Turn the other cheek

by Pastor Jerry Donovan

Resentment and retaliation, judgment and blame are tightly woven into the moral fabric of our very human nature. This negative reaction to the bad things in life is a learned behavior in a world where self comes first. It is part of the original sin of seeing ourselves as the center of the universe. It is the disease of the soul which Jesus comes to heal. When he eats with Zacchaeus, when he forgives and empowers the woman at the well, when he breaks bread with Judas, and when he gives authority to faithless Peter, Jesus gives them and us grace.

A new ethic to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to forgive and love no matter what; it’s what Jesus asks in Matthew 5:38-48. But does it make sense? And does it work? Or do we find it offensive in our dog eat dog world? These selfless, idealistic values may be fine for a Messiah, but for those of us who are victims and victimizers in the real world, they are offensive and dangerous.

Unless we look at them in a new way. The Reverend James Lawson was the chief architect and instigator of the Nashville lunch counter sit in movement in 1960. He told this story of nonresistance in the face of appalling injustice; a kind of turn the other cheek moment.

Lawson was a divinity student at Vanderbilt and had spent months training young black activists to sit at white only lunch counters without responding to the hostility, beatings, and arrests that came. During one of these disputes, Lawson watched the streets to help de-escalate conflicts that arose. An onlooker came up to him screamed a racial slur and spit in his face.

Lawson kept calm, but asked the man if he happened to have a handkerchief he could borrow. The man was surprised by the request and gave him the one in his pocket. Lawson noticed a motorcycle nearby, and asked if it was his. Over the next five minutes they talked about bikes, mechanics, and horsepower, and by the end of their conversation, the man asked if there was anything else he needed.

Lawson used his imagination to see a different outcome. His response caught the man off guard, freeing him from the prison of his own prejudice. This is the beauty of enemy love; it refuses to define someone by their worst characteristics. Instead, it sees Christ in the other person. Remembering this picture in our own minds allows us to imagine new ways to cope and respond in what appears to be impossible situations. Reverend Lawson demonstrated perfect love; a radical concern for the redemption of his accuser.

Jesus shows us what it means to be human, and in Matthew 5, Jesus explains that the way to be human is through the same nonviolent love of the one who climbed Golgotha. We are not to take vengeance in our own hands; we are not to retaliate; instead we are to extend the same love to our enemies that we would extend to our friends. This is what it means to resemble Christ, to pick up our cross and follow him.  No theology of holiness can survive without a foundation in the nonviolent love of Christ.