- At the Desert Retreat House -
The other day I had a lengthy conversation with a friend of mine who was having an especially difficult time understanding one of the more challenging teachings of Jesus:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’
But I say to you love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you.
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
In light of all that has been happening in this country over the past year, my friend was finding it hard to accept this particular teaching. He told me that he has been infuriated over what he sees going in in this nation –a rising tide of hatred, bigotry and prejudice that has been so prevalent in the past few months. He asked, “Does Jesus really expect us to turn the other cheek in light of all this? Shouldn’t we be resisting the haters, fighting against the bigotry? Does Jesus really expect us to be little more than ‘wimpy’ doormats allowing others to step all over us?”
I told my friend that I don’t think the teaching about “turning the other cheek” has anything to do with being a doormat to be stepped on in life. Actually this teaching is about letting go of the desire for vengeance and retribution, it’s a teaching about “going higher” when others “go lower;” and, in fact, it offers some very practical advice for resisting evil and standing up to prejudice and hatred
I am reminded of the story of Nelson Mandela as he languished in a South African prison, put there because of his resistance to the oppression of “apartheid.” In his journal, Mandela wrote of how he hated his cruel, “white” guards who had deprived him of his freedom and kept him captive. He dreamed of getting revenge against them, getting hold of a gun and shooting them all to death.
Then one day Mr. Mandela realized that his hatred and his desire for retribution was keeping him captive more than the prison cell to which he was confined. So he released his desire for revenge, he “turned the other cheek,” and his spirit was set free.
While in prison, Mandela wrote:
Resentment is like drinking poison
and hoping it will kill your enemies.
Nelson Mandela began to “pray for those who persecuted him” and discovered that he could “love his enemies” even if he didn’t particularly like them and even if he resisted what they stood for. In the end, “love” was ultimately the victor.
Today we live in a culture and a country where other people are either our “friends” or our “enemies” and those who are perceived as enemies need to be obliterated, crushed and destroyed. As I see it, this is “dead-end” thinking because no one ever wins when everyone is dragged down to wrestle in the mud.
This reminds me of another story:
Like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. was also vilified, beaten and imprisoned because of his resistance during the struggle for civil rights in this country. But Dr. King was indeed a follower of the Way of Jesus and so he knew what it might mean to pray for his persecutors, love an enemy and turn the other cheek. He knew that revenge was poison for the soul and that when you respond to hatred with more hatred you only make the hatred grow.
From his prison cell Dr. King wrote:
Hate cannot drive our hate, only love can do that.
There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.
When we discover this truth we are less prone to hate our enemies.
As I see it, this is wise and profound advice for all of us who live in our own times when you are either an enemy or a friend. Now more than ever, this may be a good time to lean what it means to “turn the other cheek.”