Forgiveness is both an important personal issue and an important community issue for members of minority groups, especially for members of minority groups that have traditionally faced discrimination and oppression. Built up anger and powerlessness can result in people going one of two directions, either becoming passive doormats or raging dictators. Neither of those responses to oppression and injustice are condoned in the sermon on the mount.
Bitter resentment or a victim identity are common problems in minority communities. James Allison wrote the book Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay. He comments to the effect that groups that identify themselves as victims tend to use “I” to define themselves and to “expel” others, because other people are considered to be “hostile and dangerous.” In the victim community response, there is a tendency to treat those outside the victimized community as ‘they’ and as an “implacable enemy,” a relentless and unstoppable enemy. Allison seems to propose the risen Christ as a way to help end the victim status and the victim status’ us versus them life approach. In a Christian identify, there is a recreation of the “I” identity as a child of God, an identity that is rooted in the “we.”
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. — Matthew 5:38-42
For a moment, I will use the same pattern of speaking Jesus used. You may have heard it said, “Pride goeth before a fall,” but I say, “Pride goeth before forgiveness.” Hold that thought. We will come back to it.
There is a difference between “ye have heard it said” and “it is written.” Jesus words are thought to be a correction of teachings about the Scripture, not corrections to the Scriptures.
Jesus is quoting the Bible. An eye for an eye was a principle in passages of the Hebrew scriptures. Leviticus 24:20 is one of the eye for an eye passages. “Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again.”
An eye for an eye sounds savage and brutal to our 21st century ears. Bible commentator William Barclay provides important historical background. He states this law of “tit for tat” was “the beginning of mercy.” We get the sense from what William Barclay says that violence tended to get completely out of hand when a tribe attempted to settle a vendetta. Barclay says that when a man in one tribe was injured, the tribe of the injured man took vengeance on all of the men of the other tribe and the desired vengeance was death. The Mosaic law limited vengeance to the man who committed the injury and to no more than the extent of the injury.
This law was supposed to be enforced by a judge, not by the injured party. The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Bible Commentary informs us that the “law of retribution” was intended to take “vengeance” away from “private persons” and to encourage people to let judges deal with the situation. Unfortunately, the spirit of the law of retribution was not met. The ancients tended to take the law of retribution as a “warrant for taking redress into their own hands.”
Unlike some of His contemporary rabbis, Jesus advocated living by principles, by the spirit of the law. R. Tasker, who wrote the Tyndale New Testament Commentary on the gospel of Matthew, notes that Jesus comments bring out what is implied in the Mosaic law, as opposed to the legalistic interpretation of the law. According to Tasker, Jesus was essentially saying, “God’s demands in these matters are far more comprehensive and exacting than current interpretations of them by scribes might seem to suggest.”
We just looked at the history and principles surrounding part of the Mosaic law. To better understand the passage in the gospel of Matthew, we need to think about the people to whom Jesus was speaking. Jesus was not talking to the business, community and political leaders in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire. He was talking to a conquered, oppressed people. Israel was conquered by the Romans and was part of the Roman Empire. Some of the people who head Jesus talk may have been boiling with rage against the Roman conquerors and oppressors.
The Christian Community Bible observes that Jesus “speaks to farmers who are humiliated and oppressed by foreign armies.” The Jewish people living in Israel felt oppressed by the Romans and the occupying Roman armies and they wanted to retaliate. Jesus words speak both to a society that felt oppressed in Palestine almost two millennia ago have meaning and to those who oppressed now, because of their sexual orientation, gender identification, gender expression, ethnicity, race, skin color or religion.
What does Jesus say to the oppressed peoples of Palestine?
- Resist not evil. Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
- If any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
- And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
In the Greek the word translated resist means has a different shade of meaning than we might pick up in English. The Greek word that is translated resist contains the meaning of violent resistance. Jesus asks people not to respond violently.
So Jesus tells oppressed people to turn the other cheek, to give another article of clothing and to go the extra mile. On the surface this sounds bad, especially given Jesus’ audience, an oppressed minority group. But hang in there with me. This is not as bad as it sounds. Jesus seems to be promoting gracious forgiveness, with a dash or two of attitude. The commentators who contributed to the Christian Community Bible compare Jesus’ recommended responses with judo, where an element of surprise is used when a totally unexpected move is made. Let’s examine each of Jesus’ Judo forgiveness responses.
- Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
This sounds absurd until we reflect more on it. A slap on the right cheek, given by a right handed person, is a back-handed strike. The backhand was more than just an injury; the backhand is an insult. The backhanded blow is probably more insulting than a slap with an open hand. A backhand was a “very real insult” to ancient Jews.
Turning the other cheek forced your oppressor to treat you as an equal, if your oppressor were to hit you again. In the face of abuse, Jesus encouraged the oppressed to act in ways that forced the oppressor act in ways that showed more respect. Forgiveness with an attitude.
- If any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
The coat is a person’s outside garments – could compare to shirt and pants – and the cloke was essentially a person’s underwear. When you willing give up your cloke, you are left naked. Within Jewish culture at the time of Christ, it was more of a scandal to look at a person who was naked than it was to be naked. The legal adversary would be “utterly embarrassed,” if somebody followed Jesus’ advise. Being willing to give up all of your clothes left the person suing you scandalized.
This is neither doormat forgiveness nor milquetoast Christianity. I call this Christianity and forgiveness with an attitude. When people use the courts to unjustly humiliate you, Jesus provides an example of how to respond in a non-violent manner that leaves advisories humbled and humiliated. Jesus gives oppressed parties a peaceful way to cause the oppressor to treat them with more equality. Forgiveness with an attitude.
- And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain
Roman soldiers were able to coerce Jewish people into carrying their burden. When a soldier asked you to carry his load, you ended up being the soldier’s slave for a mile. Being a slave to the very army that conquered your country, even for a mile, probably felt demeaning. Soldiers were only allowed to force people to carry their pack for a mile. You might imagine this scene painted in the book Don’t Forgive Too Soon. You carry the soldier’s gear for a mile and just keep going. The soldier, afraid he will get in trouble, starts urgently asking that you give back his gear.
In the face of demeaning oppression from a conquering army, Jesus gives an example of how to resist oppression without violence and to insist on being treated with more equality and dignity. Forgiveness with an attitude.
Jesus is radical. To those who feel bullied, oppressed, beaten-down and discouraged by groups in society, Jesus words seem to be in stark contrast with what we were taught forgiveness means. Jesus understood forgiveness in the face of oppression.
There are times when we are not able to forgive, because we mistake forgiveness for forgetting abuse or for being a doormat. Arcibald Hart, who was the Dean of Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological seminary, defines forgiveness not as an emotional feeling, but as a conscious decision to give up the right to hurt back. Hart says forgiveness is acknowledging that you do not know what you did to deserve what happened or even if you deserved what happened, but you choose not to hurt back, because choosing not to hurt back is the only way to let go of the hurt.
Forgiveness, giving up the right to hurt back, takes courage. Archibald Hart notes that forgiveness “may need to be an ongoing process.” I believe forgiving people for offenses that are related to our core identities, such as our ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or gender expression can require forgiving, giving up the right to hurt back, many times, over a long period of time.
In the face of oppression from the courts that strips you of dignity, in the face violent oppression that leaves you demeaned and in the face of oppression that almost reduces you to being a slave, Jesus calls us to respond in a way that asserts our equality and that causes our oppressors to respond to us as equals. Forgiveness with an attitude. You cannot forgive people for acts that offend the very core of your identity without a sense of personal respect, a sense of pride that comes from understanding that you are a God carrier, that you deserve to be treated like a God carrier and that you will respond to oppression in such a way that people will end up treating you with more respect.
Regardless of which side of the railroad tracks you live on, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob wants you to see yourself as a valuable God carrier, as a person worthy of being loved by the Eternal Creator and as a person who is more than darn good. As you leave here today, you can walk tall, taking pride in yourself, because you are a God carrier and the presence of the Holy Spirit in you gives you the strength to forgive, without becoming a victimized, powerless, oppressed doormat. There is no room for human doormats in the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God starts in the here and now.