The Wisdom (and the Courage) of Matthew 5:38-39
The other evening at the dinner table we discussed a schoolyard dispute. A boy, who shall remain nameless, inadvertently broke the reflector on the rear fender of his friend's bike. The boy offered to repair the broken reflector with super glue. The friend, however, demanded that the boy pay him ten dollars to replace it. A lot of second thoughts were voiced at the dinner table. That the friend probably had no intention of buying another reflector and would pocket the money. That the friend never offers soda when the boy visits his home; but the friend on a couple of occasions at the boy's home helped himself to sodas from the basement fridge.
The discussion raged. Strong feelings were vented. The preacher asked the boy (sarcastically): "Is that what Jesus said, 'Do to others what they do to you'?" The boy (credit him with a keen self-justifying imagination) answered that if he behaved the way his friend did, he would want the friend to tell him he was wrong.
The preacher, who is cursed with the need to extrapolate from the local to the global, observed, "Now you know what is going on in Iraq." If the boy understood, I still doubt he was convinced that he should try to be reconciled with his friend, if not with a ten dollar bill, then with some kind of compromise... like give the reflector off his bike and take the broken one and repair it for his own use. Besides, the friend seemed unlikely to be moved by anything less than an Alexander Hamilton.
The desire for retribution is a powerful disrupter of human interaction.
Iraq. There it is deadly. Sunni and Shi'ia, Islamic brothers, blow each other up in a cycle of murder and revenge that escalates. What chance does democracy have in a place and among a people where tribal claims insist on vengeance above all else?
Not that such attitudes are alien to these shores. The Scotch-Irish immigrants contributed mightily to this nation's greatness; but - and I say this as one of those "British" imports - they also brought with them a distorted sense of honor, call it clannishness, that has become a byword (infamously, as in Hatfields and McCoys) for doing to others worse than others do to you.
But it's not just an Iraqi and my ancestral failing. Retribution is a universal human failing.
In this light now reread those red letter words in Matthew 5:38-39, about turning the other cheek and repaying evil with good. There are few passages of the New Testament, I report from fifty years of pastoral experience, more likely to give pause to real men. I have, to tell the whole truth, expressed my own reservations, sometimes from the pulpit. The boy with whom this essay began countered the preacher at the dinner table with the rhetorical question, "So should I just give him whatever he wants?"
Well, no. I did suggest compromise. In most disputes between an irresistible force and an immovable object there are alternatives to a head-on collision. But first and foremost combatants have to step away from their high and mighty righteousness and try to understand where the other guy is coming from. Goodwill, I think it is called... you know, as was sung by angels one December night. Taking the long view helps. Seeing what is in your own best interest over the long haul; and, if not for you, then for your children.
Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, wrote on the op-ed page this past Wednesday (01/03/07) about the execution of Saddam Hussein:
Saddam deserved to die 100 deaths. But imagine if Iraq’s Shiite leaders had surprised everyone, declared that there had been enough killing in Iraq and commuted Saddam’s sentence to life in prison — sparing his life in hopes of uniting the country rather than executing him and dividing it further. I don’t know if it would have helped, but I do know Iraqis have rarely surprised us with gestures of reconciliation — only with new ways to kill each other.
I read this paragraph as an endorsement of Jesus' prescription in Matthew 5 for an end to violence; namely, that someone has to take the first step in reconciliation, and that means, disciples, you don't wait for the adversary to make the first move. That's your responsibility.
Turning the other cheek, far from being an invitation to wimpishness, is wisdom and courage... and the only way our world has a future.