The gospel on Monday, the day after the Orlando bloodbath, was a hard one:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a] 39 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. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matt 5: 38-42)
It is hard because the sense of it is not fully apparent to readers separated by two millennia from the culture which occasioned it. It requires informed interpretation. To read it without reference to the society Jesus addressed is to distort the passage into a masochist’s delight. Understanding setting and context makes the difference between an injunction against personal vengeance (which it is) and an endorsement of pacifism in the face of militant evil (which it is not).
That slap on the right cheek indicates—some 90% of us being right handed—a back-handed slap. In Jesus’ day, a backhanded slap was an extreme insult among men. It designated the slapee as an inferior, like a child or a slave. Or a woman. This Matthian passage is not a categorical call for nonviolence. It is a more nuanced prohibition against responding in kind to personal offenses and insults. It is, Augustine judged, a call to charity. We are enjoined to not let things rankle, not give in to resentment and personal retribution. Under certain—not all—circumstances—a charitable response to a wrong might move the wrongdoer to repentance. And, so, to the grace of God and the ultimate Good. Call this charity aligned to purpose. Even to cunning of a sort.
That is difficult enough as it stands. It is not a rallying cry for sanctimonious martyrs-in-waiting who do not scruple to make targets of their own generation or of other people’s children and grandchildren.
Jesus himself did not obey his own injunction, according to John 18:23. In the home of the high priest after his arrest, Jesus was struck [in the face, as is likely?] while being interrogated. Instead of turning the other cheek, he said: “If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Paul, too, was no doormat when, after arrest by the Sanhedrin, he was struck on the mouth on the orders of Ananias: “God shall strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” (Acts 23: 3)
A wrong—a calumny, an injustice, a delinquency of some kind—is hardly equal to the slaughter of innocents. Last Monday’s gospel offered a sterling moment for the presiding priest to instruct us on the difference between a slap on the cheek and the cold-blooded murder of forty-nine people. That gospel slap is metaphor for the range of indignities and offenses of which we are capable in our dealings with one another. But a figure of speech stops far, far short of a recipe for dealing with wanton murder.
Was the priest at Monday’s Mass fearful of making distinctions? Was he aware of any? He began his homily by referencing the Orlando massacre but hurried off to polished boilerplate. Glistening invocations of love, mercy and understanding came tumbling down the center aisle. It was a triple somersault that could not find a place to land.
On the one hand, yes, resist evil. On the other hand, where exactly should we look for it? And how do we know it when we see it? Dare we name it? Things are complicated. Never mind. Love is always good. Allah God is merciful. We should be, too. For God’s sake, be nice.
The trickle of timid incoherence was getting under my skin. Was it under anyone else’s? Or was I vexing alone? I needed to steady myself with something tart. My attention wandered to Ogden Nash, sugar-free and better than an insulin shot for homily-induced hyperglycemia:
. . . love is a drug on the mart.
Any kiddie in school can love like a fool
But hating, my boy, is an art.
The prescription— those glorious last two lines—began to work. Suddenly there came an exasperated shout from the back pews: “Oh, please, Father! This was Islamic terrorism! So where does love fit in here?!”
For a nanosecond I did not recognize the voice. Then I realized: it was my own!
Heads turned. From the expression on faces, the little congregation was not pleased. Some looked downright aggrieved. The priest looked rattled. I was too. A bit. He signaled me to keep quiet. I did.
When Mass ended, a sweet-faced elderly man who holds the door for us each morning, walked over to me to ask: “Are you the one who called out?” Braced for a scolding, I admitted, “Yes, Pat.”
He leaned forward and kissed me full on the mouth.
• • • • •
One final note:
The gospel translation above is taken from the USCCB website. Much is lost in the modernizing of the gospel language: tunic to shirt and cloak to coat. At a time when people wore only two garments—tunic and cloak—the tunic was often used as a pledge by the poor against a lawsuit. To give the more valuable cloak as well, leaves the (poor Jewish) debtor naked before the aggressor in an exploitative lawsuit. Jesus suggested it as a shaming device for the disenfranchised and vulnerable to use against the powerful in an unjust situation. It is not a sentimental prescription for submissiveness or accommodation.
Jesus’ injunction to go the extra mile extends the theme. Occupying Romans had the right to force Jewish civilians to carry their equipment—all that heavy armor!—for one mile while they were on a march. In each case, shaming is offered as a feasible weapon against ruling forces. N.T. Wright explains it this way:
Don’t fret and fume and plot revenge. Copy your generous God! Go a second mile, and astonish the soldier (and perhaps alarm him – what if his commanding officer found out?) with the news that there is a different way to be human, a way which doesn’t plot revenge, which doesn’t join the armed resistance movement . . . .
As Jesus understood, Judean Jews were no match militarily for the Tenth Legion. Armed resistance was destined for catastrophe. Four years after the 66 AD rebellion, Jerusalem was in ruins, the Temple destroyed, and Rome triumphant.
To approach this gospel in today’s maudlin terms—that vacant love-and-mercy mantra—is to denature it. And it renders us unwilling and unfit to defend ourselves with available means against a sworn enemy who mocks our turned cheek.
One way to love the enemy is to defeat him. It is a concept Augustine—no cream puff among the Donatists—understood. In his great sermon on love, he remarks on the ferocity of the dove: “The dove has no bitterness, yet she fights with beak and wings for her young.”