Sunday, February 23, 2014

Upping the Ante: A Meditation on Matthew 5:38-48

Jesus teaches us to love our enemies.   Jesus doesn’t say that there are no enemies.  He is not naïve.  He knows that conflict and opposition, oppression and resistance, are real.  What he does say is that our enemies are human, just like us, and need to be treated as such. God loves them just as much as he loves us.  Jesus teaches us to recognize our common humanity and to act in ways that preserve the possibility for reconciliation between enemies.  In short, we are to respond to the reality of evil by loving as God loves – without discrimination. 

Practically speaking, what this means is that we are to resist evil nonviolently.   This core teaching of Jesus is more familiar to us in its negative form: “Do not resist an evildoer.”[1]   Does this mean that we are to do nothing in the face of evil?  Often, it has been interpreted as a counsel to passive submission to evil, embracing suffering without complaint.  In fact, “turning the other cheek” and “going the extra mile” have become short-hand for a kind of noble acceptance of suffering (or servile, depending upon your perspective).  At best, such endurance is viewed as taking the moral high road; at worst, such endurance is nothing more than the internalization of a sense of inferiority.  

The problem is that such passivity completely misses the point of Jesus’ teaching.  Both the context of this passage, and its attestation in other and earlier sources of Christian tradition, indicate a much different interpretation.   Immediately following the admonition, “Do not resist an evildoer,” Jesus goes on to give several concrete examples of creative ways to resist evil (more on that in a moment).  So, either Jesus is flatly contradicting himself, or else “Do not resist” must mean something other than passive acquiescence to evil.

The verb translated as “resist” is antistênai.  In Greek, antistênai frequently is used as a military term.  It connotes counterviolence in response to hostilities initiated by someone else, as in withstanding a violent assault by drawing up battle ranks against the enemy.  In Jesus’ time, the question of how best to resist Roman occupation of Israel was a live question.  In this context, Jesus is taking violent resistance or rebellion off the table as a legitimate response; not resistance per se.[2] The command is “Do not violently resist an evildoer.”

This reading is borne out in comparison to other sources of early Christian tradition that preserve this core teaching of Jesus.[3]  Parallels can be found in Romans chapter 12, which preserves several allusions to Jesus’ teaching from “the Sermon on the Mount,” including “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” and “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”[4]   This saying is also preserved in I Thessalonians 5:15 and I Peter 3:9.  There is even an early Hebrew translation of the Gospel of Matthew that reads, “Do not repay evil for evil” instead of “Do not resist an evildoer.” 

What all these texts evidence is a common source in Jesus’ authentic teaching the basically says, “Do not mirror evil.”  Jesus does not advocate nonresistance to evil, what we generally now refer to as “Pacifism.”  Instead of passivity, Jesus advocates resistance to evil that refuses to mirror evil; specifically, by engaging in creative, nonviolent responses to evil.   

Jesus provides several examples of creative, nonviolent responses to evil in Matthew’s account of the “Sermon on the Mount”:  “turn the other cheek,” “give the undergarment,” “go the second mile,” and “give to all who beg.”  Let’s briefly examine each of these in turn.

 “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  Why the right cheek?  In the ancient world, right-handedness was normative and the left hand was used only for unclean tasks.  What is being imagined here is a back-handed blow on the right check using the right hand.  This would be the means whereby a superior would strike inferiors in order to discipline and insult them.  This is the way a male householder would strike his wife, children, and slaves. 

By offering the left cheek as well, one is asserting one’s dignity by forcing the aggressor to either escalate the violence (say, having the person flogged), or tacitly acknowledge the person as his equal by hitting his left cheek with his right hand, or simply do nothing.  In any case, the aggressor no longer has the initiative and is forced to acknowledge his inability to humiliate the other person.  The illegitimacy of structural violence that benefits one group at the expense of others is exposed for what it is.

This is not an act of submission but rather an assertion of dignity and an expression of courage.  It is what Bishop Cate Waynick refers to as “upping the ante.”  It is akin to the freedom riders who desegregated trains and buses in the South, or African-Americans who sat at “whites only” lunch counters.  They, too, offered the other cheek, exposing the mendacity of their enemies while asserting their freedom at the same time.  What is notable here is that their actions liberated a whole generation of black men and women from the crippling fear of racist violence that had kept them in subjugation to Jim Crow law, while preserving the possibility of eventual racial reconciliation.  

“If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your undergarment as well.”  Under Jewish law, the poorest of the poor were offered some small measure of protection in that, if they were sued to collect repayment of debts owed and only had their coat as collateral for a loan, the coat had to be returned to them at night so that they had some way to keep warm.   It was a measure against economic exploitation.

Jesus lived at a time when Galilean peasants were being exploited through heavy taxation and indebtedness so that their ancestral lands could be expropriated to build large estates for the rich.   Being sued in court was an ever-present fear that was often realized in fact.  Jesus is telling his hearers not only to offer their coat, but their undergarment as collateral: In other words, to strip naked in the courtroom to publicly shame their creditors. 

Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, but the shame of it fell on the witnesses rather than the naked person.  Jesus is encouraging a kind of burlesque strip tease to metaphorically express the way in which the rich were stripping the poor of everything they owned.   Imagine the response this would have evoked!   The creditor would be revealed as a rapacious and greedy brute, stripped of the veneer of legitimacy provided by his clever and venal manipulation of the legal and economic systems.  It would, perhaps, allow the creditor to see himself as he really is for the first time.  

It is in this context, by the way, that Jesus advocates giving to those who beg.  Such generosity was a way of redistributing wealth to support those who were reduced to penury by means of systematic economic exploitation and injustice.   Such giving is not charity, but rather an act of compensatory justice.  Again, stripping naked in court was a way to demonstrate the indignity of poverty as a legally enforced system of economic privilege and disenfranchisement. 

When I was in seminary, I participated in a similarly clever unmasking of the illusions of heterosexual privilege.  A group of us planted a large sign in the middle of the courtyard outside the University of Chicago Divinity School that read “homosexual acts in progress.”  We then engaged in such provocative behavior as reading, playing chess, strumming a guitar, and shining shoes.  It was a playful way to undermine the caricature of gay and lesbian people as sexually debauched, providing an opportunity for passers-by to examine their own stereotypes of gay people and the ways in which our society privileges heterosexuality as normative.   Rather than mirroring the evil of that system, we offered back an image of equal dignity. 

Jesus, had a sense of humor, and was not above recommending a little light-hearted ridicule.  If the emperor is naked, we need not pretend otherwise.

Finally, “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”  Here, Jesus is directly referencing the Roman army’s practice of forced or impressed labor.  Although Roman law stipulated that a soldier could only force someone to carry his pack (probably weighing about 70 pounds) no more than one mile, it was a law that was frequently ignored.   Forced labor of this and other kinds was sometimes compelled to the point of death.

Here again, Jesus is upping the ante in a way that takes the initiative away from the enemy.  Volunteering to go a second mile forces the soldier to wonder, “Is this some kind of set-up?  Is this guy trying to get me in trouble?  Can I get away with this, or will my commander decide to punish me this time?”  The power of choice now resides with the victim of forced labor.  One can imagine an almost comical situation, with the soldier and victim arguing over who is going to carry the pack.

Bishop Cate Waynick tells the story of a parishioner in the Diocese of Indianapolis, an accountant, who was frequently pressured by clients to engage in less than scrupulous bookkeeping practices.  In thinking about how he might offer to “go the second mile” for his clients, he decided to respond to such pressure by simply saying, “I’d be happy to do this for you.  Just put your request in writing and sign your name.”   He has yet to find a client who, upon reflection, thinks that “going the second mile” is such a great idea.  This wise accountant figured out how to up the ante.[5]

These are just examples.  They are not literal commands to imitate, but rather catalysts to imaginative experimentation.  Jesus does not command us to be doormats.  He challenges us to find creative ways to up the ante.  Beyond “fight” or “flight” there is Jesus’ third way, the way of nonviolent resistance.  Walter Wink characterizes the elements of this third way as follows:

·      Seize the moral initiative
·      Find a creative alternative to violence
·      Assert your humanity and dignity as a person
·      Meet force with ridicule or humor
·      Break the cycle of humiliation
·      Refuse to submit to or accept the inferior position
·      Expose the injustice of the system
·      Take control of the power dynamic
·      Shame the oppressor into repentance
·      Stand your ground
·      Make oppressors make decisions for which they are not prepared
·      Recognize your own power
·      Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate
·      Force oppressors to see you – and themselves – in a new light
·      Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective
·      Be willing to undergo the penalty of breaking unjust laws
·      Die to fear of the unjust order and its laws
·      Seek the oppressors’ transformation[6]

These are principles informing action inspired by Jesus’ teaching and example.  They offer practical guidelines for resisting evil without mirroring it.  They provide a way for us to love our enemies even when we must oppose them.  This is what it means to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect:  not morally without error, but rather refusing to limit the scope of love.  It requires courage, discipline and creativity.  We will fail.  We will suffer.  And we will discover a power working within us that is greater than we could have asked for or imagined.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 5:39a. 
[2] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 185.
[3] Wink, p. 185-186.
[4] Romans 12:17, 21.
[6] Wink, p. 186-187.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Salt and Light

You are the salt of the earth.

You are the light of the world.

In his attempt to give expression to the profound dignity and purpose of human beings created in the image of God, Jesus makes use of the images of salt and light.  For us, salt may seem cheap and commonplace, but in the first century it was still a rare and expensive commodity.  As Nancy Rockwell reminds us, “the mining of it made empires rich while working slaves to death in Jesus’ day.  At great banquets, distinction was made between those who sat above and below the salt, a notable dish on the table.  Orthodox churches include salt in the baptismal liturgy, pouring some on the wet infant with the words, ‘May you be preserved for eternal life.’” 

When Jesus invokes the image of salt over us, he is telling us that we are precious in God’s eyes, people of great worth. 

Light, on the other hand, continues to be an evocative metaphor.  To be light is to be brilliant, illuminating everything around it.  To be light is to be that which overcomes darkness.  We light a candle and present it to the newly baptized, reminding them that they are bearers of the light of Christ. 

When Jesus invokes the image of light over us, he is telling us that we need not be ashamed of who we are, hiding in the shadows.  God sees us, and in his light we are light. 

You are salt and light.  This is a statement of identity.  It is who you are.  That is step one:  getting clear about your identity.  Remember who the “you” is that Jesus is addressing.  He is speaking to those who are poor, grieving, humble, those who hunger for and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted and reviled.  Y’all are blessed – not because of your privilege or your prestige or your precedence – but in your vulnerability, your desire, your willingness:  in short, your messy humanity.  You are salt and light.  And don’t you forget it.

Do you hear what Jesus is saying?  This is not a command:  be salt, be light – or else!  This is a description.  It is also, I think, an invitation to see ourselves as we are.  You are salt!  You are light!  You may not feel like it today.  Maybe it isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you look in the mirror.  But look again.  Look a little deeper.  So you are poor?  You are still precious.  You are grieving in the shadow of death?  Your brilliance still illuminates the room.  You’ve taken a hit for doing the right thing, you keep struggling for justice no matter the odds?  Now you’re really getting salty!  Your light is like the noonday!

My sisters and brothers, I know you are salt and light:  each and every one of you.  Most of you, more than you will ever know.  You can never be reminded enough.  Jesus said so, and I believe him.

Now, salt doesn’t try to be salt.  It just is salt.  And it is very difficult to make salt “unsalty.”  Salt is a very stable compound.  You’ve got to dilute it with a lot of water to make it lose its flavor.  For the rabbis, salt was also used as a metaphor for wisdom, and the Greek word we translate as “lose its savor” can also be rendered “become foolish.”  If we lose contact with our inner wisdom, our intuitive responsiveness to the divine impulse within us, we become foolish.  We are no longer ourselves.  

Nobody lights a lamp and then puts it under a bushel.  You set it on a lampstand so that it can illuminate the house.  Similarly, we are invited to be transparent to the divine light within us, to let it shine through us.  A light that doesn’t shine is no longer light at all.  Allow the divine light to become a dim flicker, and we are no longer ourselves. 

Salt and its quality of flavoring and preserving are not separable.  Light its quality of providing warmth and illumination are not separable.  Identity and function (or purpose) are intrinsically related.   You don’t have to become salt and light.  You already are.  It is only when we try to be something we are not that the salt loses its savor, and our light is hidden under a bushel basket.

So Jesus tells us that we just are salt and light.  But he doesn’t stop there.  It is one thing to be told you are salt and light.  It is another thing to realize it your self.  So Jesus goes on to say something that, at first blush, may sound like a complete contradiction to his earlier teaching.  “Unless you keep the whole law – and observe it even better than the religious experts (the scribes and the Pharisees) – you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Now that sounds like a command, not just a description.  It isn’t about who we are, but what we are supposed to do.  Realizing our salt and light nature, our Christ nature, requires an intentional moral and spiritual discipline. 

We can forget who are, becoming foolish and full of darkness rather than light.   It happens.  I don’t know why, but it does.  We become ensnared by other identities, burdened by the perceptions of others who don’t see us as we truly are.  We buy into the lie that we are not salt and light.  So, we need the law, the teachings and practices of our tradition to remind us.  We need some spiritual tools that prevent the dilution of the salt in us, and that remove the bushel basket obscuring the light in us. 

The paradox is that our spiritual practices are in the service of helping us realize who we already are.   Our meditation and worship and service to others don’t change us into someone else; rather, they change our perception so that we see who we are more clearly.   Once our perception becomes aligned with reality, then the salt and the light manifest their qualities without any effort on our part. 

Here, it is important to remember that spiritual practices are not ends in themselves.  Our fasts and worship, our prayers and purifications, can easily become a mere façade, another way of obscuring the salt and light in us.  This is the powerful insight of the prophet Isaiah.  It is quite possible to say our prayers, attend worship, observe fasts, and all the while oppress our workers, kill our enemies, and destroy the environment.   Even KKK rallies open and close with prayer.  The law can be used to provide a religious veneer justifying all manner of evil. 

Our spiritual practices are not magical acts.  It is quite possible to meditate for hours every day and still be a selfish and cruel.  We can use spirituality as another means in the project of bolstering self-image and willfulness.  It is quite another thing altogether to engage in the same spiritual practices with a willingness to surrender everything that obscures the salt and the light in us so that we can become transparent to God’s love. 

I think this is what Jesus means when he says that our righteousness has to exceed that of the religious experts.   The problem with the scribes and the Pharisees is that they believed there adherence to the law made them morally superior, setting them apart from others.  They were in it for themselves.  Their righteousness is in the service of the their self-image.  Our adherence to the law must be in the service of something much larger than that.  It isn’t about being good or bad, right or wrong.  It is about accepting the truth of who we are, and allowing that acceptance to manifest in humility and compassion to salt the earth and light the world.

If we are to realize our true nature as salt and light, we need to engage in an intentional spiritual practice or path to help us cleanse the lens of perception and let go of the impediments to that realization.  At the same time, we have to drop our judgments, comparisons, and evaluation.   These only serve our self-image, whether that image is positive or negative, whether we flatter ourselves or beat ourselves up.  It keeps the focus on “me” – on the image I am trying to preserve or change; rather than on the divine salt and light that seeks to manifest through “me” and, yes, sometimes even in spite of “me.” 

A priest in our diocese, Christopher Martin, has launched the Restoration Project, a renewal movement to engage in spiritual practices that help us to reclaim our identity as salt and light.  During the 40 days of Lent this year, he is inviting people to engage in the 20 + 1+ 4 challenge:  20 minutes of daily prayer and meditation, 1 hour of worship per week, 4 hours of service to people in need per month.   The purpose of these disciplines is not to set one apart as morally or spiritually superior, but rather to support for our desire to realize the salt and light in us; not for our own sakes, but for the sake of the world. 

There is an announcement in the weekly news with more information about this project and a website with supportive resources.  Think if this as an experiment in following Jesus.  If there is interest, we will form a small group or groups at St. James to support one another in this forty day experiment, to reflect together on what we learn, and to find appropriate ways to share that learning with the parish.  Together, we can discover that we are the Salt of the earth and the Light of the world.  That is what the Church is for.  Amen.