Scripture – Matthew 5:38-41
America is, in many respects, at an impasse. Time itself has found itself at the burgeoning of a new precipice.
And if I was a philosopher like Hegel, I might summarize looking at the times that a new dialectic is emerging. If I was a philosophic critic like Derrida interpreting the signs of the times, I might postulate that what we see on display today is simply the falling away of modernity and the emergence of post-modernity. And beloved if I was a theologian like Karl Barth, I might describe our time as God breaking into reality perpendicular from above. Yet beloved, since the Gospel or good news is and should be accessible to everyone; I will demystify the jargon and simply say our nation is sick.
America the beautiful has removed its make-up and has once again revealed to the world its blotches and rough places. And the superficial reality of the ever-elusive dream seems more like a nightmare. America is like an adolescent boy or girl who has yet to learn that sometimes make-up cannot cover up your inconsistences, instead, some things you just have to grow out of and mature into.
My sisters and brothers, America is sick. It has the symptoms of walking pneumonia. You know walking pneumonia, my dear brother had it once. He looked fine on the outside, he had enough energy to go to football practice and school, continue his regular activities until one day at football practice he was running for a touchdown and couldn’t catch his breath because on the inside his body was telling him that he had a serious problem.
Beloved, this is the sickness that America is suffering from. On the outside, we look like an exceptional nation, richest in the world. Strongest military in history, welcoming and affirming to all weary feet who wish to find rest. But on the inside, the fluids of sexism, racism, police brutality, plantation capitalism and militarism are rising and America, sweet America, cannot catch its breath.
Those on the inside are screaming with all the breath that they have left, “We can’t breathe” to the point that the U.N. has urged America to take a closer look at the woes of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Those on the inside are saying we have a major problem when presidential candidates can reveal their character as racist, misogynistic and fear-bating and still have supporters who will boldly say that he represents the best ideals in America and should be elected president.
America, we are sick and if we don’t check ourselves into a clinic of morality and ethics where we at least try to reach the healthy climate were all men and women are created equal and given dignity, we risk sending our nation into cardiac arrest.
Now that we have identified, in part, the problem, allow me to digress and return to the sermon. For in times like these, it is not uncommon for those who believe in Christianity to ask the question, “What would Jesus do and where can we find Jesus when our nation has a sick-soul?”
Well, our text gives us a few clues. It tells a story, a story of man who was born in Bethlehem and raised in Galilee by way of Nazareth.
A young man who at the age of 12 found himself in the synagogue during the high Holy days, which is occurring this month for our Jewish sisters and brothers, listening and communing with the doctors, lawyers, professors and preachers of his day.
Our text tells us of a young man, whose ordination did not take place with a select few, but with all who wanted to come down to the river. In fact, people wrote Him off at his own ordination as just another young preacher, proclaiming the Gospel in the wilderness, but by the time He emerged from the water, the sky parted and heaven spoke out, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”
Matthew tells us and Mark and Luke conspire that His ministry didn’t start with 300 people at his first service. No, the Gospels tell us that He started off with just two, which turned into a faithful few.
The story continues that one day, He leaves and goes into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. Fasting and praying, doing the inward work of soul in order that He might emerge whole. If He was living today, you might say He went off to school and spent some time with the master teacher.
After 40 days and 40 nights, He comes back down and begins to talk about how the poor and those who mourn are counted as blessed. He tells the people about this light they hold inside of them, and how they must get to a place where they let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. He continues to preach and teach as the crowd continues to grow.
Then He says to the people who are sitting around and down the hill below, 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
Let’s pause right here and take a step back, so we can better understand the context by which our source text comes to us. When Jesus says these words, we often try to sanitize his message by appealing to a higher sense of piety at best and at worst, a system of non-resistance instead of non-violence.
Let me be clear, Jesus is not telling the people to be used and abused. He is not telling the people to be pacifist or to be spineless when evil is done unto you. Yes, there are some who would have you believe that, but those are the same people who seek to have power over you and corral you into situations where your humanity is degraded.
Archeologists, historians and biblical scholars would remind you that Jesus was a Jew from Galilee, which meant He looked more like you and me than what the powers that be will have you to believe.
He didn’t have skin that was as white as lilies, but the scripture does say that He had hair that was coarse and soft as wool. Jesus was a Jew, which meant that His entire life was lived under the rule of an empire. Jesus was a Jew, who by all accounts was born out of wedlock and was raised by a homemaker and a carpenter, which meant Jesus didn’t grow up rich with all the privileges that money can buy. No, He grew up with the reality that His Brown or Black body would always be subjugated to the militarized police state of empire.
Yes, it is true that at times the political elite and intellectual wealthy class came to hear Him preach and teach, but the majority of the time, Jesus could be found hanging out with everyday people. Working-class people, blue-collar people, professional people and poor people; sick people and homeless people, widows and orphans, Jews and Samarians, law-abiding people and people with minor infractions of the law – people who lives did not matter as much to the state.
I don’t know who your Jesus hung out with, but the Jesus that I read about in scripture hung out with everyday folk and the least of these. Folk with issues and problems, folks who Howard Thurman would classify as those with their back against the wall of oppression and I’ll add repression. So, I just go to ask you, which Jesus are you following? The White western archetypal formulation of Jesus or the Jesus of scripture and history?
In Matthew 5, Jesus is sitting among the dispossessed and oppressed and He says to them, “claim your dignity, claim your humanity, make the state see you as more than just a commodity.” When Jesus says these words, it shocks the audience because it is both prophetic and powerful with the brute force of subervisness and civil disobedience.
Jesus says, 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ Pause right there. He is referencing the law, which means the context He is speaking is the law of the day. Then He continues and says, 39 “But I say to you.” “But” is a coordinating aversive conjunction, which means that it negates everything that comes before it. What comes before but in this periscope? The law. So, Jesus is about to give a contour law. He is about to be counter-cultural.
Watch his shift, Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” A sanitized reading of this dictum would have you going home defeated with two black eyes. But, Jesus isn’t telling you to just go get beat up on. Rather, Jesus is living in a context and in this context known as the Roman Empire, there are rules and laws which govern the affairs and interaction of the people. And in this culture, if you are going to strike someone who is not your equal, you would use your right backhand to hit them. Right backhands were used in this time by husbands against wives, masters against slaves. So, if you turn the other cheek after being backhanded, you in effect rob the oppressor of the power to humiliate you.
When you turn the cheek, you are saying, “I deny you the power to humiliate me.” For if you turn the other cheek and the oppressor punches you, then by his action, he or she is calling you their equal and if he or she backhands you, then they have brought shame upon their house according to the law. So, when Jesus says turns the other cheek, He is in fact saying, “They may not have seen you before, but today they will be forced to see you as an equal, as a human, to pronounce that your life matters.” So, turn the other cheek and bring shame to your oppressor.
Jesus is advocating here for non-violence, not non-resistance. He is preaching a doctrine of dignity and power for the oppressed and issuing an edict of humility and shame for the institutionalized inequality of the oppressor. Jesus, that oppressed Jew from Galilee, doesn’t stop there, but He goes on to say “and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” In order to understand this riddle, one must understand the honor and shame system in respect to debts.
I’ll give you the simple version. If you had a debt and could not pay it, then you could give your outer cloak as a type of IOU. And at this given time, a land grab of mass property seizure had occurred among the oppressed by the political elite and 1%. So often times, all the poor were left with was their clothes as the only possession that they owned straight out.
Jesus tells them to give both the outer and inner cloak and walk away naked. So in effect, what Jesus is saying to those who have their back against the wall in a culture of honor and shame, when your oppressor tries to take all that you have, give it to them and leave them in humiliation holding the shame and guilt which society will cast upon them for exploiting the poorest in society.
If you give them your cloak, then you are saying to them, “Here, take all that I have and leave me with only my body” and asking them “will you take my body, my life next?” Jesus is saying to those who are oppressed, shame the system and walk in prophetic nakedness like Isaiah and let all humanity see what are the effects of such an imbalance economic system.
Let the creditors and lenders see what predatory lending does to a community, let the creditors see what trumped-up economics look like, let the world see what institutional racism does to people of color in a capitalistic society.
Jesus is saying to show them like the boycott in Montgomery, show them like Black Monday, show them like Memphis that their economic policies are morally bankrupt and create an evil and demonic cycle of poverty. Jesus is sitting with the people and teaching them how to exact that non-violent principle of non-cooperation on the system, which has proclaimed by their practices that your life truly does not matter to the state.
But, Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says that when the agents of the militarized state ask you to go a mile, go another mile. Why another mile? Because by law, you could only force Black bodies, ethnic minorities and state-subjugated bodies to only carry your pack a mile. But if you go another mile, then you leave the agent of the state in utter confusion not knowing what will happen to them. For by law, the agent of the state, the police and militarized agent, could be fined or beaten for letting a subjugated person carry their pack more than a mile.
So, Jesus is teaching the people here to change the narrative and leave your oppressor between a rock and a hard place. He’s not saying kill them with kindness. He is not saying take up arms and shoot as many as possible. No, He knows that eye for an eye would only leave the whole world blind. Rather, He is saying to change the narrative and love your neighbors and enemies so much that you call them out from their brokenness and oppressive ways, that you act in a non-violent way, which cripples and deconstructs and disrupts and decolonizes the system so much, that it will be forced to change or exist in humiliation and shame.
But, the thing I love about Jesus is that He just doesn’t talk about it. He just doesn’t teach it and then go off and pray on a hill far away. But, the thing that I love about Jesus is that after the Sermon on the Mount, He spent everyday of His life living the Gospel message, proclaiming that His Black life does matter and has always mattered.
Proclaiming that the kingdom of God is not an other-worldly, eschatological reality, but is breaking in to the here-and-now, turning over the tables. Breaking in to the here-and-now, creating spiritual and physical wholeness for the sick soul.
Breaking in to create a kin-dom of God where your life and my life are seen as equal.
The Rev. Edward Anderson is the pastor of McCarty Memorial Christian Church, 4103 W Adams Blvd., in Los Angeles. To learn more, call (323) 731-4131.