In his book Jacob’s Hip, the Christian philosopher Kerry Walters describes how, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he and a group of fellow citizens decided to hold a peace rally in Walters’ home town. The point of their rally was to urge the US government to make a response to 9/11 that was not based on fear and prejudice and a desire for revenge.
Walters expected to meet opposition, given the shock and scale of suffering 9/11 involved. But what surprised and then bewildered him was the fact that some of the most vitriolic opposition came from fellow Christians. Indeed, Walters describes one occasion when he and his fellow peace activists were abused by a group of Christians as they were leaving their church service one Sunday morning – abuse that included accusations of cowardice and treason, with hurtful and demeaning expletives thrown in for good measure.
Hardly the kind of response one would expect from those who called themselves followers of Christ! Except that, like most other people, Christians are not immune from that attitude which equates justice with revenge. This is the attitude that hungers to “get your own back”, to inflict on another person the suffering and harm we have suffered at their hands. Only by inflicting hurt and humiliation on those who have hurt and humiliated us can we be assured that the “ledger has been squared” and the other party has received their “just desserts”.
Indeed, so pervasive is this attitude, that most politicians know that a sure-fire way of gaining popular support is to go on a law-and-order “crusade”: to accuse the courts of being too lenient on offenders, to insist that the judicial process be weighted more heavily in favour of victims, to introduce mandatory sentencing or “three strikes and you’re out” policies. This kind of activity – aside from being an exercise in cynical populism – feeds into the notion of “victimhood”: that if I have suffered, you must suffer too, otherwise I remain a victim and you have “gotten away” with harming me.
And it was no different in many ancient societies, including the Jewish society of Jesus’ time. The whole notion of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” was based on the concept that if you damaged a person or their property in some way, then you had to make a forfeit equivalent to the damage inflicted. Thus, the harm was “balanced out” and the offender was not left in a more advantageous position than the victim.
In many ways, this kind of thinking was the precursor of the “rights-based” societies that exist today. This was the view of society that said everyone lived together within the terms of an unspoken contract: namely, that you agreed not to harm me in any way, and of you did, you forfeited any protection against being harmed yourself. It was all about defining the terms under which people would co-exist, and prescribing the requisite punishments when those terms were violated.
But despite the fact that the society of Jesus’ time was no less immune to this kind of “social contact” view than we are today, Jewish sacred history did, in fact, contain an alternative. This was the view that human beings existed, not within the terms of a binding contract, but under the grace of a covenant gifted by God to humanity. In other words, that human co-existence was governed, not by rights, but by relationships. And that is because human co-existence with God is relational in nature, and not a matter of rules and regulations and punishments.
We caught a glimpse of that in last week’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel, in the passage where Jesus says to his disciples that anyone who has a grievance with someone else must first be reconciled to that other person before they lay their gift on the altar. In other words, we cannot hope to have a meaningful relationship with God until and unless we have meaningful relationships with each other. Because human beings and God share a relational co-existence, human beings necessarily share an identical relationship with one another and with creation; anything that breaks and damages our relationships with one another and creation breaks and damages our relationship with God.
This is a theme which is continued in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus says: “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’. But I say to you: ‘Do not resist the evildoer’.” Jesus then gives the famous examples of the one who strikes you on the right cheek being allowed to strike you on the left as well; the one who wants your coat being given your cloak also; the one who forces you to walk a mile being given an additional mile of effort. What is Jesus saying here: that our relational co-existence means we should allow others to do evil to us with impunity?
Not at all. “Turn the other cheek” is not a recipe for self-exploitation, neither is it an excuse for passivity or non-involvement. Rather, what Jesus is reminding us here is that our relational co-existence with others means that justice and revenge are not one and the same thing, that “getting our own back” or giving someone a “dose of their own medicine” simply means that we are participating in the perpetration of evil. When we are the victims of evil, we do not “restore the balance” by enacting further evil: all that “achieves” is further damage to our relationships with others and with God.
Moreover, the argument that Jesus is mounting is that evil can, in fact, be resisted by means that do not result in more evil. And that’s because there is nothing “passive” about so-called “passive resistance”. As a form of confrontation with evil, it requires extraordinary courage, extraordinary faith, and an extraordinary commitment to not perpetuate the cycle of violence. And if you think that passive resistance can’t achieve much, then reflect on the life of Nelson Mandela, reflect on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., reflect on the lives of Mohandas Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi. And if you think that passive resistance is only possible for extraordinary human beings, reflect on what happened more than 20 years ago in Tiannamen Square in Beijing, when a solitary, unidentified person, armed with nothing more than human dignity, stood in front of and stopped a column of tanks and prevented them from mowing down hundreds, possibly thousands of other human beings.
But there is more to passive resistance than not doing violence; it also involves an unbroken love of, and commitment to, one’s fellow humans – even and especially those who do evil. And this commitment is expressed in its fullest form by Jesus’ injunction in today’s passage to not only love one’s friends and neighbours, but to love one’s enemies as well. To love one’s friends is not so difficult; they are, afterall, one’s friends. To love one’s neighbours may be more problematic, especially in large cities when so few of us actually know our neighbours. But to love one’s enemies – that is something most of us find very hard, if not impossible, to do.
And yet do it we must. Not because it’s the “right” thing to do; not because it’s the “moral” thing to do; not even because it’s the supposedly “Christian” thing to do. Rather, we must strive to love our enemies because even with our enemies we share a relational co-existence, a relational co-existence which both they and we share with God. So when we hate our enemies, we are not only in danger of perpetrating evil, we are in danger of damaging our relationship with God. It is only by struggling to love, by trying to keep open the possibility of reconciliation and relationship, that we maintain and keep open our relationship with God.
So, in fact, far from being a utopian ideal, this passage from Matthew’s Gospel points directly toward one of the challenges and hardships of faith. In today’s reading, Jesus clearly recognises that the brokenness of human life involves occasions of enmity between people; but what Jesus is also saying is that enmity need not lead to inhumanity. Just because someone is our enemy or has done us wrong does not mean they are any less human than we; neither does it mean that they are any less a child of God. So where resistance to wrongdoing is required, it must be based on love and an ongoing recognition of our connection to one another and to God. Because the desire for revenge leads only to further evil, to inhumanity, and to the terminal severing of relationships.
Anyone who has read Kerry Walters’ book Jacob’s Hip will realise that the vengeful militarism that formed the basis of the US response to 9/11 has created repercussions we will be dealing with for years, if not decades, to come. And not least of these has been the severing of the relationship of trust between Christian and Muslim, between east and west, between the developed and developing worlds. Today’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel shows us that we could have taken another path: a path that did not compromise either our dignity or our security, but which enabled us to respond to the evil of terrorism without dehumanising either ourselves or our fellow human beings. It is a path that is still open to us: but only if we grasp the nettle of true discipleship to the Christ and the God who loves us all.