Thursday, July 31, 2008

Turn the other cheek

In a comment on the previous posting, my nephew Matt made the following statement: "i don't think i've ever heard anyone preach a satisfying sermon on the "turn the other cheek" passage". The thing is, I've heard (and read) at least two satisfying takes on that passage so far this year.
So here is a condensed version of what I heard/read, which I am in good agreement with, based on sermon podcasts from The Meeting House in Canada, the book 'The End of Religion' by Bruxy Cavey and the book 'The Lost Message of Jesus' by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann.

I think the basic problem people have with this passage is that they implicitly assume that Jesus can't have actually meant what he appears to say. Surely he doesn't mean that if someone hits us, we don't merely stand there and take it, we actually make it easier for them to hit us again? Ridiculous, right? So what did Jesus say:
Luke 6v27-31
"But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
In this passage, Jesus doesn't start with the 'turn the other cheek' bit, he builds up to it. Why is someone striking you on the cheek? Maybe they cursed you first? Maybe they hated you before that? Maybe they were your enemy from the outset?

What if you had actively loved them before they made any negative move towards you, when they were merely your enemy? Not 'what if you'd not-hated them' at the start, but what if you'd shown your love for them? 'Love your enemies' means going out of your way to serve them, to help them and to generally be a blessing to them. Maybe if you did this they'd never get to the stage of striking you?

But if simply loving them didn't work, you move on to doing good for them, to blessing them, to praying for them. Basically the call is to 'be like Jesus' to them. To return hate with love, to return cursing with blessing, to return violence with the opposite of violence.

Seriously, it does mean if someone hits you then you should not fight back. If someone wants to hit you then you offer yourself for further hitting. Remember the 'living sacrifice' bit? Sacrifice hurts. Jesus demonstrated this to the ultimate degree, he didn't merely turn the other cheek, he offered his back for whipping, his head for piercing and his hands and feet for nailing to a cross. The man who demonstrated that he could heal wounds, walk on water, etc. could certainly have got down from the cross if he wanted to. But he chose not to - to show us the ultimate way. Jesus didn't merely teach us the way, he showed us the way. As John has it, he is the way.

Jesus lived the way he taught. Turning the other cheek was just the start. After watching Jesus take everything that was thrown at him, and seeing the way he died, only then did the centurion declare "Surely this man was the Son of God!" (Mark 15v39).

What good does it do to not fight back? Well, maybe you have to go the whole way to death before people will see God in you. Surely that's worth dying for?

That's the way Luke presents the story, but Matthew has a slightly different spin on the teaching:
Matthew 5 v 38-48
"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 someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Its basically the same teaching arranged in a slightly different order (its reasonable to assume that Jesus actually preached on this subject in a number of different times and places and may have said it in different ways each time), but there is one minor detail in Matthew that isn't in Luke. Jesus says "if someone strikes you on the right cheek..." - why specify which cheek? Is there a message in there?

Culturally at the time, people did different things with their left hand from their right. Nobody was left-handed, it would have been trained out of any natural lefties at an early age. Everyone (unless they simply had a non-functioning right hand) used their right hand for noble purposes - such as greeting others - and their left for ignoble purposes - such as toilet related activities. Culturally, fighting was actually a noble purpose, so the right hand would be used.

If someone strikes you with their right hand on your right cheek, this must be a slap with the back of the hand - a dismissive strike as a master would give to a servant. If you offer the other cheek - the left cheek - then they (using their right hand) would have to slap you with the palm of their hand. This kind of slap is not a master-servant slap, but a slap used between equals.

So turning the other cheek is actually a subversive non-violent response, it really says 'you can strike me again, but if you do, you must acknowledge me as your equal'.

The other teaching of Jesus in these verses follows a similar non-violent yet subversive approach. If someone wants to sue you for your tunic, give him your cloak as well - in a culture where people only wore two items of clothing (no underwear) that was quite a statement. If someone wants some of your clothes, give him them all. That would really put the other to shame. And Roman soldiers were within their rights to demand that a Jew carry their stuff for about a mile, but Roman law limited the distance. In the first mile the relationship is oppressor to oppressed, in the second mile the relationship is different, the person carrying the stuff is doing it because he chooses to, not out of obligation. The first mile is slavery, the second is freedom. And that second mile gives you even more opportunity to evangelise the oppressor.

The message is this, return hate with love, cursing with blessing, violence with non-violence and oppression with free choice.

Do not use the methods of your enemy, but simply love them.

Update: two further comments

Above I have presented the teaching of others, which I agree with and hope to be able to live out. But there are two issues which are either not addressed in the teaching I have heard or I remain uncertain of, despite the clear teaching of those I refer to above.
  1. Jesus teaching on 'turning the other cheek' is very individualistic. That is, "if someone hits you, your response should be..." - this offers no guidance in the scenario where someone threatens violence against a friend or family member. I hope I'd be willing to let someone hit me if they wanted to - according to the teaching of Jesus, but I'm really not sure if it would be right to let someone hit, for example, my daughter. If, in that scenario, I could take her place, I would. But what if that is not an option - surely I should not be passive but take action to save her? But here there is no teaching from Jesus.

  2. The use of violence by 'the authorities'. The teaching from 'The Meeting House' is clear on this one - rulers and authorities have the God given right to use violence and the threat of violence. This is taken from the first few verses of Romans 13. They go from here to basically deduce that it is inappropriate for a Christ-follower to hold political power, especially a position where the choice to use violence (through war, etc.) is an option. While I accept the validity of the deduction - it probably is inappropriate for a Christ-follower to be in such a position of power - I'm not sure about the first bit. Are all governments agents of God? Was Saddam? Was Hitler? Or even in Paul's day, was Nero or Herod? Was the slaugher of the innocents by any or all of these rulers ordained by God? Not by the God I know. I still have to wrestle with this issue.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Red Letter Christianity

Rabbi Hillel once famously said "What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. "

I've begun to view the bible in somewhat similar terms - the stuff Jesus said is the real important stuff; the rest is just commentary.

The church was founded on the teachings of Jesus. Some years later the apostles Paul, Peter, John and others wrote letters to some bits of the church and said other stuff. But that was supplemental to the basic gospel that the churches already knew. So (as I've said before) how come most 'confessions of faith' or equivalent are based on the supplemental writings?

I came across the term "Red Letter Christian" a week or two ago. I like the sound of it - its a group of Christians who seek to base their lives primarily on the teachings of Jesus ('cos in some bibles, the words spoken by Jesus are highlighted in red text). But I was slightly annoyed that when I looked into it further (Wikipedia, Google) that the term seems to be being exclusively used of certain politically active Christians in the USA, who stand against some of the policies of the Republican party, even though something like 4 out of 5 'evangelical Christians' tend to vote Republican.

Can we not divorce the idea from politics and just all pay more attention to the things that Jesus actually said?

ps I'm currently (and slowly) working my way through the gospels - to look again at what Jesus actually did (and didn't) say. Its taking me a while, but I'll have some thoughts to post on it eventually...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

'How we believe' by Michael Shermer

About a decade ago I read "Why people believe weird things" by Michael Shermer. It was a quite interesting look at the reasons why people believe in things like ESP, paranormal things, etc. and even got onto serious topics like Holocaust deniers. Not long after that I heard that the author of that book was working on a new book looking specifically addressing the reasons why people believe in God(s).

But I never got around to reading the book when it came out. A couple of years ago I happened upon the second edition of the book on Amazon and hit the 'add to wishlist' button. There it sat for a year or two until someone bought it for me last Christmas (thanks Lisa!). And so I've finally read it.

"How we believe: Science, Skepticism and the Search for God"
by Michael Shermer

It is an interesting look at belief and religion and goes quite deeply into some aspects of the psychology of belief. It discusses the development of religion in evolutionary terms, pointing out (quite rightly) that our current makeup is the result of thousands of years of evolving and it is only during the last tiny bit of that process that we have made any advances in technology or science, etc., thus our mental processes are heavily influenced by thought patterns built into our makeup in a pre-scientific age.

Shermer's main thesis is twofold:
  1. Humans are pattern seeking animals - we see patterns where none exist and come to conclusions based on our interpretations of these non-existent patterns.
  2. Humans are storytelling animals - having interpreted these non-existent patterns, we then turn this into narrative and tell others. Who believe it. And so on.
This is fine, and reasonably compelling, but he does lay it on a bit thick.

The thing that annoyed me about the book (in much the same way that Pascal Boyer's book "Religion Explained" did some years ago) is that it never actually addresses the central issue. The subtitle of the book speaks of the 'search for God' and yet Shermer never once makes any attempt to do so. The whole book is taken up with explaining why people might believe in gods that do not exist, without ever once actually setting that aside and asking "so if there were a God, how would we know?"

Shermer starts out with two basic assumptions which are never addressed in the book:
  1. There is no god.
  2. This is unprovable by science.
He then puts all his faith in science as being the answer to all our problems and questions (despite having just acknowledged that science cannot prove some things...). In a manner similar to other atheist authors he sees faith as the enemy of science. However, he also seems to have that peculiar understanding of faith as being the mechanism by which people can believe things that are contrary to the evidence. This has never been my understanding or experience of faith. That kind of faith is probably the enemy of science, but it is not the kind of faith that a great many believers have.

But it boils down to this, yes, the book explains how people can have belief in non-existent gods, but it never touches on the possibility that there might be more 'out there' (or even in here) than has been observed by science so far. What if some beliefs are based on patterns that actually were there? This is never considered and the book is flawed as a result.

So interesting, but also annoying and unsatisfying.