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.