Amongst political and cultural hostilities, the Gospel call to nonviolence continues to challenge and chasten our work on behalf of the most vulnerable among us, the refugee, the unborn, the poor, the neglected, those at the end of life. It is easy to be swept up in using whatever means necessary to accomplish our desired ends, or to use violent language or even force itself to “take care of business.” May it not be so!
This Sunday’s Gospel reminds us that the neighbor-love which itself is often so challenging participates in God’s perfect love such that it even includes even enemy-love:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one as well.
If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
hand over your cloak as well.
Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
go for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.
“You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
This is a call not to some ethical ideal or to be a “bleeding heart” or a “beautiful soul” or a doormat but rather to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. It is a call to live as we are created: in the image of God. In Jesus the Son we see this perfect love incarnate!
The admonition against retaliation and the love of our enemies comes from the very character of God, the Spirit that lives in us as the Body of Christ. There is also a subversive message here as the other of what Glen Stassen calls the “transforming initiatives” in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. We are given the traditional understanding of righteousness, the vicious cycle in which we are trapped, and the way out!
In this case, we have the tradition of the “eye for an eye,” which in itself is no justification of violence but was a limitation of unlimited retribution. However, we are caught in the vicious cycle of retaliation revengefully by evil means (it’s not that we don’t resist evil, but we don’t resist it by evil means). However, Jesus offers an alternative: resist, but not by evil means. Resist in ways that will surprise the one giving insult, assert your equal dignity, and win over your enemy!
As Stassen notes, “In Jesus’ culture, ‘to be struck on the right cheek was to be given a hostile, backhanded insult’ with the back of the right hand. In that culture, it was forbidden to touch or strike anyone with the left hand; the left hand was for dirty things. To turn the other cheek was to surprise the insulter, saying, nonviolently, ‘you are treating me as an unequal, but I need to be treated as an equal.’ Jesus is saying: if you are slapped on the cheek of inferiority, turn the cheek of equal dignity.” Such actions and other creative responses “go beyond what is demanded to take a nonviolent initiative that confronts and initiates the possibility of reconciliation.”
Here is a short paragraph from Pope Francis’ Message for the World Day of Peace (Read it all):
To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence. As my predecessor Benedict XVI observed, that teaching “is realistic because it takes into account that in the world there is too much violence, too much injustice, and therefore that this situation cannot be overcome except by countering it with more love, with more goodness. This ‘more’ comes from God”. He went on to stress that: “For Christians, nonviolence is not merely tactical behaviour but a person’s way of being, the attitude of one who is so convinced of God’s love and power that he or she is not afraid to tackle evil with the weapons of love and truth alone. Love of one’s enemy constitutes the nucleus of the ‘Christian revolution'”. The Gospel command to love your enemies (cf. Lk 6:27) “is rightly considered the magna carta of Christian nonviolence. It does not consist in succumbing to evil…, but in responding to evil with good (cf. Rom 12:17-21), and thereby breaking the chain of injustice”.
God of Israel and Jesus Christ, conform us to your image and free us to live in your love – even or especially for our enemies!
(Do we pray for our enemies? In Mass? In the prayers of the people? How might we make this a more regular part of our practice and parish life of prayer? Do we practice nonviolence in our life as a parish, conflict resolution, peacemaking, forgiveness? How can we expand and share peacemaking practices?)
Peace and All Good,
Director, Office of Life, Justice & Peace