Peace Presbyterian Church
Matthew 5:38-48 After Epiphany
Elizabeth M. Deibert 19 February 2017
Last Sunday we heard the challenge of making apologies that count, as we read that we should not make our offerings to God, without first making peace with the one who has something against us. So that was instruction about what to do when you were in the wrong or even perceived as being in the wrong. But what if you are the one being mistreated? What if the other person is on the offensive? What if you find yourself in a powerless position against evil? What then? Yesterday Richard, Peg, and I spent the morning with the good folks of the NAACP. Many of them at least my age, they can probably answer that question better than I. For so many who have grown up in this country with darker skin, it was imperative to learn at a young age, how to respond respectfully enough to disrupt the meanness that came with the implicit bias and suspicion, based in systemic racism.
My mother taught me one way to disrupt meanness. In 1968, she was one of just a couple of white teachers who went to the all-Black schools to begin the process of desegregation. In the spring-time of that year, after learning that her kindergarten children who lived one hour from the ocean, had never seen it, she decided to plan a field trip. What she had not anticipated was the challenge of the drive on a very slow school bus. On the way home, after a couple of hours at the beach, it was natural that they should need a bathroom break. So the bus pulled up to the front of a gas station, and she asked the attendants if her children could use the bathroom. These were the days when you had to ask for a key to enter the bathrooms, which were on the back or side of the building. Unfortunately, the attendants seeing her busload of black children, said, ‘Ma’am, that’s not going to be possible.” Why? She asked, “Because our toilets are broken.” Both of them? She said. The men turned to each other and laughed. Then with a serious look, they made it clear she would have to move on. The next rural gas station, my mother told the bus driver to pull up at the back and she walked around front to ask for the key so that the children who by this time had their legs crossed tightly could get in with no one seeing. Disrupt meanness by being shrewd and out-witting those who would do you or others harm.
Let’s hear what Jesus had to say to his disciples who were likely to be mistreated by Roman soldiers along the road.
"You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. 40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42 Give to those who ask, and don't refuse those who wish to borrow from you. 43 "You have heard that it was said, you must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don't even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don't even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (CEB)
Turn the other cheek. Get them your coat too. Go extra the mile. Even if you did not grow up in church, hearing the scriptures, you’ve likely heard those phrases. Giving more than they ask, serving longer by going the extra mile, these are easier than turning the cheek. Many people through the years have struggled with this verse. Is it meant to instruct one who is being abused to stay in the abusive relationship? I think the purpose is to avoid danger in a situation where one is powerless. It is about being super-respectful and generous when someone is inclined to take advantage of their power over you. If someone is trying to hurt you, do not retaliate because they will probably do worse to you. It is a matter of self-control, diffusing the situation.
“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” (attributed to Gandhi) and nuclear warfare is not good for any of us.
But let’s take this lesson all the way down to the simplest of verbal attacks or bullying. If someone attacks you verbally, it can be very helpful to know how to defuse the tension. It is particularly crucial to know how to rise strong against such attacks, and to respond calmly. For here’s the thing: you cannot control how others treat you, but you can always control your response. Whether you are in a middle school locker room, taunted by classmates or in a workplace or meeting room, or in your own living room with arguing with someone you love, opposition usually makes you lose your cool.
Whether the other person intended to wound you or not, clearly they have struck a raw nerve in you, so the question to ask yourself is this? Why am I defensive? Am I defensive because of this person’s tone of voice, or is this an insecurity of mine?
It is clear with certain people that criticism is simply unbearable – criticism of any type, spoken with any tone of voice and with the most careful word choice. But it is equally true that secure people can handle criticism and insult without being undone by it. What I want for all of us is the ability to rise above the fray, to be unflappable.
Here are some things to remember when handling criticism or insult:
1. Pause. Stop and think. Respond, don’t react. Don’t let this be a moment for your lizard brain – fight or flight brain. Breathe. Ground your self-esteem with these inner words: I am strong. I belong. I won’t give in towrong.
2. Consider the person’s intent. Are they joking? Do they mean to do you harm? Are they trying impress someone else by attacking you? Is this just a ridiculous aim for attention, for assertion of power? Is it their insecurity, their need to feel significant? Is what they said true or false? Do they make a legitimate point but do it crassly, with no consideration?
3. Sometimes it helps to just hear the comment, acknowledge it with a nod, but say nothing. Other times, it might help to turn the cheek by saying, “Yes, you are right that I am ______” and then you say something else that is a weakness for you, but say it with confidence. So by acknowledging their point (assuming there’s some truth to their insult) you accept it but without letting it make you angry. You take the criticism, but delete its power to wound you.
4. If this is a person you trust, you might say “It is hard to hear you say…..It hurts me when you say…” But if this person is unsafe, then find someone who is safe to share.
5. This brings us back to Harriet Lerner’s book, “Why Won’t You Apologize?” in the chapter where she deals with victims and reminds us that those who have been deeply hurt should never be cajoled to get on with forgiveness. Healing and the release of harmful bitterness is a complicated process. It is not an all or nothing thing. There is a forgiveness that simply lets go of inner hatred without absolving an unapologetic offender.
The trouble with meanness is that it is a contagious disease. Meanness begets more meanness. One insult follows another, one slap follows another, one rude behavior follows another, and everyone suffers. The only way to break the cycle is to be the disrupter. Be the antibody to that disease. Inject some kindness or at least some calmness into the situation. Think of Jesus, when the soldiers came, and his disciples want to retaliate and he says, “No, and heals the soldier’s slashed-off ear.” Think of him standing there, taking it from Pilate, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He is not argumentative or defensive. He has no need to prove to Pilate he is a good and a powerful man.
Many people through the years have followed Jesus’s example in using non-violent resistance to combat evil and bring about good. It is not an easy road.
Dr. King’s notion of nonviolence had six key principles which seem to me to come directly from this passage.
First, one can resist evil without resorting to violence. Second, nonviolence seeks to win the ‘‘friendship and understanding’’ of the opponent, not to humiliate him [or her] (King, Stride, 84). Third, evil itself, not the people committing evil acts, should be opposed. Fourth, those committed to nonviolence must be willing to suffer without retaliation as suffering itself can be redemptive. Fifth, nonviolent resistance avoids ‘‘external physical violence’’ and ‘‘internal violence of spirit’’ as well: ‘‘The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his the opponent but he [or she] also refuses to hate him’’ (King, Stride, 85). The resister should be motivated by love in the sense of the Greek word agape, which means ‘‘understanding,’’ or ‘‘redeeming good will for all men’’ (King, Stride, 86). The sixth principle is that the nonviolent resister must have a ‘‘deep faith in the future,’’ stemming from the conviction that ‘‘the universe is on the side of justice’’ (King, Stride, 88).
If you know like Dr. King did that the universe is on the side of justice, if you know like Jesus did who you are and what your purpose is, then you do not need to allow yourself to be thrown off by anyone seeking to undermine you by evil means.
We are called by Jesus in this sermon to love one another more completely, some translations say, “perfectly.” Let us get on then with being channels of peace, disrupting meanness at every turn.