The Grace of Perfection
Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48
38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The grace of perfection
I desperately don't want to believe in pacifism. But the more I study the teachings and practice of Jesus the more convinced I am that if you start with a blank page and build the arguments solely from the teachings and practice of Jesus it reliably points to an absolute pronunciation of violence.
So writes one contributor to the preaching discussion group in which I participate. He concludes,
It seems to me that Jesus says that if we all do things God's way, we might all end up crucified. I think that's precisely why we struggle to accept his call and follow him on this.
Where we start in our consideration of violence will profoundly affect our understanding, and the way we respond in practical living. This is unavoidable. The best we can do, is to be aware of what shapes and drives us. Here am I, as an example:
I grew up amongst privileged white farmers who did not need political action, because they'd had 23 years of government by their own party, courtesy of a gerrymander that gave more value to the votes of farmers and land owners. (South Australia)
My people didn't have to protest. Protest of any kind, beyond letters to an MP, was wrong, and almost communist! Despite its often suffocating conservatism, the country of my childhood appeared remarkably benign, compared to the images of Russia and China to which we are exposed. We were taught community service, not activism; the idea that you would critique the community, much less engage in civil disobedience, was alien.
So I am one of those "small l liberal" Australians who have been blindsided and appalled by the rise of neoliberalism. I am ill prepared; programmed to acquiesce to government, not resist it.
If I will not own this background, then I will comfortably criticise Christian activism and resistance. And I will all too easily give in to evil.
And then there is my individual personal experience. My personal experience— my driving trauma, if you like— is one of violence and abuse. I am hyper-defensive. I have the short fuse: I call the police way earlier than most ministers with a disturbance in the church, because I cannot trust my response. As a child, I lived a daily struggle to survive. And this was in an environment where fighting back was punished with overkill from all directions; from the bullies, the teachers, and the parents. That lifetime of repression means any regression under stress, on my part, will let loose an unpredictable apocalypse of resent-full violence. The off button doesn't exist.
I once emptied the remaining six rounds of a magazine into an already dead attacker, and then kept pulling the empty trigger. I shake as I write this. I fear it would be no different if the attacker were a person.
If I will not own this background, I will always want to justify my own violence. I will be driven to it.
From this beginning, I am, of course, easily persuaded that violence is the key failing of our human culture—cue René Girard. Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount by saying murder is only the symptom; the cause is anger.
I could now excuse myself. I could say: "There are reasons I am not part of Love Makes A Way, and its nonviolent sit-ins. Not only is there my deep seated discomfort with overt political action, but, more importantly, I do not trust myself. I am a danger to all for which these people sit."
But I am more deeply driven than that. While all the above is all true, political action terrifies me because, like compassion, it puts me at risk. It makes me vulnerable. It brings me to the attention of the powers, and I am afraid to die.
Yes, I have come to some peace about my inevitable dying. I can domesticate death with imaginings of dying in palliative care. I can skip through it quickly via a road train trying to scare me and miscalculating. I can imagine— even sometimes welcome, given the pain and complexity of life—lying beside some outback highway, and dying with some peace during an overnight ride. That's preferable to the hospital fantasy, but still just romanticism.
In reality, I am afraid to die. And nonviolent action opens me up to— sits me down in front of— the bullies who in their innocent scapegoating at school, were trying to kill me so they wouldn't die. That's the deep root of our scapegoating, even as children, and even if it's not usually carried to its physical conclusion. (But see here. Or put " school boy 13 driven to suicide" into Google.)
If I will not own this, I will always be unable to go beyond a certain point in confronting my violence, and always unable to go beyond a certain point in my answering the call of Jesus, because I am afraid of my death.
Which brings me back to our preaching list's discussion of pacifism and violence.
It always seems to me that if we start with the notion that some violence is acceptable or necessary— if we say violence in some circumstances is justified— then we will predetermine some of our outcomes. In fact, I fear I observe a correlation between colleagues who justify limited violence, and colleagues who are slower to criticise domestic violence, less willing to repeal draconian sentencing, and less willing to confront the violence of racial prejudice, or admit the violence of gender prejudice. Or am I merely projecting upon them? I know that just as much as I have abandoned— very reluctantly— the justification of limited violence, just so much have these other issues become more urgent, and, in fact, faith imperatives.
"But violence is real!" cries one of my inner voices. "What are you going to do? Die?"
Yes, violence is real. But it is not justified. Violence is failure. Pacifism knows it will fail. But a starting point of limited and justified violence, plays God. It pretends to a god-like discernment of how much of the key impediment to our humanity— violence—is nonetheless permitted. On another subject, one of the old commentaries says, "though prudence itself may require it… toleration … raises itself insensibly into permission, and permission soon sets up for command."
We cannot limit or control violence if we justify it. It will control us. Violence is simply failure; failure which, in the grace of God, will be forgiven, but still always failure.
"What are you going to do? Die!?" said the voice. Yes, perhaps I will die at the hands of another. Walter Wink said somewhere that life is spent dodging between the powers. I think that sometimes there is nowhere left to dodge.
This reflection has been shaped, in part, by the gospel reading for this week. This is how it reads to me:
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you …'" Jesus is again pointing us to the deeper implications of the law, not abolishing it. (Matt 5:17-20) An eye for an eye was not the justification of violence. It was the limiting of violence: You shall take no more than an eye in payment for an eye. It was the interruption of the cycle of revenge, not the sanctioning of violence.
To go deeper, says Jesus, do not resist violence with violence. Violence cannot heal violence. How can Satan cast out Satan?
Definitions are important here: we can read this as an injunction to be absolutely spineless. Jesus is not saying that; he was legendary for his straight speaking.
(We can be violent with words. I notice that the more I was inclined to justify some physical violence, the more I did violence with my words.)
For me, the interpretive key to Matthew 5:38-42, lies in a terrifying, and deliberate, literary pattern.
If Jesus speaks of eschewing violence and not resisting evil, of being slapped, of having one's clothes taken, and of been compelled to serve the Romans, the conclusion to his own life makes his words concrete: he eschews violence (26.51-4), he does not resist evil (26.36-56; 21.12-14); he is struck (26.67); he has his garments taken (27.28, 35); and his cross is carried by one requisitioned by Roman order (27.52). (Davies and Alison Matthew: A Shorter Commentary, pp83.)
This is the Jesus we are called to follow. To crucifixion.
But this is not spineless submission. It is, in fact, a clear denunciation, and a thorough-going resistance to the powers which are opposed to the Kingdom of Heaven.
It works like this:
We have recently observed the cringe-inducing sledging of the Leader of the Opposition as a "'simpering sycophant' and a 'parasite' who yearns for his own harbour side mansion." (Here) This came from our silvertail prime minister, who we might once have derided as nouveau riche. Great hilarity greeted this attack on one side of house: Shorten is trying to be one of us! Nothing will come of it, beyond more shouting, because Opposition Leader Shorten is playing the game.
Consider those who don't play the game. (The quotation is lengthy, but critical for understanding Matthew at this point.)
I had been struggling with the passage in Matthew 5:39–41 that runs, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” That little word, “right,” where did it come from? I had never noticed it before. Since adopting the Socratic method of teaching back during my field work in Harlem, I naturally asked the class I was teaching at the time what that little word, “right,” was doing there. Nobody had a clue, the teacher included. It was the clue! In a moment of inspiration I suggested that a couple of people get up and role-play the text. Two volunteered. “Now,” I began, “face off. Which of you will be the hitter, which the ‘hittee’?” That settled, I said to the hitter, “How will you strike your opponent?” He made a fist and faked a blow with his right hand. But someone objected: the text doesn’t say right fist, but right cheek. To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. Another student chimed in. The only way one could strike the right cheek would be with the back of the right hand.
I spent the weekend studying backhand blows, and brought my results to class. “What we are dealing with here is unmistakably an insult, not a fistfight. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her ‘place.’ ” I had learned that one normally did not strike a peer, and if he or she did the fine was exorbitant. A backhand slap, then, was the normal way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which fighting back and retaliating would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering in submission.
This realization opened a floodgate for all sorts of new insights. It became important to ask who Jesus’s audience is. Jesus’s listeners are not those who strike, but their victims (“If anyone strikes you”). There were, among his followers, people who were subjected to these very indignities and forced to stifle their inner outrage. These were people who suffered dehumanizing treatment meted out to them by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and as a result of imperial occupation. Why then does Jesus counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek?
And it clicked: Because the action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying: “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.”
Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, what can he do? He cannot use the backhand because the slave’s nose is in the way. He cannot use his left hand regardless. If he hits with his fist, he makes himself an equal, acknowledging the other as a peer. The whole point of the back of the hand is to reinforce the caste system and its institutionalized inequality. Even if he orders the person flogged, the point has been irrevocably made. The oppressor has been forced, against his will, to regard this subordinate as an equal human being. The powerful person has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. This response, far from admonishing passivity and cowardice, is an act of defiance. How far this is from the passive reaction taught by the churches! (Walter Wink, Jesus: My Struggle to become Human pp65 Also quoted, in part, here)
Here, insouciant resistance has not tried to join the silvertails; it has defeated them! It is more powerful than the violence. It shines light on the situation, clearly showing up the abuse.
If we doubt this is what is happening with non-violent protest, why does the American government send to Standing Rock "militarised police and National Guard troops [with] weaponry [that] makes them look like our troops on the ground in Afghanistan."
And why are the politicians and the right wing media here in Australia so infuriated by the Love Makes a Way sit-ins?
It's for the same reason: such powerless nonviolence shines the light of the only true Power into our situation. It exposes truth. It does not play the game. Shorten can be laughed at; Love Makes a Way is a real danger, as are the protesters at Standing Rock.
But this response might cost us our lives. If Jesus had hit back, he may have escaped with a beating, because, by hitting back, he would have been playing the game.
Yet God still lets the sun shine upon the abusers and upon the servants of the powers: love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. This will make you complete. (Matt 5:48)
That difficult word perfect (teleos) which holds more emphasis on completeness than our modern sense of without fault, might be translated as "fully human even as your father in heaven is fully human." See Walter Wink here, in the footnotes, or in Jesus: My Struggle to become Human, pp102.)
When we eschew anger, when we reconcile instead of divorce, when we simply speak truth, and when we reject violence, we will be made complete. As Davies and Allison point out,
Jesus asks disciples to act on principle without attention to the consequences. There is no hope of getting this for that, kindness for kindness. Nothing is said about breaking the cycle of revenge, or about bringing the enemy into the folds of the faith. [although] this may happen from time to time. Ibid pp85
Jesus simply calls us to being perfect as God is perfect; to being made complete. There is a call here to a trust in God's being and character, which exceeds the imagination of we who are activists bent on creating some shadow of the kingdom, and a call here to a faith which mocks the piety of we who think we can be right in our understanding and speaking of God.
The perfection of grace lies not in a perfect understanding of what Jesus said and meant, nor in some perfect doing. It is found in a complete giving of ourselves to what we hear him asking of us at this moment, and constantly relearning what that giving demands of us. Such giving lets us out of the shallowness of our idolatrous denials, and such giving frees us from the depths of our fears. Such giving completes us as human beings. Even if death interrupts our plans for the journey.
Andrew Prior (2017)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
With thanks to Greg, Kathy, and Nathan.