Violence in the former Yugoslavia, fueled by ancient animosities between ethnic Serbs and Croats, claimed thousands of victims during the late 1990’s. As it typical in war, many of those killed were innocent civilians. Given this tragedy and heartbreak, it was understandable when residents of one Serb village greeted NATO peacekeepers with cheers, flowers, and cries of “God bless you!” Sadly, those same people who invoked God’s blessing had, just days before, looted the homes of their Croat neighbors out of spite and retaliation.
For those of us who follow him, Jesus shows us a better way of treating those who have harmed us. He rejected the “eye for an eye” approach that people took in his day, and still do in ours. He knew that an eye for an eye mentality ultimately leaves everyone blind.
Instead, Jesus invites us to “turn the other cheek.” As Christians, evil from others shouldn’t call forth evil from us. We’re called to love when confronted with hate. We’re to insert love in those places where love seems to be absent. When our face is slapped, we’re to present the face of Jesus. Jesus’ face was slapped too. We should expect nothing less ourselves- even if we’ve been doing the right thing. “No good deed goes unpunished,” we often say. If we extend a hand in kindness, there are those who will drive a nail through it.
Sometimes, when we turn the other cheek, we might turn the other’s heart! Soft words can turn away wrath, as Scripture reminds us. As Christians, that should always be our intention and prayer. That’s not the way things always turn out, however. We can always hope that the other person will change. But at the end of the day, the only person we can really change is ourselves. We love for the sake of loving- because it’s the right thing to do- not to achieve a particular outcome. We love simply too add love to a world that can always use, and always needs, more.
Jesus’ words, however, might raise some troubling concerns in our minds. Wouldn’t following his teaching be like having a “kick me hard” sign taped to our back, inviting bullies to place a swift foot on our backsides? Doesn’t turning the other cheek invite cruel people to be crueler to us, and give those who’ve hurt us a license to hurt us even more? Won’t we become nothing more than a doormat? Why not just put a big “bull’s eye” on our chests? And what about other people? It’s one thing if it’s our cheek that’s slapped. But what if it’s a child’s cheek? Or a dear loved one’s? Would it be okay to rush and protect them? What would Jesus want us to do then?
These are essential questions to ask, and the way we answer them has important implications for how we apply Jesus’ teaching. Consider victims of domestic violence, which is sadly so widespread today. Some victims of such abuse, especially those who are married, can convince themselves that it’s their Christian duty to take it. After all, they need to turn the other check! Aren’t they suffering like Jesus himself suffered? The violence they’re subjected to, they come to believe, is their personal cross to carry.
Jesus doesn’t want his words twisted to keep a person in such bondage. Our good and loving Lord doesn’t want to perpetuate such hurt. Jesus wouldn’t condone a victim’s seeking retaliation or revenge, of course. His teaching on that is very clear. But would Jesus prevent someone from running away for help, or defending themselves? Not at all. There were times in his own life when Jesus escaped violence. People had tried to stone him or throw him off a cliff, but he managed to get away.
Yes, Jesus did endure horrible suffering. He carried a cross and insists that we who follow him carry one too. But as Jesus demonstrated in his own life, there’s a distinction to be made between what we might call “necessary suffering” and “unnecessary suffering.” Suffering is necessary when it’s required to fulfill God’s will for our lives; it springs from the loving choices we make to help others or ourselves become the people God created us to be. Unnecessary suffering, on the other hand, simply makes us victims of another’s illness or sin.
It is thoroughly consistent with our faith to protect or defend ourselves and others. When we see danger approaching, it’s okay to run, find help, put up our shields, or even draw our swords. Our Lord’s instruction to “turn the other cheek” shouldn’t turn us into a punching bag. The Church’s teaching tradition envisions circumstances in which we, or our country, may need to use force in self-defense. It’s always a tragedy and a last resort. But sometimes it needs to be done.
To the world, to take an eye for an eye makes sense. In the face of evil, and when experiencing great pain, it can seem like the only fair or just thing to do. That’s why the bad guys usually get blown up in the movies. And we often cheer when they do! But would Jesus cheer? I don’t think so. Sure, we can always rejoice when violence is brought to an end; my English mother often tells of dancing in the fountains of London’s Trafalgar Square when the Nazi surrender was announced. At the same time, love doesn’t rejoice in another’s demise or pain- regardless of how unloving that person may have been. To celebrate victory is one thing; to celebrate vengeance is another.
When the Serbian townsfolk cried “God bless you!” as peacekeepers rolled into town, that was as it should be! But had Jesus been there, he would have insisted they extend that same blessing to their enemies, instead of holding curses in their hearts. Jesus invites us to do the same. We have received God’s blessing. And we’re to share that blessing with all. Even those who would never bless us.
Readings for today’s Mass: http://www.usccb.org/nab/022011.shtml