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Isaiah 50

Isaiah 50:4-9a


50:4 The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens-- wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.


50:5 The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.


50:6 I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.


50:7 The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame;


50:8 he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.


50:9a It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?


The Turned Cheek


My late friend and rabbi, Sy Resnikoff, spiritual leader of Temple Gates of Zion in Valley Stream NY once, at my request, attended the Sunday morning Bible class at our church.  We touched on a phrase he had often heard on the lips of his Christian colleagues in Fire Department chaplaincy: “no greater love has any man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13, more or less).  It celebrates volunteers who sacrifice their lives in defense of neighbors and their property; but it also, to the preponderance of firemen, is a reference to the cross of Jesus.  To that point, Sy said no Jew would be sanctioned, let alone be required, by his faith to lay down his life.  Consideration must first be given to what that would mean for one’s family and one’s community.  We don’t belong to ourselves to do with our lives as we choose.  Martyrdom is not a Jewish ideal.  The same goes for lesser acts of self-abnegation, like turning the other cheek (as in Christian scripture, teaching, and lore).


But, I note, Sy would have been a lot quicker than Pastor Howard to manifest self-control and self-giving, especially in a confrontational setting… like on the hardwood court when elbows are thrown and tempers flare, or in public meetings when neighbors hurl epithets at each other over imagined and sometimes real injustices.


Imagine, therefore, my surprise when coming upon this lection and for the first time in a professional, lifetime of thinking about the turned cheek, discovering this anticipation of it in the Hebrew Scriptures: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.”  Sy was not only more Christian than me, but more Jewish!


The turned cheek (see Matthew 5:39) mostly troubles Christians.  Among the most engaging and satirical musings on this apparent strategy for dealing with violence appears in George Bernard Shaw’s “Androcles and the Lion.”  Check out the dialogue between Ferrovius and Lentulus in the play’s script online: Androcles, scrolling a third of the way down. Ferrovius, the incredible hulk with a halo, wonders at the amazing success he has had in converting others to Christianity by encouraging them to try turning the other cheek when he is the one who does the clobbering. 


Equally off the mark is the idea that turning the other cheek is calculated to persuade the striker of the folly of his violence.  Doesn’t work that way.  The gas chambers of Auschwitz didn’t cease their horrific incinerations because Jewish men, women, and children, naked and malnourished, marched in like lambs to the slaughter.  Evil isn’t persuaded by innocence and pacifism.  Gandhi, as someone has observed (was it Reinhold Niebuhr?), would not have succeeded in his protest if it had been waged against Hitler instead of the British Empire.


My own telling example of the limits of the turned cheek as a strategy for dealing with evil comes from an incident at a Salvation Army mission for troubled girls in Nassau County, involving the great-granddaughter of General William Booth (see Vachel Lindsey’s poem, “General William Booth Enters Heaven”: you have it somewhere in the house; everyone does).  Fleur Booth, born and raised in France, learned early about self-giving: her parents on occasion had her sleep on the living room floor, the better to accommodate rescued young prostitutes from the Paris streets for a night of rest.  In her role as director of the program for troubled girls from New York City, she found herself one day trying to break up a violent dispute on the campus of the Wayside Home School for Girls.  When one of the girls in the argument hit Fleur, Fleur’s reaction was not to retaliate nor even to restrain.  The girl only hit her harder, perceiving Fleur Booth’s reaction as weakness, and weakness in the wisdom of the girl's world deserved to be crushed.  Fleur, bruised and beaten, had to be rescued by other counselors. 


In my pastoral duty as the teacher of confirmation class, we came each year to that verse in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he tells his disciples to turn the other cheek.  The thirteen year olds would listen, I suspect, in disbelief.  No way could they survive bullying by accepting it.  They knew, as I did when I was their age and younger, that you really had only two options: run or fight.  Of course, there was a third, if you were bigger than the bully: hold him so tightly he couldn’t hit you, and wait for a teacher to appear. No, I explained to my confirmands that Jesus’ commandment about turning the other cheek wasn’t addressed to them… not yet, anyway.


The turned cheek in Isaiah’s world, in Jesus’ world, and in the world I know, is intended as the witness of one who knows what he is doing, without any expectation that it will be a simple and successful strategy for stemming violence.  The turned cheek is borne with the understanding that if violence is to stop, it has to stop beginning with me.  Otherwise we shall wait forever, during which the deadly circle of retaliation goes on and on and on.  The turned cheek is an act of courage.  It’s an act of faith.  As it seems to be in the lection from Isaiah. 


As it is on the cross which looms before us: to which is nailed one who knows very well what he is doing and why he is doing it… for you and me and a whole wide world deeply and desperately immersed in violence, brother against brother, and how will it ever stop… unless someone doesn’t wait for the other, but takes a stand, courageously, faithfully, for what is good and loving and healing.


That blessed moment when Eternity turns its cheek is soon upon us.  The cross looms; it also summons us to go and do likewise, providing us with courage and faith to do it… when we know what we are doing.

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