Thoughtful Pastor: Am I supposed to let someone hit me?

October 18th, 2016

Dear Thoughtful Pastor: The Bible says to turn the other cheek when I am affronted. How do such words apply in a world full of radicalism, threats, rampant murders, bigotry and hate? How many physical and mental assaults must a person or a group absorb before earning the right to ask this: Are you kidding me? Is the Bible–the book I grew up depending on–really that out of touch with reality? Are its followers so very obliged to stand down and stay shut up when they are abused with thoughts or words or deeds? Are they? Really? If so, is there a risk that they will lose their personal selves in the process?

What on earth was God thinking when he proposed such passivity? I am a regular person, not dogged by evil or dragged down by hate. No enemies lurk around me that I know of. I am just a square peg trying to fit into the round hole of this question. If the world ever decides to trade blows with me, I want to know what to do.

If the world does decide to trade blows with you, feel free to defend yourself.

Having said that, we need to take a serious look at what Jesus may have meant in this group of intriguing instructions that almost no one can follow. Matthew 5:39, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” is nestled in the midst of series of teachings known as The Sermon on the Mount.

Christy Thomas

Several of these instructions start with, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” They offer a new, more rigorous, interpretation of righteousness.

You have heard it said, “Don’t murder,” but Jesus says, “Don’t be angry with a brother or sister and don’t call them names or you may end up in hell.”

You have heard it said, “Don’t commit adultery” but Jesus says, “Don’t even lust after a someone. If you do, because your eye seeks the pleasure, tear out your eye and throw it away.”

You have heard it said, “Don’t swear falsely” but Jesus says, “Stop swearing on oath on something else completely and just live by your faithful word.”

Look at the verses about not hitting back. See how they read in this context. The “You have heard it said” statement referred to the concept of what is called talionic justice where the punishment fits the crime. So, if you punch out one of my eyes, I get to destroy one of yours.

This mode of justice was an advancement on the retribution practices common in the Middle East. Normally, seven-fold escalation was expected in order to right a wrong. “You killed one of my children? Hand over seven of yours.”

Jesus nixes equality of retribution, “Stop fighting back. Keep offering more. If they take your coat, give them a sweater. If someone insists you carry their stuff for a mile (a common practice that the Romans imposed upon the Jews), carry it for another.”

The climax: “You have heard it said you are to love your neighbors and hate your enemies but I say to you: Love your enemies as well and pray for them that persecute you.”

Frankly, Jesus is the best example ever of the “square peg/round hole” conundrum. Hatred of the Roman oppressors and corrupt Jewish leaders swirled all around him. Injustice and brutality permeated their world.

This teaching is less “Don’t defend yourself” and more, “Offer genuine goodness in the face of evil. Don’t be like them. Be better, so much better.”

Goodness alone can defeat evil. Furthermore, we can’t wait for someone else to start the goodness. That’s our job.

Right now, we have some idea that we can bomb or force evil out of existence. Poppycock. Can’t be done. We cannot out-hate hate and expect peace to prevail. The more we try to destroy others, the greater the resistance will become. We may temporarily see victory, but those we have hated will find some way to come back and hate us even more.

The Sermon on the Mount is the call to stop the cycle of hate.

Now, having said that, please do protect and defend yourself as necessary. You are not called to be a doormat or someone’s punching bag or shooting target. But seek defense in a way that lessens the hatred, the vitriolic exchanges, the violence and destruction. Do nothing to “up the ante.”

Do all you can to find out the why behind the other person’s actions. What’s going on? What is this person’s world like? How can you make an empathetic entry into it? What kind of pressures and frustrations may be driving it? What kind of world-view does it emerge from?

And above all, be proactive in goodness.

Email questions to A version of this column will appear in the Friday October 21, 2016 print and online editions of The Denton Record Chronicle. Christy blogs at Patheos.

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