For almost four weeks there has been a standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Two-hundred Palestinians, including several children, government officials, and at least 30 terrorists wanted by the Israeli government, took refuge inside the church after the Israeli army entered the ancient city. The church, which has been standing since the fourth century over the place where Jesus is believed to have been born, has become a place of desperation. Conditions inside the church are abominable--food and water are running out, people sleep in shifts on the cold stone floors because there are not enough blankets to go around, and the stench of decay from the corpses of two slain Palestinian gunmen filled the basilica until this past Thursday, when they finally removed the bodies. Outside, Israeli army snipers are poised to shoot anyone who tries to escape. The Israelis demand that the Palestinians surrender, and that the accused terrorists be arrested for trial. Caught in the middle are the Greek orthodox monks and nuns who maintain the church, and who have been trying to care for the Palestinians who are trapped inside.
Who is to blame for this desperate situation? In truth, there are long-standing grievances on both sides. After a series of suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians, the Israeli government launched a military offensive into Palestinian towns and camps to root out the terrorists. In the process hundreds of Palestinians got caught in the crossfire and many were killed. For every Palestinian suicide bombing there has been an Israeli retaliation, and for every retaliation there has been another suicide bombing or terrorist attack. The cycle of escalating violence between Israelis, most of whom are Jewish, and Palestinians, most of whom are Muslim, has now been focused on one of Christianity’s holiest sites, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians feel entirely justified in their actions. This is what happens when people live by the principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth.”
Actually, that principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was a sign of progress four thousand years ago when the laws of the Old Testament were first being formed. Before the principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” most people lived by the principle of unlimited retaliation. You insult me and I will kill you; you harm a member of my family and I will wipe out your entire clan, if I can. That was unlimited retaliation. But the Old Testament introduced a new principle intended to reduce the violence. The Old Testament principle we might call “proportionate retaliation.” “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” means that I retaliate only to the extent that I have been harmed. If you poke out my eye, then I poke out your eye, nothing more. If you knock out my tooth, then I knock out your tooth, nothing more. Believe it or not, this was actually progress in resolving disputes, the principle of proportionate retaliation. The idea was to keep the cycle of violence from escalating endlessly. Of course, it seldom worked, but that was the idea.
Jesus introduced a new way of resolving disputes. Instead of retribution or revenge, Jesus introduced the idea of non-retaliation. “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth,’ but I say to you, Do not resist an evil doer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” It sounds crazy. How could anyone really do what Jesus said?
Let’s examine the illustrations Jesus gave for his principle of non-retaliation. First, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. Turn the other cheek. It’s become a common phrase in the English language. To turn the other cheek means not to retaliate, but to let some insult or minor hurt go. We’re not talking about the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon here. We’re talking about insults or minor hurts. If someone were to strike me on the right cheek, chances are that person would have to use the back of his or her hand to do so. Most people are right handed, so to strike someone on the right cheek, assuming you were facing that person, you would have to use the back of your hand to do so. It would be more of a backhanded slap than a full-force assault. Now, to have someone slap my face would not be pleasant thing. It would hurt, it would make me mad, but it would not be a grievous injury. It would be more of an insult than anything else. It would make me want to retaliate. But Jesus said that the Christian should let those insults and minor hurts pass without retaliation.
Look at the next example Jesus gave. “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well.” Clothing was pretty minimal back in Jesus’ day. Typically a person would wear an inner tunic, kind of a like a long nightshirt, and then an outer robe or garment. This saying of Jesus probably gave rise to the modern legal expression, “I’m going to sue the shirt off your back.” From a legal standpoint, in Jesus’ day, the cloak, or the outer garment, could not be taken away. Someone might sue you for your shirt, but they couldn’t sue you for your outer garment too. But with a bit of humor, Jesus uses this legal illustration to make a point. Jesus did not mean for this saying to be taken literally. He didn’t mean that the Christian should end up naked in a courtroom. Jesus was using hyperbole, exaggeration to drive home a principle. So what if someone sues you for your shirt, Jesus said. It’s really not that big a deal—give them your outer garment also. Again, we are talking about a relatively minor offense.
This past week the American Cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church were summoned to Rome to meet with the Pope to discuss the crisis of clergy sexual abuse. In many dioceses, including dioceses in Boston and New Mexico and other places, pedophile priests were moved from parish to parish and allowed to continue to molest children. I saw an interview on television with one of the victims, and the reporter asked him why he did not report the abuse when it was taking place. The man replied that he thought he was doing the right thing, he thought he was being a good Christian, by keeping silent about it. He thought he was following the principle of Jesus of non-retaliation. That line of thinking is a tragic misunderstanding of the teachings of Jesus. The sexual abuse of children is no slight insult or minor offense. Certainly, the children are not to blame for keeping silent. They were taught to keep silent. They were the victims. But those adults who knew about the abuse and who did nothing about it are to blame. Those bishops who kept reassigning pedophile priests to other parishes have a lot to answer for. To keep silence in the face of child abuse is not turning the other cheek or giving the outer cloak. That is perpetuating an evil against defenseless children. It’s one thing not to retaliate when you yourself have been insulted. But where innocent children are victimized, we must speak up and end the victimization. Justice and defending the innocent are key biblical principles. The principle of non-retaliation applies to personal insults and minor grievances, not to sexual predators.
Jesus gave a third example about going the extra mile. “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go the second mile also.” In first century Palestine, Roman soldiers could compel Jewish citizens to carry their equipment a prescribed distance, usually one mile. That’s one of the reasons why the Jews chafed under Roman occupation, and why there was a Jewish rebellion against the Romans in the first century. But Jesus said, if someone forces you to go one mile, go the second mile also. In other words, do more than the law requires. The Christian lives by a higher standard of morality. As Christians we are to love all people, even our enemies. That doesn’t mean that we like our enemies, or that we agree with what they do, or that we let them get away with whatever they want to do. But it means that we love them and that we pray for them. Obviously, that is very hard to do.
I will confess that I’m having a hard time trying to love Osama bin Laden and to pray for him and the other members of the al Qaeda terrorist network. If it were just a matter of a minor insult or a petty grievance directed at me personally, I suppose I could turn the other cheek and go the second mile. But what they did cannot be ignored. Those who committed such atrocities must be brought to justice. Otherwise, more and more innocent people will be the victims of terrorist attacks. It’s one thing to let a personal insult or offense pass by, but evil must be resisted. As someone has said, “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” Evil must be resisted. That’s what Jesus came to do—he came to resist evil. But the way that Jesus resisted evil was not through retaliation, but through doing good, and ultimately through giving his own life on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins.
I hope you can see that the ethic of Jesus is a far cry from the ethic of the Old Testament, or from our natural human instincts. The Old Testament taught proportionate retaliation, but Jesus taught no retaliation at all. Even more, Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to pray for those who would do us harm. That doesn’t mean we allow evil to triumph. Rather, it means that we conquer evil with love.
Three weeks ago our brother Wayne Price, Sr. lost his son, Wayne Price, Jr. to murder. Wayne’s son was shot and killed at his home in Salisbury, at the age of 32. He left behind an eleven year old daughter and many grieving relatives and friends. Two young men, ages 18 and 24, have been arrested and charged with the murder. On the Sunday after the funeral, Wayne Sr. was here in church, and he stood up during our concerns time and expressed appreciation for all the prayers and support and concern he and his family have received from people in our church. But then Wayne did something that none of us expected. He said that he wanted to forgive those two men who had murdered his son. He said that he was asking God to help him forgive those men who had caused his family so much pain.
Jesus said, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven in perfect.”
That sounds impossible, and in our own strength, it is impossible to be
perfect like God. But with God, all things are possible. When
we love and pray for and forgive our enemies, we do as God would do. In
that sense we do become like our Father in heaven. Turn the other
cheek, give your cloak also, go the second mile, love your enemies, be
perfect! No one ever said living the Christian life is easy.
It is a hard and narrow way, but the only way that leads to Life.
Bruce Salmon, Village Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland
April 28, 2002
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