Does Forgiveness Require Me to Be a Victim?

Part 5 of the series “Questions of Faith
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
October 16, 2011
Proverbs 25:21-22; Matthew 5:38-48

Image courtesy of wordle.net

Proverbs 25:21–22 • If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the LORD will reward you.

Matthew 5:38–48 • “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; 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.

“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, so 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I. BEGINNING

Nobody likes being pushed around.  Nobody.  It’s why bullies are so terrifying.  These tyrants who terrorize others into doing their will.  Who abuse, manipulate, and threaten others into submission.  We all know that there’s only one response to a bully or a tyrant or someone who’s hurt you: a taste of their own medicine.

We all know that the strong respect only those who are stronger.  A bully backs down when you demonstrate a willingness, even an eagerness, to fight.  Standing up for yourself.  Resisting. Fighting back.  We understand how that works and we admire those who do it.

Think of how many movies are about resistance to oppression.  And how many of them involve blowing things up.  We can watch a film like Schindler’s List and feel the agony and the horror of the persecution and suffering of the Holocaust.  But when we watch a movie like Defiance starring Daniel Craig about Jewish partisans in Poland during World War II, we get a whole different level of emotional satisfaction watching the Jews fight back against the Nazis.  We may admire films like Gandhi and the portrayal of nonviolent resistance in it, but we really like it more when Sean Connery says in The Untouchables, “When he draws a knife, you draw a gun. If he puts one of your men in the hospital, you put two of his in the morgue.  That’s the Chicago way.”  We like that.  Standing up to the bad guy.  Telling him what’s what.

II. THE TEXT

So when we come to the Gospel lesson we begin to wonder whether Jesus has lost his mind.

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; 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.

We might agree that ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ is a bit much, but “Do not resist an evildoer?”  What?  Isn’t the whole point of being on God’s side resisting evil?  And then it gets worse.

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  So, I’m just supposed to stand there and take abuse?  Just let them use me for a punching bag?  Jesus, this doesn’t sound very promising.

Illustration by Kathleen Kimball.

“If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”  Let me get this straight—since I’m a lawyer and I’m having a hard time with this one—I get sued for my coat and not only do I not fight the suit for my coat but I give the plaintiff my shirt as well?  If I’d ever advocated that strategy to a client, I’d have been disbarred.

“And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” This one is just madness.  Someone makes me go a mile for some reason, and I volunteer to go a second mile all by myself?  You can’t even get most people to go a second mile when it means better cardio-vascular health.  What is this nonsense?

III. THE PROBLEM

This is the reason that critics of the Christian faith like Nietzsche felt that Christianity was a “religion of pity” and that the Christian was “a soldier, a judge, and a patriot who knows nothing against non-resistance to evil” [1].  Christianity is soft, taking Jesus’ ethical teachings and turning them into a code of morality that produces docile people who accept the status quo.

Indeed, Christians have seen their own faith that way.  The white slaveholding Christians in America evangelized their slaves to Christianity, not out of any concern for their eternal soul, but because they believed that religion would make them more submissive.  That the promises of reward in heaven for dutiful suffering and obedience in the here and now would help make a more servile population and stave off any notions of revolt.

Christianity, then, is seen as a way to quash resistance.  Indeed, when you have to forgive those who persecute you, when you have to turn the other cheek, when you have to give away clothing unjustly taken from you, and go an extra mile, and to forgive those who do wrong against you, it is hard to imagine the religion as anything else.  It certainly seems like Christian faith is instructing us on the way to be victims for God.

Charles Wesley even wrote a hymn called “Victim Divine” perhaps reminding us that our master was himself a victim, and calls us to take up our crosses and be victims, too.  We are, apparently, to be doormats, walked over.  Repeatedly stricken across the cheek, robbed of what is ours. Forgiving those who have wronged us. We are not to resist an evildoer, our lot is not to be victor, but victims.

IV. THE POINT OF RESISTANCE

Christianity does not seem to be about resistance. Unless, of course, we understand resistance all wrong.  It wouldn’t be the first time.

Writer and emergent church theologian Peter Rollins points out that so very often, what we imagine to be the points of resistance are the very things that are required to keep the oppressive systems going.  He notes that we think we’re getting away with something when we talk about our boss behind his back, but don’t realize that as long as we show up from 9 to 5 and do what our boss wants, we haven’t actually resisted anything.  (This is, by the way, why the movie Office Space is so brilliant, because the main character does so much more than that.)  He notes that driving 5-10 miles over the speed limit is never punished because that way everyone can feel like they’re resisting the system, but are in fact conforming to it.

But by far, the best example Rollins’ gives of misunderstanding the point of resistance is Batman.  He points out that Batman puts on his rubber suit, goes out on the weekends, and beats up criminals, trying to make Gotham City a safer city.  In his daily life, Batman is Bruce Wayne, the president and CEO of Wayne Enterprises, a corporation that makes so much money, that Wayne is allowed to wage this private, high-tech military campaign against crime, and no one even notices the money trail, so vast are Wayne Enterprises’ holdings.  Rollins asks: “Does he not realize that corporations like Wayne Enterprises, that make so much money without regard for anyone else, are the reason that there are criminals in the first place? Does Batman not see that Monday to Friday he is contributing to the very problem that he is attempting to remedy on the weekend?”

The church is doing the same thing.  We think that resistance consists of fighting back, of forceful, perhaps even violent response, and we have embarrassment about that because we are told we have to submit.  But what if fighting back isn’t resisting?  What if it’s actually helping to prop up the very system that we say we’re opposing?

I think that’s exactly Jesus’ point. When Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer” he is speaking more to the point of resistance than the resistance itself.  And it turns out that Jesus was not telling his disciples to be passive, as is often supposed; he was telling them to overturn the very system itself by changing the balance of power.

IV. THE TEXT RECONSIDERED

See, there are a few things that often go unnoticed in Jesus’ teachings because we are removed from the time and culture by two millennia and thousands of miles. [2]

In the ancient world, to be slapped across the face by the back of the hand is a dismissive way of being slapped.  It is the way masters slap slaves, superiors slap subordinates. When a person has been struck on the right cheek, it is by the back of the hand that they would have been hit.  But if that person turns and offers the other cheek, the left cheek, the only way that a person can strike you is with the front of the hand, an open handed slap, which is the slap of an equal.  By turning the other cheek, you do not submit to further abuse.  You demand that your attacker treat you with dignity as an equal.

This is resistance in a way so much more powerful than responding with violence or resisting in the normal way.  Resisting through force merely validates the entire system of domination through physical control.  If you are successful, all you will have done is demonstrated that you were the superior after all.  The one who has the right to do the striking.

But turning the other cheek rejects the legitimacy of the entire system.  It declares your humanity and demands respect and equal treatment.  It challenges the very assumptions the system was built on.

In the same way, to cause someone to be naked was a shameful act.  It was shameful to bring about someone else’s humiliation in that way.  And so, if I am able to take someone’s coat and they hand me their cloak as well, suddenly I am the one in the shameful position.  I have made another person naked.  In fact, looming in the background is the injunctions of Exodus 22 that prevent me from taking a person’s cloak overnight, because what else will that person have to sleep in?  The tables are turned again, in a way so much more profound than resisting in the traditional method: fighting to retain possession of the coat, which merely props up the very system that seeks to determine who possesses what.

Under Roman Law, a Roman soldier was allowed to make one of the locals carry his pack for a mile.  It was impermissible to make someone carry your pack two miles.  Jesus’ instructions here, suddenly do not seem so  counterintuitive and actually create a bizarre and comical scene: a Roman soldier tells someone to carry his pack for a mile.  At the end of the mile, the person, rather than drop the pack, continues to carry it.  Suddenly, the Roman is in trouble, he’s breaking the law.  He runs alongside the poor man carrying the pack, begging him to  drop the pack.

Rather than “resist” through force or violence, the person impressed into carrying has done the impossible: he has claimed power over his persecutor.  He has turned the tables in a way far greater than any futile effort at physical resistance to the Romans could ever be.  It does not feed into a system of oppressor and oppressed, of force and domination.  It turns that system on its head by changing the very rules of engagement.  It claims power.  I think this is what the author of Proverbs means by “heaping burning coals” on the heads of one’s enemies.

For in the end, that’s what forgiveness is: power.  Far from being the tactic resorted to by the powerless, forgiveness when exercised claims power.

The original definition of forgiveness was as an economic term: the forgiveness of a debt.  (That’s the kind of forgiveness that many of us would like to see more of these days.)  When we think of it in those terms, we realize that forgiveness can only be done by those who have power.   In the case of a debt, who has more power, the debtor or the creditor?  The creditor, of course, and yet it is the creditor who does the forgiving.  To forgive a debt is not to pretend the debt never happened; it is to act graciously in spite of that debt.

Certainly this is true in God’s case.  Is there anything that we could do to force God to forgive us?  No, of course not.  God forgives because God has all the power and God chooses to forgive.

VI. END

And so it is with us.

We do not forgive because we are weak or because we have no choice.  We forgive because we are strong.  We forgive because we refuse to let others define us.  If someone uses force against us, they want to define the terms of our engagement and define who we are.  We refuse to allow them to do that, when we forgive instead.  When someone is emotionally manipulative or hurtful, they want us to try to engage on their level, to try to be as manipulative as they are.  When we forgive, we refuse to be defined in that way.

When others commit wrongs against us, sometimes the pain of that wrong is so deep that we carry it with us for a long time.  A grudge. A vendetta.  It becomes a millstone around our necks.  Forgiveness is refusing to carry the burden that someone else has placed upon us.  It is refusing to allow our lives to be determined by someone else’s misconduct.

Forgiveness is not denying that the wrong occurred. And there may be consequences, and often should be, for hurtful misconduct.  But forgiveness is refusing to allow yourself to be defined by that misconduct.  It is not victimhood, it is the precise opposite.  “You have done me wrong, and there will likely be consequences for you.  But I am not your victim.  I claim power over you. My life will not be defined by what you have done.  My life is already defined by the love and grace I have experienced, and the power that gives me.  And with that power, I forgive you.”

Forgiveness is not weakness.  It is power.

For in forgiveness, we demonstrate that we are not bound by the systems of the world.  We are not bound by the expectations of what response we will make.  We declare our independence from the cycles of violence, oppression, and injustice.  We focus not on the assumed “points of resistance” but on the real point of resistance, buying into the system in the first place.  We change the nature of the conversation.

And in so doing, we demonstrate our strength.  And we demonstrate that we are followers of the one who rejected violence as a response to violence.  Who rejected oppression as a response to oppression.  And in whose sacrificial love and teachings of grace, mercy, and forgiveness, invites us to participate in transformation of the world itself.

 

Notes

[1] http://facweb.stvincent.edu/academics/religiousstu/writings/rodkey2.html

[2] Many of the observations made in the following paragraphs are taken from “Jesus and Alinsky” by Walter Wink as found in Paul Rogat Loeb’s The Impossible Will Take a Little While, p. 149.

 

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