack or a heavy piece of armor for a Roman soldier one mile and then a second mile–a mile more than required by Roman law–have absolutely nothing to do with a standard more akin to the Golden Rule.
I am sure you noticed that the pack-carrying principle did not apply across the board but only to oppressed Jews required to obey the demands of Roman soldiers. This isn’t just someone. Roman military types were allowed by Roman law to grab oppressed persons anywhere they found them and force them to carry their military gear for a mile. A mile, one mile.
Jesus’ teaching to his sister/brother Jews was to keep going. At the one mile marker, start singing, “These sandals are made for schlepping, and that’s just what they’ll do. One of these days these sandals are gonna schlep all over you!”
The weary soldier is torn. He knows he get into hot water with his superiors, but it was tough for him to argue whole-heartedly with a seemingly eager-beaver Jew who understood his plight. Some soldiers let it go and hoped no one would know; bad call. No Jews following the teachings of Jesus let the matter go unreported to military authorities. This was how Jesus taught his sister/brother Jews not to participate in their own oppression and subjugation.
There must have been scenes when an oppressed Jew ran passed the mile marker with the Roman soldier running after her or him trying to get his pack back. Imagine the soldier and the oppressed Jew fighting over the pack. Rather than be humiliated, stopping at the one mile marker, the Jewish person influenced by Jesus kept going, subverting Roman oppression one demanding soldier at a time.
The Reverend Mary McKinnon Ganz preached:

Jesus paid great attention to the law of tradition his people were heir to, and to the law of violence that ruled their lives under the Roman occupation. He also paid great attention to his people’s spirit; to helping them find ways to stay safe within the law, but also to reclaim their dignity. By carrying the pack an extra mile, they reclaim their capacity to choose. They force a startled reaction from the oppressor [about to be dressed down by a superior officer], and in that shock the oppressor just might recognize a human being.

Why do I bring up the possibility or the reality that Jesus was subversive? Why, to a greater degree, would I devote a whole sermon series to the notion that Jesus was subversive?
Well, I do that because I think the radicality of Jesus’ message, which was without a doubt centered on challenging the power structures of his day, has been overlooked often on purpose and in many cases softened and polished up to make it acceptable to the status quo of those who buy into structures and patterns of behavior that specifically violate the basic humanitarian standards for which Jesus stood. A second reason I bring it up is that one or all of us may be called upon to be subversives specifically because we have embraced the teachings of Jesus.
When I speak of a subversive, I’m not talking about a dangerous traitor who puts the country in danger by selling state secrets to enemies or would-be enemies of our nation; that is very careless and not to be admired in any respect. Subversives, as I speak of them, are those who want to better an institution such as a nation or a religious hierarchy by battling some established aspect–a law for example–of what they perceive as injustice. So even Jesus who did disapproved of oppression of any kind certainly did not affirm the fact that he and his people were oppressed by Rome. Still, he did not by his acts of subversion wish to try to bring down Rome with any kind of violence if at all.

III. When Cultures Need to Be Countered

George Johnson is a retired Lutheran pastor and biblical scholar. He believes the subversive elements in the teachings as well as in the actions of Jesus were manifested in challenges to both the religious hierarchy and the political structures–those maintained by the Roman Empire as well as those maintained by some of the Jews given tidbits of authority by Rome. Pastor Johnson wrote a few years ago in a journal called, of all things, The Lutheran, these two brief but highly significant and on-target paragraphs.
Regarding the corruption within institutional religion that tore Jesus’ apart inside:

The temple [by the time of Jesus] had become a cover for greed and exploitation. Jesus well knew the important role the temple played in the life of the Jewish community, [his community], yet he deliberately violated this sacred space [when he turned over the tables of the Temple money changers] to expose corruption in religion. That was subversion, to some. And [in their eyes] he had to be stopped.

Regarding the political structures with which Jesus had to contend:

The Jesus movement was, and is, countercultural. The proclamation of the gospel includes a declaration of God’s justice: God’s action to bring about an alternative to violence, greed, hunger and domination.

Now having established I think pretty much irrefutably that Jesus was subversive, where does that leave us? So what? Well, the subversive Jesus wasn’t a namby-pamby, milquetoasty, doormat or fatalist. Jesus believed not because he was divine but specifically because he was human that injustice could not be tolerated any place it reared its ugly head. This did not mean he wanted to overthrow Rome as I mentioned earlier.
He was more powerfully concerned about injustice that others experienced than about what came to him as a result of his trying to stand up for others. He took his own advice, though, and would not let anyone force him to endorse his own oppression.
If subversion were clearly necessary in an occupied land in a situation where Jesus and all of his sister/brother Jews were oppressed by Rome, that is one thing. But what about in a democracy? Why would there be a need for subversion in a democracy? Sad to say, democracy isn’t always a democracy. There are individuals and groups within democracies whose rights are not guaranteed or upheld. And the oppressed along with their advocates must speak against the established laws and perhaps the lawmakers in order to try to effect the necessary changes. City Hall, the Justice Department, the Pentagon, and the Oval Office may have to be challenged.
It is not an option for people who have embraced the teachings of Jesus fully passively to sit and wait before ecclesiastical power structures and government entities as if they’re all going somehow magically to give up the graft and corruption that institutions with power invariably embrace. It was kind of scary to read the other day that Attorney General Holder said the huge financial institutions that have wreaked havoc on Wall Street and from there throughout the land are probably too big to prosecute.
Subversive actions–meaning rebellious but not destructive– are often called for even in a democracy. Chief Standing Bear was a subversive. Harriet Beecher Stowe was a subversive. Rosa Parks was a subversive. Harvey Milk was a subversive. Joe Biden, unquestioned patriot, is a subversive.
An obvious example of a subversive movement would be women’s suffrage, the fight to get women in this nation voting rights. Had women along with the men who supported them not spoken out against the laws that prevented women from being fully equal citizens in this democracy perhaps they would still have no vote.
The initial press for women’s voting rights began when our nation was a little more than 44 years old, and a hundred years later, in 1920, women went to the polls to vote for the very first time. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was unquestionably one of the most effective advocates for women’s suffrage. She never lived to cast a vote having died in 1902. She left her influence as a powerful legacy, however. A few gems from subversive Cady Stanton:

The prolonged slavery of women is the darkest page in human history.

Nothing strengthens the judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility.

The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women’s emancipation.

The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls.

That only a few, under any circumstances, protest against the injustice of long- established laws and customs does not disprove the fact of the oppressions, while the satisfaction of the many, if real, only proves their apathy and deeper degradation.

Having to challenge a government entity that is rightly unconnected to anyone’s view of divinity is perhaps understandable, but having to take a stand, blatant or subtle, against a religious structure that claims to exist for the express purpose of living out divine love–that is a responsibility, which should never have to be exercised.

20130310-150128.jpg

Turn the Other Cheek (first sermon in new series, The Subversive Jesus)

slap-in-face

 

 

I. What Would Jesus Do?

Even people who know better than to think that Jesus had any knowledge of The United States or any preference for US American ways may often let themselves slip into imagining that Jesus was pretty much American in his preferences and an advocate of the All-American lifestyle, whatever that is.  Any hint of that perspective makes absolutely impossible understanding anything that Jesus said or did.
He could not have had any sense of what makes Americans tick, religious Americans or others.  There are those who speak of him as if they saw him at last year’s Fourth of July celebration pledging allegiance to the flag and jumping up and down for the fireworks.  Let’s be one of a handful of churches in this country who respect Jesus fully for who he was and where he was and what he was. He was not one of us Americans in any way.
The fact of the matter is, Jesus encountered a set of challenges about which we know almost nothing, and, for missing many of those, we can say, “Thank goodness!”  On our end, we encounter a whole set of challenges about which Jesus knew nothing. In the middle where these two circles of challenge overlap there is indeed a set of challenges to which Jesus responded and, therefore, about which he left some teachings that at least give us a hint about howwe might respond to a similar situation if we want to be Jesus-like. We cannot let ourselves think, as worthwhile as are the wristbands that ask What Would Jesus Do?, that if we only studied Jesus’ teachings carefully enough we would find an answer to every problem that comes up in our world.  Again I would say there is overlap to some degree between SOME of Jesus’ challenges and ours, but it is inescapably a fact that Jesus lived in a world we can barely know, and we live in a world about which Jesus knew nothing.
Take sequestration, for example. What would Jesus do? Well, right off the bat, Jesus would never have faced the need or the chance to do anything in response because he never had opportunities whatsoever to vote for any political so-called leader who either went away to the national capital and acted responsibly or irresponsibly.  Either way, Jesus had no experience with democratically elected politicians, and we cannot make him a person influenced by principles of democracy.
At present, US American democracy is tainted because of the selfish, self-centered, careless, boneheaded behavior of so-called lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. This week Senator Coons–for whom I have tremendous respect–sent out a video message to his constituents, which would mean all of us who are residents of Delaware, and in that video  Senator Coons said very honestly and from the hip that he was just as frustrated and embarrassed by what was happening on Capitol Hill as anybody watching from afar hoping that the level of irresponsibility cannot worsen.
What would Jesus do?  Nobody knows.
We would like to think that Jesus would exercise any influence he might have, although he had almost no influence in the world in which he lived, pressing elected officials to act in ways that supported those people for whom  Jesus consistently cared–namely, the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the sick, and those cast out otherwise to the edges of society because somebody somewhere doesn’t approve of who they or what they do. I’m not talking about illegalities. I’m talking about people who live in ways that some in “polite society” simply do not approve of.  I think that is a fair guess about what Jesus would do, but we don’t know for certain what Jesus would have done.
Jesus lived under the rule of an oppressor nation for his whole life, from cradle role to cross. He never had a free moment in his life, in terms of political freedom I mean. The Roman Empire, as it turned out, allowed him a fair amount of latitude to find his own truths and to carry out his ministry.  Still, he was ever under the watchful eye of those ordered by the Emperor of Rome (who during his adult life was Tiberius) to keep watch on the Jews in order to make sure they kept themselves in check.  Easier said than done.
The online writeup about the PBS special, “The Roman Empire:  The First Century,” contains this succinct but ominous overview about life in the mighty Roman Empire in the time of Jesus:  “One of the farthest corners of the Roman Empire, Judaea was a land of ancient traditions and religious fervor. Decades of Roman rule were causing ever more resentment.”  The word was “resentment.”

II. Cheeks, Cheeks, and More Cheeks

Back to the PBS writeup to which I referred earlier:

 

 Jesus was born to a family from a village called Nazareth, near the Sea of Galilee.  As he was growing up, Judaea was collapsing into chaos.  Its population had split into hostile groups. Preachers and prophets roamed the countryside, drawing enormous, passionate crowds.  At the age of thirty, Jesus joined one of these groups and was baptized in the Jordan River. Shortly afterwards, he began a ministry of his own.  Like many other preachers, he traveled around Judaea, taking his message to the homes and synagogues of some of his country’s poorest people.  This message announced that there was a kingdom greater than Rome, that God would provide, and that the poorest members of society would find relief and hope. It was a completely new message–one which excited his audiences. Although his message was proving popular, the claim of his disciples that Jesus was the [unique child] of God offended many people. What’s more, his ideas were revolutionary and threatened to undermine thousands of years of social tradition.

Jesus did not like what was going on any more than did any other oppressed Jew in his time. He didn’t like what was going on in that regard at all, but it is clear in his teachings and what was written of his actions that he was too smart to try to pick a fight with Rome. The Roman legions could crush the Jews pretty quickly, even though the Romans would prefer not to have to do such a thing; certainly, they would be willing to do it to keep peace in the Empire.
Therefore, what we see in some of Jesus’ teachings and some of Jesus’ actions is subversiveness. I’m not talking about open rebellion in terms of challenging the Roman Empire. I’m talking about subtle subversion. He did not approve of how the Romans treated the Jews in many respects, and while he could not fight them to whip them into shape he could challenge some of their abuses, some of their ridiculous rules and behaviors, in ways that challenged without appearing to undermine Roman rule, which Rome would not have tolerated.
This is precisely where we need to bring up Jesus’ admonition to his followers that if someone should slap them across the right cheek the follow up should be a turning of head or body to offer that person the left cheek.  I began hearing about this teaching from Jesus when I was a Sunday School kid.  I was taught that Jesus was teaching pacifism, or else I was taught that it was “hyperbole,” though I didn’t learn that particular word until I was in English 102 at college.
As I moved along in life and ministry, I began to hear as I still do the argument that Turn the Other Cheek means pacifism.  Those who hold to this view will often tell those who believe it is hyperbole that they, the non-pacifists, are copping out–a fine set of theological words.  I have to tell you that Jesus wasn’t trying to address every possible situation in which someone may attack you.  I will come back to that.
Every now and then it is a pretty good idea to see what Jewish commentators say about Jesus’ teachings since Jesus was, now what was his ethnocentric religion–oh yeah, Jewish!  Let me be outlandish today and share with you what one rabbi, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, said about this turning the other cheek stuff:

 

…in the 20th century, people from Leo Tolstoy to Mahatma Gandhi interpreted Jesus’ words to mean that one should be willing to die rather than fight back against a would-be killer.  I find this reading of the New Testament to be troublesome. In any  in which a would-be murderer confronts a potential victim, I believe that the world is a better place if the would-be murderer, rather than the intended victim, emerges dead from the encounter. As Thomas Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia and a great humanist, said in response to Tolstoy: “If someone attacks me with the intention of killing me, I shall defend myself, and if I cannot avoid it, I shall kill the attacker.  If one of us must be killed, let the one be killed who has the bad intentions.” His words are reminiscent of the Talmud’s admonition: “If someone comes to kill you, kill him first” (Sanhedrin 72a).

In 1940, when Hitler was gaining ground at an alarming rate, Europe, Gandhi offered this startling advice to the British military:

 

I would like you to lay down the arms you have, as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you  your possessions….If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourselves, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.

Needless to say, Jews were deeply pained by Gandhi’s words, and the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, responded:  “We did not proclaim, as did Jesus, the child of our people, and as  do, the teaching of nonviolence, because we believe that a person must sometimes use force to save self or, even more, the children.”

Jesus’ instruction for his followers to offer the other cheek after the first one, the right one, had been attacked or violated was a warning against violence, but pacifism is not an accurate description of what he was teaching here.  He was teaching subversion for the sake of self-respect.

III. Subtle Subversion
I said earlier that I would come back to this, and here we are. Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek or offering the opposite cheek does not pertain and was never intended to pertain to all circumstances of any kind of attack or violence. It pertains to the abuse of Jews by some of the Roman soldiers who did not mind hurting Jews whenever the opportunity came along. However, the Roman Empire had rules for the soldiers about how much could be demanded by them from the Jews or any of the subservient people to mighty Rome.
So apparently if a Roman soldier said something to a Jewish person, and the person gave some sass in return the Roman soldier could consider that disrespectful in which case the soldier had the right to backhand the outspoken Jew as a reminder to her or him of Roman superiority.  I had heard suggestions that Jesus was supposed to be some degree subversive for a very long time. I remember stumbling across a book by Dr. Bill Herzog, New Testament professor formerly at Andover Newton Theological  about the parables as subversive teaching and Jesus as subversive pedagogue. I was intrigued with that notion, and I think Professor Hertzog made some worthwhile and insightful points.
I had never heard Jesus’ subversive acts explained in practical, easy-to-follow language until John Dominic Crossan came along. Dr. Crossan is Professor of New Testament Emeritus at DePaul University and as you might know one of the people today writing more about Jesus and the early church than all but  handful of others.  So this is what Crossen says with reference to Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek. It is a subversive teaching. It is not a violent teaching. It does not encourage Jesus’ countrywomen and countrymen to stoke the fire of Roman hatred by returning to the soldier, the occasional unkind soldier, what he passed along to them. So it was okay for a Roman soldier according to the laws to backhand a smart-mouth Jew, but that was the extent of what the soldier could do unless of course somebody were breaking the law.
What Jesus said softly is that oppressed Jews should use such an opportunity to put the supercilious soldier in a position to unwittingly show the world that he and the Jew whom he had both put himself in trouble with his superiors and without an indication that the Jew and just struck was now on equal footing with him in the family of humanity.  This is how and why.  In that setting, to backhand someone was what a“superior” did to discipline an “inferior.”  Most Roman soldiers were right-handed as is true of most people today.  So, if a Roman soldier was displeased with a Jewish person, he might backhand her or him–right hand to right cheek.  If the Jewish person took Jesus’ advice and turned the other cheek, it might have been like a target to an angry soldier, but his hand was already outstretched with palm open toward the Jew who had already been hit once.  If the soldier then hit the person with an open hand, that was a sign the person hit was an equal of the soldier.  Romans fighting Romans whether in anger or in play or in sport did so with an open hand, never a backhand.
The subtly subversive act Jesus recommended to his Jewish listeners was with a simple turn of the head and a willingness to get hit twice instead of once to cause the Roman soldiers unwittingly to make them their equals.  A police state couldn’t operate very well if those being policed kept being turned into equals of the oppressor, now could it?
In our societies, expecting to be treated with basic human dignity by anyone in authority–and no one is supposed to be owning us in our time and place–fits in the category of fundamental human right.  If we are not being treated accordingly, speaking up to demand it wouldn’t be considered subversive unless–well, unless, you were on the approved degradation list somewhere like being Black and trying to drive through Elsmere.
Even in this great nation where freedom is supposed to prevail for all citizens and visitors–except, of course, for the incarcerated–if you stand up for your personal dignity to the wrong authority you can lose a job, have your name added to a blacklist, or be arrested and tossed into jail.  Turning the other cheek, as Jesus suggested it, was not a punishable offense.  Maybe a way to turn the other cheek in our context is to let go of a first effort to diminish or impinge on our constitutional freedoms–depending on severity, of course.  What are you supposed to do after you get hit on the second cheek?
Well, here’s an idea I don’t recommend.  The late Adam Clayton Powell was pastor of Harlem’s large and influential Abyssinian Baptist Church and then a US Congressperson 1945-1971.  Once he became a Congressperson, he did not resign from his pastorate.  As to Powell and turning the other cheek, this is what he said:  “As a Christian, when a man strikes me on onecheek I offer him the other cheek. But if he strikes me on the other cheek, I beat the hell out of him.”
I do not commend to you the Reverend Powell’s solution because violence generally leads to more violence, and Jesus–although subtly subversive–did not recommend violence in any situation; nor do I recommend Gandhi’s utter pacifistic recommendations unless the cause for which you might give your life is one worth dying for, in Gandhi’s own case political freedom for his people and in Jesus’ case spiritual freedom for his people and all others to whom that mattered.  I do commend to you the approach Jesus’ suggested in this brief snippet, “Turn the other cheek.”  In other words, in all circumstances claim your God-given dignity whether you are a person of color trying to drive through Elsmere or an American citizen fed up with begging our politicians to be fair and responsible toward the good of all Americans.  Amen.