Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Other Cheek

Turning the other cheek is never all that much fun, but lately I’ve begun to see Christian restraint as something more than merely tactical.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus famously told his followers, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

He did not tell them why, but we may reasonably infer that, like the instruction to love our enemies, turning the other cheek displays our family resemblance to our heavenly Father. (And, of course, there’s the bit in there about reward, but the less said about that the better; we wouldn’t want to look mercenary, would we?)

A Near-Total Bust

I must confess I have always seen the Lord’s teaching here as something like the proverbial “soft answer” that turns away wrath: a little bit tactical. I imagined the idea was to win over one’s abuser with a stellar display of Christ-like humility. In this I think I was probably more than a little out to lunch, not least because the tactic rarely worked as intended.

What normally happened is that the abuser either took me for a weakling and continued to humiliate me, or else became enraged at my clumsy attempt to prick his conscience and treated me even worse than before. Further, as I observed other Christians doing the same thing, it seemed to me that they too were almost entirely unsuccessful in dissuading aggressive people from being aggressive.

Even in the political arena, it must be conceded that conservatives, who have been turning the other cheek to the Left for forty or fifty years, have done nothing but embolden their enemies and repeatedly concede territory to them. (Of course it’s also highly likely that the instructions in the Sermon on the Mount were never intended to fill the playbooks of political factions in the first place.)

In any case, in terms of producing what I thought was its intended result, the verse was a near-total bust.

Initially, I imagined the problem was that I wasn’t quite authentic enough in my self-abasement, so I tried harder, usually appearing (by my own questionable standards) even less convincing. Eventually, recognizing that my tactics reliably failed to deter aggressors, I avoided complying with the Sermon (in that respect at least) as frequently or enthusiastically as I ought.

Filled With Insults

In the book of Lamentations, the prophet Jeremiah has this to say about the cheek and the turning thereof:
“Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults.”
This sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? So much so, in fact, that one wonders if the Lord was riffing on this verse in the Sermon. I think it likely.

But in Lamentations, it seems to me, the point of turning the cheek is not to change the person to whom you turn it or even to transform your own character, but rather to do what God instructs simply because God says it is a good thing to do. Here’s what precedes the cheek statement:
“The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust — there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults.”
“It is good,” says the prophet, “to bear a yoke.” To wait quietly. “Let him be filled with insults,” he finishes. Translation: Take your lumps whether your enemy responds favorably or not. Changing him is not the point of the exercise. Christ is worth imitating because to do so pleases God. Self-restraint under fire is a good thing in and of itself, whether it produces what we think are the desired results or whether it does nothing of the sort.

Gazing Into Heaven

That’s a little different, isn’t it? THAT I get. The man who is humble not for his enemy’s sake but simply because being humble pleases his Father in heaven doesn’t have to gin up fake affection, or worry about how successful he is being, or whether he is convincing anybody of anything. He simply has to fix his eyes on heaven instead of on others or on himself.

Interestingly, heaven is precisely where Stephen was gazing when the rocks started flying.

“I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting,” says the perfect Servant of God in Isaiah. Why? Because “the Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward.”

Why? Because God said so, and he’s calling the shots.

That ought to be good enough, no?

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