The only time I can remember taking a blow delivered in anger came when I was in college. I was with my roommates at Colonial Pizza, our favorite late-night hang-out, when an argument broke out between a couple of young men in the restaurant. They were “townies,” a little older than us. I didn’t take it all that seriously, even when their voices rose and they jumped to their feet. One of them shoved the other backward into the wall and started toward the door, a path that would take him right past where I was sitting. I must still have been more amused than alarmed, because he growled “what are you laughing at?” and belted me in the mouth, knocking me and my chair over backwards, before storming out of the restaurant.
I was scarcely upright again before the police arrived. The pizza lady had called them in a state of high excitement, and she described the incident in dramatic terms to a cop from Central Casting. “Look at him!” she cried, gesturing at where I sat dabbing the blood from my swollen lip with a paper napkin. The second townie, who it turned out was my assailant’s cousin, sat sullenly with his arms crossed, refusing to cooperate. The policeman said “Don’t go anywhere!” to everyone in general and he and his partner disappeared. A few minutes later, he was back. His partner stood on the sidewalk outside with a man in handcuffs, where I could see them through the window. “Is this the guy?” the policeman asked me.
“I guess so,” I said hesitantly. I wasn’t at all certain—as with a lot of things that happened during my college days, I hadn’t really been focusing. I looked around for help. The manager and a couple of the other students seemed sure that it was. The cousin remained stony-faced in his chair, his eyes downcast. “Do you wanna press charges?” asked the cop. I looked up and saw him staring at me. Suddenly it became clear that even though I hadn’t called the police, or asked them to go hunt the man down, this true crime drama had been for my benefit. The eyes of everyone in the restaurant were on me. I looked at the miserable fellow standing in the pallid light of the Colonial Pizza sign outside. “No, not really,” I mumbled.
The policeman stiffened. “You know I’m going to have to let him go unless you file a criminal complaint?” I thought about taking the bus to the courthouse in North Adams to testify. I thought about undergoing cross-examination about events that were hazy in my recollection. I thought about the townie and his limited prospects and what he probably felt when he saw us college boys. “No thanks”, I shrugged. The cop snorted in disgust and left and I walked back to the dorm with my friends.
As I recall this incident I am aware of how privileged my life has been. Countless millions of my brothers, and especially my sisters, live with systematic violence, oppression, and abuse as a daily reality. My story is amusing because I was never in serious danger. My basic human dignity, and even my privilege, was respected, and so I could afford to be magnanimous. But how might the story have been different if I’d had no recourse to the lawful authorities, or if it had been the cops who attacked me?
The gospel teaching of Jesus was given in such a context. When he talks about being struck on the face, or sued for one’s cloak, or forced to carry a Roman soldier’s 70 pound pack for a mile, he is describing things that his audience would have known from personal experience. For us these sayings about loving our enemies are good for parlor debates about just wars and capital punishment. But for the first Christians they would have gone to the heart of the rawest personal emotions. Maybe that is why we find them at the climax of Jesus’ restatement of the Jewish law.
It is a popular theory among New Testament scholars that the Gospel of Matthew came out of a Jewish-Christian community that had suffered persecution and forcible expulsion from the synagogue. This community would have identified with Jesus’ own experience that even people who are morally upright and religiously scrupulous can embrace violence. They can use the will and conviction that enables them to keep God’s commandments as weapons against those who don’t share their beliefs. Wrestling with the aftermath of trauma, Matthew’s community would have found in the life and death of Jesus the key to understanding what further is needed to perfect the law. They would have treasured his sayings about principled nonviolence and the love of enemies, for helping them discern a truth higher than the unmistakable reality of their hurt and betrayal.
That higher truth was the one with which Jesus began his teaching—“Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the ones who mourn, blessed are the meek and the peacemakers, and blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake.” It is not that the suffering produces the blessedness, but that in Christ God’s blessing is revealed as unconditional. It is poured out for everyone—like the sun it rises on the evil and the good, like the rain it falls on the just and the unjust. When we think that our blessedness depends on how well we meet some minimum standard--of getting it right, not missing the mark, being in control--our righteousness will always be missing something.
In fact our moral discipline and good deeds will become a trap for us, sucking us deeper into the swamp of unease and futility. Our driving force will be that anxious, guilty, fragmented self which can never be healed by its own works and contrivances. As long as our self-worth depends on having a spotless record we walk on a knife-edge, and will never be at peace. And as long our knowing ourselves as worthy of love is fragile, as long as we need to prove that we are deserving of respect--as long as we believe that someone else can rob us of our own dignity—we will always be susceptible to fighting evil with evil. The knife-edge of self-righteousness cuts us in pieces, severing those actions, thoughts, and feelings that we find unworthy of us. And cutting into others just naturally follows.
Jesus urges us instead to find our perfection in God. It is only when we acknowledge our common lot with others, when we accept our share of the pain that is the consequence of human sin and folly, that we also open to receive the gift of our wholeness. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”, for God has no fragile honor to defend, no deficiency that needs to be made up by being right or wielding power. God’s love does not come with strings attached and does not ask for anything in return, so it cannot be defeated by hate or opposition.
The experience of non-violent struggles like the U.S. Civil Rights movement, or the recent revolution in Egypt, is that there is a critical point of no return. It is the point when it becomes clear that a people’s capacity to suffer for the sake of love is greater than their fear of violence. Once that point is reached, all further violence is self-defeating. It manifests the moral failure of the powers-that-be—their weakness, rather than their strength.
So when Jesus counsels the people to turn the other cheek he is not recommending passive submission to the one who strikes. But to retaliate in kind, or to flee in fear, is to let the broken self at the root of violence continue to dictate the terms of power. There is still a choice we can make in such moments, still a free action to take, even if it is only the choice of suffering over fear. But this is suffering that is transfigured by love: love for the person perpetrating the self-inflicted wound of injustice, love for the future and the irresistible hope of the Kingdom that surges in every awakened heart, and love for God whose power, and judgment, and truth, and perfection are love.