There are so many sermons that could be preached from our Gospel reading for this morning, all of them equally important and valid, but as I doubt very much that you want to listen to me for the entire day, I am focusing on one particular part of the reading: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.”
I think I have the most energy and interest for this verse, because it is so counterintuitive. Why would I offer my other cheek to someone who has just hit me in the face? Does being a Christian really mean passively accepting abuse? I’m not sure I can get on board with that idea. I certainly know I am not going to tell a woman who has been punched in the face by her husband to turn the other cheek, as some have been told to do by Christian religious leaders. I certainly am not going to tell someone who has been a victim of some form of oppression to just accept their oppression, because that is the “Christian thing to do” as Christian religious leaders have said in the past. Is Jesus promoting victimhood as holy? What is going on here? At first glance, I don’t like this verse very much. I don’t like how it has been and is used by some Christians. Do I just ignore the verse and move on?
Well, no. I find that ignoring parts of Scripture that I don’t like on first read doesn’t help me very much in my faith journey or in my attempts to follow Jesus. Instead, I take a deep breath and sit with the difficult passage for awhile and wait for the word that God wants to speak to me. Sometimes what I hear is this: “Suzannah, don’t get caught up in the minutia. The people that wrote this lived in a different time and place. They thought differently from you. Like you they were struggling to understand this world, the people around them, and me, the Divine. Sometimes they got it right and sometimes they missed the mark—and sometimes they missed the mark by a long shot. Learn from their successes and from their failures. Someday others will learn from your successes and failures too.”
But that is not the word I heard this time while sitting with this verse. Instead, I began to get images in my head from the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. You’ve all seen the pictures. You know what I saw in my head. Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus. A young Ruby Bridges walking between armed men as crowds of white adults screamed at her. The young black men and women sitting at the whites only lunch counter while people spit on them, dumped condiments on them and threatened them. Martin Luther King jr. being arrested and imprisoned simply for participating in non-violent protests.
And I had images of Gandhi. Gandhi led multiple non-violent actions in apartheid South Africa, where he worked as a lawyer for 20 years and in India, where the British still ruled with an iron fist. Gandhi was jailed many times. At one trial he said, “In my humble opinion, non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.” And non-cooperation for him was always non-violent. As he once said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” He would only lead protests that were100% non-violent. He was jailed repeatedly for his efforts.
And finally, I had images of the much more recent Black Lives Matter Protests around the country. I had images of peacefully marching people being sprayed in the face with pepper spray and being hit with batons. Yes, there were a few instances of protestors fighting back, but the vast majority of protestors did not. The vast majority took the abuse and kept going.
And as I sat with all these images, I realized that Jesus isn’t arguing for passive acceptance of abuse. He isn’t saying to victims of abuse, “Just suck up and deal with it, that’s the Christian thing to do.” He is actually giving the powerless great power. Think about those civil rights protests of the 1950’s and 1960’s for example. Black people in this country had no power. After the Civil War, increasingly harsh Jim Crow laws were passed in the South and the Supreme Court upheld these laws. The north lacked these laws, but segregation was the norm anyway. Arbitrary violence against and murder of black people was the norm. Any education or profession that would provide upward mobility for a black person was not open to them.
The only thing black people had was their bodies. All the institutions of the country were against them. But their bodies still belonged to them. They could make a choice in how they responded to the violence—physical, psychological, and spiritual—that was daily inflicted upon them. They could defy the evil of segregation with their bodies. They had the power to respond to this evil and violence with love. Now this love was not kissy and huggy. This love was nonviolently noncooperative. Love is sometimes hard. Love is not sentimental. In using their bodies noncooperatively and nonviolently to resist the violence of segregation they revealed the evil of segregation. Most Americans, when confronted visually with what segregation really meant, could no longer participate in this evil. Great change happened and it was all because black Americans actively turned the other cheek—no passivity here.
The same happened in India and the same has happened in this country with the more recent Black Lives Matter protests. I know that for many it feels like nothing has changed with these protests, because so many very wrong voter registration laws have been passed across the country. It is true that there is still a lot of work to be done in the area of racial dignity and equality. But what is also true is that change has happened.
Multiple studies have been done on police homicides and the Black Lives Matter Movement. This is what the researchers have discovered. In municipalities in which Black Lives Matter Protestors have protested there has been as much as a 20% decrease in police homicides. In communities in which there have been protests, there is also an increased likelihood of police departments adopting body-worn cameras and community policing initiatives. The larger and more frequent the protests the greater the decline in police homicides. The studies estimate that between 2014 and 2019 there were 300 fewer police homicides because of these non-violent protests. It appears that turning the other cheek is very powerful indeed.
So, we could say, “Great. I am so glad that oppressed people are non-violently resisting and standing up to their oppressors. Good for them. Jesus would be proud of you.” But what about those of us who are not being oppressed? Does God have a word for us too in this passage? I think you know I’m going to say, “Yes.”
Maybe those of us who don’t fall into a racial, ethnic, gender, gender-identity, sexual-orientation, citizenship status, or other oppressed group haven’t been slapped on the check ourselves, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a call for us too from this passage. Jesus tells us that everyone is our neighbor and that we are called to love our neighbors, all of them, not just the ones who are the same as us. This love isn’t theoretical. This love is practical. We are called to be in solidarity with those who are being oppressed. We are called to nonviolently offer our other cheek too. For if one person is harmed, we are all harmed. I will repeat again that quote from Gandhi, “In my humble opinion, non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.” It is not enough to have the right opinion or the correct view. Jesus is calling us also to resist with our very bodies that all might be treated in this country with dignity.
I leave you with the story of a young white man who understood this call well, Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Jonathan was a white student studying to become an Episcopal priest in the 1960’s. While in seminary, he and a fellow seminarian decided to travel to the south to participate in the civil rights protests taking place there. He and his friend were only planning to stay for a short while and then return to their classes at Harvard. Instead, Jonathan requested permission to continue to study independently from Alabama and to remain there. He was given permission.
He lived with a black family in Selma. He worked to register black voters, tutor children, and find aid for black families in need. On August 14, 1965, Jonathan traveled to Fort Deposit, Alabama with 29 other protestors, both black and white, to picket the whites only stores there. All the adults in the group were arrested. The group was held for six days in a facility which lacked air conditioning and toilets. Authorities refused to accept bail for anyone unless everyone was bailed. Finally, on August 20, the prisoners were released without transport back to Fort Deposit. After release, the group waited near the courthouse jail while one of their members called for transport.
Daniels with three others—a white Catholic priest and two black female activists—walked to buy a cold soft drink at nearby Varner’s Cash Store, one of the few local places to serve non-whites. But barring the front was Tom L. Coleman, an unpaid special deputy who was holding a shotgun and had a pistol in a holster. Coleman threatened the group and leveled his gun at seventeen-year-old Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed Sales down and caught the full blast of the shotgun. 26 year-old Jonathan Daniels was instantly killed. Father Richard F. Morrisroe grabbed activist Joyce Bailey and ran with her. Coleman shot Morrisroe, severely wounding him in the lower back, and then stopped firing.
A grand jury indicted Coleman for manslaughter. Richmond Flowers Sr., the Attorney General of Alabama, believed the charge should have been murder and intervened in the prosecution, but was thwarted by the trial judge. He refused to wait until Morrisroe had recovered enough to testify and removed Flowers from the case. Coleman claimed self-defense even though Morrisroe and the others were unarmed and was acquitted of manslaughter charges by an all-white jury.
The murder of an educated, white seminarian who was defending an unarmed teenage girl shocked members of the Episcopal Church and other whites into facing the violent reality of racial inequality in the South. Many minds were changed.
“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” Amen.