Matthew 5:38-42 – An Eye for an Eye

Non-violent resistance. Loud, poignant, effective nonviolent resistance.

FYI this is a rather swear-y post with more than one F-bomb. If that isn’t your thing, you may just want to skip this one.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

This part of the Bible always bothered me.  It bothered me that Jesus would so meekly submit to wrong-doing, and ask us to give away everything, to literally stand naked and helpless, in order to be a good Christian.  Then I heard a different interpretation of the “turn the other cheek” admonition.  I don’t remember where I originally heard it -perhaps on the History Channel years ago, but best I can re-trace it now, it seems to come from the writings of Dr. Walter Wink.  To summarize: In Jesus’ time, it was acceptable and normal to reprimand a subservient person (a wife, a slave) with a backhand slap from your right hand.  This specification is important, because one’s left hand was reserved only for unclean tasks.  So, if your master or husband slapped you across the right cheek with the back of their right hand, and you then offer them your left cheek, they either have to use their left hand to back-slap you, inherently admitting their actions are unclean and wrong, or straight up attack you with an open palmed attack.  Now, this certainly doesn’t get the slap-ee out of trouble, if anything, it invites more pain to come, but it does make the point I’m a person, damn you, pay attention!  In other words, non-violent resistance.

Nonviolent resistance is what these four verses are all about.  Another article I read pointed out the very specific examples used by Jesus are extreme illustrations.  Remember, Jesus does love hyperbole.  Perhaps these exact instances will never happen to you, but you can apply the principles in your own life.  First example: If you are being sued for your clothing, you probably are very poor and lack anything else of value.  By handing over all your clothes, standing naked in the street becomes a non-violent testament to the unfairness of the law and the hard-heartedness of the person suing you.  If you are being forced into service for one mile, walking two with the enforcer allows for one full mile of uncomfortable thought on their part.

Additionally, the translation “do not resist an evil person” is not fully agreed upon, both the literal translation and it’s meaning.  Some, like Dr. Wink, think it simply cautions us against the use of violence.  Others think it should be translated closer to something like “adopt a defensive position.”  Either way, it does not mean meek acceptance of how the world is.

Jesus is asking a lot of us in the passage.  I say that with all sincerity and gravity.  He is asking us to adhere to nonviolence, yes, but definitely not meekness.  He is asking us the very opposite.  He is asking us to put our instinct of self-preservation aside, and to stand up to the wrongs we face.  Look your accuser in the eye, and make them pay some fucking attention.  This is scary, and can result in very real physical harm.  Just think of all the Civil Rights protesters who were water cannoned, attacked by dogs, and harassed by Klansman.  Think of all the women who have had acid thrown on them for their audacity to say no to a suitor or report their rape.

Thank God we haven’t had anything that terrifying happen to us, but recently, Chris and I got a small taste of what it’s like to be the subject of someone’s maleficence.  Someone, we don’t know who, filed a bogus Worker’s Comp claim on us.  There are militant vegans who are opposed to animal husbandry in general with whom Chris has exchanged words.  There are a bunch of Good Old Boys who Chris has pissed off in his writings about race and what it means to be a farmer and black.  And who knows who else we have pissed off being an inter-racial, inter-faith couple with loud opinions.  So take your pick.  Chris had to go to court and prove that we are not a multi-state business employing over two dozen people (we just got our first employee, other than ourselves, last year, and we’re definitely only farming in Virginia).  And it was scary.  We didn’t know what we were up against.  Turns out some jackass just turned in a bunch of pictures of people from our own social media, including a picture of Chris’ grandfather on a tractor taken long before Chris was even born, citing him as an “employee.”  So it got thrown out.  But when I called my mom to tell her about the outcome, she asked if we were going to be more careful about what we put out on social media.  Fuck no, we’re not going to be more careful about what we put out on social media!  Ok, I didn’t swear at my mom, but I just get so angry thinking that someone was trying to scare us into silence.  To whatever fuckface tried to that, guess what: We’re going to keep at it.  You might be able to wound us, you might even find a way to shut down the farm completely, but you’ll never stop us.  We have the safety net of family, careers we could fall back into should farming fail, entrepreneurial spirits and just enough recklessness and faith to keep up our nonviolent resistance to the bitter end.

What injustices do you see in the world that you can stand up to?  That’s a huge question.  But it is one that Jesus asks of us.  If you need to work up your courage, I suggest reading my post about pluralistic ignorance (how more people than you think privately disagree with an idea or situation, but lack the courage to speak up about it). That post also has four ways you can act against injustice without speaking, if confrontation scares you shitless.  But the point is to act.  Do not sit meekly by. Wherever and whenever you are able, it is our duty, if we proclaim to be Christian, to resist the injustices we see in this world.  So get out there.  Resist.

Matthew 5:13-16 – Salt and Light

A call to help others fully realize their own best selves.

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

In other words, we are to bring flavor and brightness to the world.  It’s not exactly “let your freak flag fly,” but I do think Jesus would appreciate the diversity of people in the world fully expressing themselves.  Can’t you just imagine Jesus hanging out at the local library for Drag Queen Story Hour, blessing all the children and those spreading love and acceptance?

But life isn’t one big Mardi Gras parade.  While I truly believe this passage is saying to not hide your light but to let it shine; to bring your own unique flavor to the world – this passage calls us to go far beyond just personal self expression.  It calls us to help others to fully realize their own best selves, too.  This can mean lots of things, but most of all it means activism.  It means supporting girls’ and womens’ education in places where they are not currently given those opportunities.  It means allowing refugees easier access to our country, so they can escape oppression and make safer and better lives for themselves.  It means Autism Acceptance, an Autistic-led movement to counter basic awareness, that allows for full expression of Autistic behavior (in a safe way) and participation in society.  Maybe it even means Universal Basic Income – a concept I’ll admit I have not researched much but one that does hold immediate appeal.

Yes, go be that City on the Hill.  Stand up for what you believe in, especially if you are in a place of privilege – because for many, it is too dangerous for them to go to school, express their love, or even just walk down the street.  We all need to work together to make this world as bright and flavorful as it can be.

Job 12 – A Warning to Those at Ease

“Those who are at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.”

Then Job replied:

“Doubtless you are the only people who matter,
    and wisdom will die with you!
But I have a mind as well as you;
    I am not inferior to you.
    Who does not know all these things?

“I have become a laughingstock to my friends,
    though I called on God and he answered—
    a mere laughingstock, though righteous and blameless!
Those who are at ease have contempt for misfortune
    as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.
The tents of marauders are undisturbed,
    and those who provoke God are secure—
    those God has in his hand.

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
    or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
    or let the fish in the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know
    that the hand of the Lord has done this?
10 In his hand is the life of every creature
    and the breath of all mankind.
11 Does not the ear test words
    as the tongue tastes food?
12 Is not wisdom found among the aged?
    Does not long life bring understanding?

13 “To God belong wisdom and power;
    counsel and understanding are his.
14 What he tears down cannot be rebuilt;
    those he imprisons cannot be released.
15 If he holds back the waters, there is drought;
    if he lets them loose, they devastate the land.
16 To him belong strength and insight;
    both deceived and deceiver are his.
17 He leads rulers away stripped
    and makes fools of judges.
18 He takes off the shackles put on by kings
    and ties a loincloth around their waist.
19 He leads priests away stripped
    and overthrows officials long established.
20 He silences the lips of trusted advisers
    and takes away the discernment of elders.
21 He pours contempt on nobles
    and disarms the mighty.
22 He reveals the deep things of darkness
    and brings utter darkness into the light.
23 He makes nations great, and destroys them;
    he enlarges nations, and disperses them.
24 He deprives the leaders of the earth of their reason;
    he makes them wander in a trackless waste.
25 They grope in darkness with no light;
    he makes them stagger like drunkards.

The Bible is full of warnings for the “big guy” to get their act right.  One of my favorites is in Isaiah chapter 32, his warning to “complacent women.” Basically all of the prophets warn for those in power to stop being so corrupt and turn back to God.  And it’s a warning that still needs to be heard today.

In this warning, Job once again gives voice to the downtrodden the world over.  “I am not inferior to you,” Job tells his friends in v. 3 (and again at the beginning of the next chapter).  And I think v. 5 might be my favorite line of this whole book so far, where Job calls them out on their sanctimonious bullshit: “Those at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.”  Basically, “you don’t know what it’s like, I’m over here drowning and you’re trying to offer me swim lessons. Throw me a freaking life saver!”

The whole second half of this chapter can be read as a warning to Job’s friends, who are a stand-in for people in power just as Job is a stand-in for the downtrodden.  “To God belongs wisdom and power,” (v. 13) Job declares – something his friends have been quoting at him the whole time.  But the difference is they were using it to try and suppress Job while upholding their own righteousness, while Job is reminding them – and us – that even our own righteousness is not enough to stand up to God.  “He leads priests away stripped and overthrows men long established, He silences the lips of trusted advisers and takes away discernment of elders [v. 19-20]….He makes nations great, and destroys them [v. 23].”  This is one big reminder that even those who have the appearance of power and security, like Job’s friends, are not immune to correction from God.

I feel I am blessed, because I stand between two worlds: a world of privilege and a world of need.  I am white, cis-gender, able-bodied, and middle class.  I am also female, the mother of a special-needs child with crap insurance (goodbye, $700 every time we go to the developmental pediatrician), and a farmer whose livelihood is directly tied to the vagaries of climate change, predators, and agricultural policy.  So while I have certain comforts–certain privileges, if you will, I never feel fully secure.  Why is this a blessing? Because it helps me to remember others in need, just as Paul’s affliction kept him grounded in reality. (You can read about Paul’s thorn in his side, as he calls it, in 2 Corinthians chapter 12.)  It is easy for me to identify with people who are suffering.  Are you struggling to pay your medical bills? I feel you – reference my developmental pediatrician statement above.  Are you struggling with a condition some people don’t even recognize – such as an “invisible” disease like MS or fibromyalgia or a little-heard of (and therefore dismissed) disorder like Executive Dysfunction?  Again, I feel you – even nowadays not everyone recognizes that Autism is a real thing.  I found a hateful blog post recently where someone claimed individuals with ASD are “retards” who are “possessed by the devil” because their parents are sinners. I just pray that man never has any grandchildren who get diagnosed and have to suffer though his vitriol.  Even being in a interracial marriage has helped me be more empathetic.  It is one of the main reasons I’m such an avid supporter of gay marriage.  Not that long ago – I’m talking 1967, when my dad was a teenager and Chris’ dad was already in his mid-twenties, interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia.  (They even made a movie about it.)  If two people care for each other, want to build a life and a family together, want to spread love in this world that so desperately needs it, why would we stop it? To borrow Job’s words, they are not inferior to me, and I will not have contempt for their misfortune.

I’ve talked about examining your privilege before, but I’m going to mention it again, because Lent is a great time to do it, and it’s actually a great practice in gratitude, too.  Think about all the things you’re grateful for.  Some examples could be good health, your family, or a new job. And then, just think about those who lack that particular blessing.  Counterpoint examples could be those suffering poor health or mental illness, children of all ages in the foster care system, and those struggling with unemployment.  None of these seem particularly controversial on the surface, but dig a little deeper and our society often has contempt for these groups:  I can’t afford insurance that would cover mental health services for my (otherwise healthy!!!) daughter with ASD.  Funding is being cut for Health and Human Services, the government agency responsible for the Administration of Children and Families, Head Start programs, and TANF (all which benefit foster children and children in at-risk situations).  The stigma against unemployed people has been documented in a controlled study by UCLA.  None of these are actions of love, but actions of contempt.

I get it, not everyone is going to be a social justice warrior.  Some just don’t have the time or inclination, but that doesn’t make them bad people.  There are lots of legitimate reasons a person may not be active in implementing change: raising a family, starting a business, caring for a sick loved one, struggling to make ends meet themselves.  But even little actions make a difference.  What if everyone made just one (more) phone call to their representatives about an issue that they heard on the news?  What if everyone donated just $10 (more) to a charity of their choice? What if everyone bought one less thing made of plastic, or one more thing from a female entrepreneur?  I don’t know what would happen, but I bet it would be good.  So today I’m challenging you to do a little more to make a difference. I know it’s hard, with everyone and everything asking “more” of us, but like I said, the steps can be little to start.  I’d love to hear what little steps you’re taking to make the world a better place, perhaps you might inspire someone else to do the same thing.  Above all else today, let us not have contempt for other’s misfortune, for they are not inferior to us.  Let us not be too at ease, for then we ourselves are at risk of the greater misfortune of God’s displeasure.  We have the chance to be agents of God’s love for all mankind – let’s take it.