About four years ago, I read a book that made me think “Of course! This makes sense. Why did I not see this before, why haven’t I heard this before?” This blog is based on what I’d read.
You’ve heard it said …
In the Sermon on the Mount, six times Jesus uses the phrase “You’ve heard it said… But I say to you… ”. Each time he raises the bar from the easy tick-box to the challenging and aspirational. “You’ve heard it said ‘Do not murder’… But I tell you anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgement…” Matthew 5:21
Each time he is quoting the Old Testament law. As far as his hearers were concerned, “You’ve heard it said…” meant “God said…”. “God said ‘do not murder, but I say to you…”.
Five of these phrases lift the standard – raises the bar, but one… one dismantles the apparatus completely. Jesus changes it entirely. It had been accepted as a right and just principle for centuries, but Jesus revolutionises it beyond all recognition.
Interestingly, this “you’ve heard it said” is still quoted regularly today. In the popular press you rarely hear ‘you shall not murder’ but you hear this one, especially in discussions about crime and justice. Strangely, it is often quoted as Biblical without ever acknowledging what Jesus goes on to say about it. Sadly it is part of Jesus’ teaching that Christendom has chosen to ignore.
Eye for an eye
The saying I am referring to is, of course, ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’. The Old Testament law goes even further and says ‘a life for a life.’ The principle is clear. It says it is right to repay like for like. If someone does something to you, you are justified in doing the same back to them. They deserve everything they get. You hit them hard to make sure they think twice before doing it again, and maybe it will even act as a deterrent to others. It is ok to repay violence with violence.
Jesus’ response is brilliant, but often misquoted and misunderstood. Gandhi recognised its brilliance. When he first read the Sermon on the Mount he said it went straight to his heart. He later said, “Christ’s Sermon on the Mount fills me with bliss even today. Its sweet verses have even today the power to quench my agony of soul”. He also commented that “what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount”.
Why the right cheek?
These are Jesus’ words: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Matthew 5:38-39.
“If someone strikes you on the right cheek”. Why the right cheek and not the left? In a right-hand dominated culture, if you punch with your right hand, you land on the left cheek. This is not the kind of fight Jesus had in mind. If you hit with your right hand and land on the right cheek, you must be hitting with the back of your hand. The picture in mind is of a ruthless slave
owner and a cowering slave or a forceful ruler and a flinching subject or a violent soldier and a fearful bystander. It is not equal – the powerful and the powerless. It is an act of establishing hierarchy, of putting someone in their place.
Jesus goes to the heart of how we should respond to unfairness, injustice and violence. The natural world says fight or flight, but Jesus promotes a different response. Not fight, meeting injustice with injustice and violence with violence. Eye for an eye. Not flight, accepting the existence of injustice and violence as the natural order of things. But something radically different.
I will still stand
Imagine now the defiance of the victim of the strike, standing and turning the other cheek! Looking his or her tormentor in the eye, and saying you can strike me again, but I will still stand. I won’t legitimise your violence by responding with violence. I won’t legitimise your violence by running away. I will stand, turn the other cheek, look you in the eye and insist you recognise our shared humanity.
Four years after his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, Martin Luther King gave a poignant Christmas sermon. It is well worth a read. King understood the Sermon on the Mount. He reflected on how, in even the worst wartime atrocities, military leaders claim to act in the name of peace.
“And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace… What is the problem? They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means… Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’”
If someone strikes you on the right cheek…
Peaceful ends by peaceful means
In September 2001, the ‘Christian’ West had the choice of how to react to one of the worst acts of violence imaginable. In the name of peace and security they bombed Afghanistan to smithereens -already the poorest country on earth. All these years later, peace is even more distant. Violence inspired greater violence.
Martin Luther King’s comment of pursuing “peaceful ends by peaceful means” seem so far away in the world we live in. The world’s top 20 most successful arms-producing companies are from traditionally Christian countries.
It’s 75 years since Ghandi said “what passes for Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount”. It is immensely depressing to realise that verdict seems even more accurate today. We get the political leaders we vote for. The Christian vote, especially in the US, is closely associated with certain policies, but imagine instead if Christians only voted for those leaders who “pursue peaceful ends by peaceful means”. It’s at the very heart of Jesus’ message, but not at the heart of what passes as Christian politics. As we approach our general election, I wonder how many Christians are considering this central focus in Jesus’ teaching? Is it possible that Ghandi, as a Hindu, understood Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount better than many Christians?
Not only was this the central focus of Jesus’ teaching, it was also the central focus of his life. The cross was not fight or flight, but history’s greatest victory. “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing them by the cross” Col. 2:15.
(The book I read was ‘Jesus and nonviolence’ by Walter Wink)