The Powers and the Power of Love

Those communities who follow the Revised Common Lectionary have been sprinting through the Sermon on the Mount these few weeks. This past Sunday the reading was challenging in its talk of turning the other cheek, giving of a coat and cloak, walking the extra mile, and loving enemies (Matthew 5:38-48). In American society where retribution, possession, and fear define so much of our imagination, these words of Jesus are a hard pill. 

In social justice communities there is a deep skepticism about these words from Matthew 6. In the hands of the privileged and powerful these few verses are a violent tool. They tell those on the margins to take one more slap, give up one more possession, and sit quietly by. Since Jesus tells us to take it, then surely this means you (women, minorities, LGBT persons, and the poor).

Of course this is to ignore the context of the sermon itself— both in the days of Jesus’ preaching and for the early church. The listeners and readers were not part of the ruling majority and to impose these words from above is a crass misreading. That is what author and theologian Walter Wink was trying to say by recasting these injunctions from the margins. The argument is rather simple. In Roman times, to slap someone with the back of the right hand on the right cheek was to dehumanize them. By offering the other side of the face, the one slapped was quietly subverting the norms by forcing the assailant to slap open handed. In effect, the tactic allowed the victim to reclaim some piece of humanity. That logic, said Wink, applied to the rest of the commandments. To be sued for a coat and to offer the cloak as well was to shame the litigant by the nakedness of the one who gave up both freely. And to carry the armor of a soldier two miles was to break the law that said a soldier could only force someone to walk a single mile. 

This Wink-ified version of the scriptures is to take them out of the hands of the oppressor and remind us of the possibilities of nonviolent resistance. They warn us against making them a prescription for others and ignoring them for ourselves. In reading them in such a way, we see just how effective nonviolent resistance can be, even in a time and place where super militaries define the ways we imagine change. Even more to the point, this reading reminds us just how practical the actions of Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi actually were. 

However, there is a second— and even more difficult to swallow— commandment in Jesus’ words. Not only are we to tactically reclaim our humanity in the face of powerful oppression, we are to act out of love itself. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

This is so difficult because we are told to see the oppressor as human. While we are trying to reclaim our own humanity in the face of violence, theft, and oppression, we are told to respond with love rather than reciprocal hate. It is all too easy to resist with tactical actions and yet hold hate within. The difficult work of the Sermon on the Mount asks us to work just as hard internally as we do in our actions of mercy and justice. It is not enough, Jesus says, to reclaim our humanity by turning the other cheek. We are to reclaim the humanity of the ones doing violence by loving and praying for them.

In the partisan, sound-bite age it is common to vilify and dehumanize the other. They are idiots, backwards, naive, or worse. They are less human because of their unnoticed power and privilege, or due to their overt violence against others. We are formed to denigrate whoever is unlike us.

Changing the power relations between people seems a whole lot easier than changing the ways we see others. Turning the other cheek is easier than actually loving the one who strikes us. Jesus then challenges our presuppositions about nonviolence. In fact, he intensifies it. He asks us to reclaim the humanity of both the oppressor and the oppressed. He takes resistance out of the realm of social changes and makes it decidedly personal. 

That is the reverse logic of the Sermon on the Mount. By confronting the legalisms of his day, both religious and cultural, Jesus defied the line between personal and public. He united the outer and the inner in such a way that the disciple could not easily live only in piety or justice. To confront the oppressor was to confront the inner oppressor, making sure that both persons reclaimed the humanity of the other. That is the insanity of love. It cannot leave either party the same. Both are changed in the act of love. 

Nonviolent resistance was, then, not a just a political tactic for Jesus. Rather, confronting the powers was also a confrontation of the ways the powers shape us to do a different kind of violence to others. That is why Christian discipleship is not just a strategy for making more justice in this world. It is a way of life that never leaves us on the moral high ground, but constantly asks us to work on ourselves just as much as we work on our culture. No one is let off the hook in the power of love.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Powers and the Power of Love

  1. Scott Holland

    This is a fine essay or homily, Josh.

    As one who has directed a seminary Peace Studies program for many years, I too often find myself asking, “Why are so many radical Christian peacemakers so God damned mean?”

    As your essay suggests, personal work and public justice must not be pried apart. If love is indeed stronger than death as the Song instructs, peacemakers must learn the spiritual dance steps of the personal and the public, aesthetics and ethics, poetry and prophecy, and self-creation and social solidarity in the quest for the difficult peace of the city.

    As the ancient poet-prophet reminds us, the public peace of the city has much to do with the art and craft of building houses, planting gardens and living and eating well with family, friends and neighbors even down by the rivers of Babylon.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Thanks Scott!

      Maybe we have also confused righteous anger for just being mean. Or even yet, maybe a little psychoanalysis would make it all so clear 🙂

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