Turning the Other Cheek (and the American Justice System)

July 17th, 2012

Yesterday, the Tuesday morning small group at my church had an interesting conversation. Is it possible or practical to follow the commands of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in this world?  Can we do it? And what barriers do we face if we try?

We were focusing on the verses about turning the other cheek, giving someone the coat off our back, and going the extra mile. All of which are non-violent means of resistance.  All of which take incredible strength to practice. All of which encourage you to treat an enemy, an oppressor, a perpetrator with kindness, gentleness, grace and love.

We all extolled these virtues and talked about how we try to practice them in our daily lives… until one gentleman raised a serious question he was currently grappling with. My friend was hit by a truck while riding his motorcycle and he lost the lower half of his right leg. And between doctors and family and lawyers, everyone is trying to figure out how to get him what he deserves in the process. His question to us: If we truly want to live like Jesus calls us to, then shouldn’t we drop all charges and refuse to sue and not focus on what we “deserve?”

How do you even begin to answer that question?  Jesus didn’t live in a time of health insurance companies.  There are real financial burdens involved with the medical care that he has and will continue to need.  My first inclination was to respond that within the system we live in, we need to ask how can I act in the most Christ-like and compassionate manner… but I found myself hesitant to say that we should subvert the process entirely.  I realized that we tend to ask fairness and justice questions rather than thinking about mercy questions.

In fact, later in the conversation, when asked what we would do if we were robbed, our first responses were to call the police. We instinctively favor what is “right.”

Our society has built into it all sorts of structures that prevent us from living out the Jesus ethic.  Yes, they provide stability and a process to follow when we are wronged, but they also immediately seperate us from one another.  They incorporate a third party that will act and decide so that we don’t have to deal with the mess of real relationships.  That is not to say that life in our system is not messy… because it is.  And yet, by using the system, we take ourselves out of the equation.  By preventing abuses of revenge and retribution, we also have prevented forgiveness and mercy to have a say.

Perhaps one way to navigate the problem is to try to act as Christ-like as possible in the midst of the structure. Let the insurance company/doctors get the money they need to cover your care, but don’t ask for damages above and beyond. Act with compassion towards the perpetrator.  Reach out in love.  Overwhelm them with forgiveness. Be a witness to everyone that you refuse to get anything out of it for yourself.

Another option is to simply forgo the system all together. Don’t call the police when you are robbed.  Refuse to file the insurance claim when the guy rear-ends your car.  In doing so, we can extend grace and compassion… but this in itself can also be lazy discipleship. By not doing anything, we may never get the opportunity to build a relationship with the person who has wronged you. Simply looking the other way is not the same thing as facing someone and turning the other cheek. The ethic Jesus prescribes is active and personal and engaging.

And his ethic is transformative. In each of those verses about how we should respond to oppression, we actually taunt the person who has harmed us to go farther. We don’t just give our coats, but take off our shirts. We don’t simply accept a slap in the face, we force them to hit us with the back of their hand. We don’t simply walk one mile, we continue walking and put their own abuse into a category that becomes problematic for them. We force them to see us not as a faceless victim who can be used, but as a person.

There is something about that response that is not very kind at all. We hold them accountable for their actions by forcing them to take their current line of abuse to an extreme. We make them realize that we are human beings, and in turn, they see themselves in a different light

Perhaps this is where restorative justice can actually play a role if we work within our current systems. Through the building of relationships, through mandating that someone do community service in response to a crime of theft, or work to nurture life in the wake of a murder, we give them the opportunity to be transformed . . . to become more fully human themselves, while also helping them to see the humanity in other people. And, it gives us an opportunity to be transformed and healed as we navigate our way through anger and frustration to a place of forgiveness and hope.

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