Turn the Other Cheek

If we claim to be followers of Jesus, then there can be no compromising the teachings he gives us today on nonresistance, turning the other cheek, and loving one’s enemies.  Jesus is very aware of the fact that violence never truly solves anything.  All the wars in human history seem to create more wars.  The tragedy of World War I set the stage for the horror of World War II.  The United States bombs a Middle Eastern nation, and, besides the inhuman and wholesale destruction, it solidifies a hatred for America amongst the people bombed.  Violence begets more violence – you hit me, I want to hit back.  It’s that simple.  Jesus subverts this very human tendency to seek revenge in his teaching today.

In the first section of the Gospel reading, Jesus urges his followers to opt out of the process of revenge through violence.  He gives a few examples of physical brutality: a strike on the cheek, the taking of one’s property, and forced military service.  With these images, Jesus is not only prohibiting violent retribution, but also demanding that brutality be met with abounding goodness.  Revenge and retribution, as well as the sense of justice erroneously bonded to them, are huge false gods.  We can all-too-easily give our attention to them over God when we have been the victim of an injustice.  Giving our attention to God, we can turn the other cheek and act with love, the love of God.

When Jesus says, “turn the other cheek,” he is talking about our inner reality, which will affect our outer conduct.  Nonresistance involves grounded presence in the now, in God who is ever and always in this present moment.  Such presence necessitates fully accepting what is—no matter what it is.  With this grounding in the presence of God, we are able to refrain from falling into another’s drama, conflict, or negativity.  In its place, we can be open, free, and prayerful in the moment.  We can bring interior silence to bear on the moment in which we are attacked, demeaned, or criticized.  Dwelling in such contemplative silence right in the middle of an attack – whether physical, emotional, political, religious, etc. – we can absorb aggression instead of reacting to it.  Interior silence allows us to absorb another’s aggression without the knee-jerk reaction of violence in return, because we are free from the emotions and thoughts that force us into the pattern of violent behavior.

In this same contemplative space, loving our enemies makes sense.  Loving our enemy is to act as God does.  God loves the kind and the wicked, the just and the unjust.  In imitation of God, Jesus calls us to love those outside our group, those who annoy us, frustrate us, and oppose us.  This may mean loving ourselves.  We are often our own worst enemies—getting in the way of our essential happiness.  But, it also means loving those whom our country labels “enemy.”  If we are honest, this teaching has not been lived.  Violence and hatred of the enemy has been the order of the day, and especially for so-called “Christian” nations.  There was a lot of rejoicing when Osama Bin Laden was killed.  This reaction is contrary to the words of the Gospel.  Loving our enemies forbids rejoicing in their death.

We hardly have the ability to imagine what that is like!  It’s tremendously radical, for this teaching seems to suggest that we make peace with our enemies in the moment.  We do so not by just not showing anger, but by honestly being love to even them!  To love one’s enemies requires the same level of awakening and familiarity with God that turning the other cheek does: grounded presence in the Mystery of God who even loves “the ungrateful and the wicked.”  Thus, loving enemies requires freedom from internal emotions, from our feelings and our gut reactions, namely, to seek revenge.

Ultimately, we do not physically resist the evildoer, we turn the other cheek, and we love our enemies because that is what God does.  More to the point, we can’t love like this without God.  We need God’s love within us to be able to love our enemies.  If we are honest with ourselves we REALLY do not like the reality that God loves the murderer, the rapist, and the dictator whom we want punished for their offenses.  Nevertheless, God does, not because of what the offender has done, but because God is love.  Divine love is the only way out of the mess of revenge and violent retribution, and that means the enemy has to be converted to this very same love.  God is that inclusive and that generous.  Divine love is infinite and so can encompass and heal all the evils of human history.  They are but a drop in the ocean compared to the incomprehensibility and transcendent vastness of God’s mercy.