Every once in a while, I have a moment where I’m struck by how much my worldview has been unconsciously formed by incredible privilege. Reading the sermon on the mount the last few weeks has been one of those experiences for me.
Jesus says, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”
All of these situations describe a situation of experiencing injustice at the hands of a more powerful person. A slap in the face is usually a reprimand from a more powerful person to a less powerful person. In the lawsuit described here, the person sued apparently owes money to the suer, and having nothing else to pay with, literally has to give the clothes off their back. And the person forcing someone to go a mile would be a Roman official with the power to force someone else to perform unpaid manual labor at will. But despite the obvious power differential in all of these situations, I have always read this part of the sermon on the mount as if I, as a person of privilege, were to be the victim of a crime in which someone physically assaulted me or tried to steal something from me. Essentially, I read this and imagine being mugged, even though the language unambiguously describes experiencing oppression. I think about whether or not to retaliate or whether to call the police. But the challenge put to the hearer is more about how to carry oneself with spectacular dignity in the face of relative helplessness.
Jesus seems to be saying that, rather than cowering in fear or organizing a revolt, his followers should behave in strikingly bizarre ways that will be surprising and confusing to the oppressor and that will call attention in a non-verbal way to the unique dignity that followers of Jesus have as children of God and citizens of His kingdom. I have to confess that I have always thought of this as a compelling alternative interpretation. But reading it this time around, it is very clearly the only possible interpretation. There is no other way to read it.
I’ve been wondering a lot in the last few weeks about how this teaching might apply to me as a person of privilege. I seldom find myself in situations where I am truly helpless while personally experiencing injustice. No one slaps me in the face while I stand legally powerless to complain. And yet, I do often find myself in situations where things don’t seem right or fair. Sometimes this makes me feel small and helpless. Other times, in my pride as a person who feels entitled to power, I experience a rush of indignance. Neither of these emotional reactions flows from who I am in Christ. As God’s child, I have nothing to fear from people, as they hold no real power over me. And as God’s child, I am able to recognize people who hurt or disappoint me as others of God’s children who have become lost and don’t know who they were created to be. And Jesus seems to be inviting me to be uncannily gentle and graceful in a way that embodies and communicates this reality.
This makes me think again about the example of trying to figure out my kids’ school situation that I shared last week. I had some disappointing conversations with a principal that left me feeling helpless and a little angry. I found that, afterward, I had an urge to avoid her. It seemed that there was no point in talking to her. And I neither wanted to argue with her nor make small talk with her. I felt an immature desire to avoid eye contact with her in order to avoid having feelings about her or deciding how to act around her. But I think God’s daughter would not do that. I found myself wrestling with what it would look like to continue to be friendly and warm toward her without pretending to be satisfied with the outcome of our difficult conversations. I have to confess that I do not believe I have mastered this at all. My face felt weird as I tried to get the smile I wanted to have for her just right. I suspect it may be much like playing an instrument or a sport, where I will just have to keep trying until I learn what it feels like to carry myself with the humble dignity of a child of God. For now, I am resolved to keep practicing.
You can pray along with me if you desire to practice this as well: Father, please craft your beauty in me. Free me from all fear of people, of what they can do or how they might make me feel. Free me from all pride and indignance. Instead, teach me to make music with life, music that will reflect your beauty and your love and cause others to take notice of you and want to know you more. Amen
Love in Christ,