Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 • 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 • Matthew 5:38-48
I was reminded this week of a 2006 interview the satirist Stephen Colbert did with then first term Georgia congressman Lynn Westmoreland. At the time, the congressman was a co-sponsor of a Republican bill that would have required the display of the Ten Commandments in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
You may remember, this was at a time when people were all atwitter over the bizarre debate of whether the Ten Commandments should be displayed in courthouses. This was also at a time when The Colbert Report was relatively new, and not yet well known for its practice of taking interviews and cutting and pasting them in such a way that the duplicity of powerful people was exposed in biting, and hilarious ways.
So in the space of a minute, the segment introduces Westmoreland as a co-sponsor of the bill, and in justifying the proposed religious display, we see the congressman ask, “Where better place could you have something like that than in a judicial building or a courthouse?” Colbert responds, “That is a good question, can you think of any better building to put the Ten Commandments in than a public building?”
“What are all of them? You want me to name them all?”
The punch line is that, of course, he can’t. In fact, as Colbert keeps count for him, he can only name three before he says, “I can’t name them all,” and Colbert then signs off by thanking the congressman for taking time away from keeping the Sabbath day holy to talk to him.
A different segment that takes a less edited approach reveals that the conversation is a bit more nuanced than it appears on air, but the stark truth of the matter is the same, and only amplified by the editing.
The Westmoreland interview was one that caught the attention of fans, but perhaps even more, lawmakers. In fact, for a time, Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Immanuel warned Democratic freshmen representatives from appearing on the show for fear of them being skewered and embarrassed.
Colbert’s satire is a type of comedic jujitsu—a soft technique that uses an opponent’s own force against them. Judo and Tai Chi, are similar, as I understand it. Rather than meeting power with power, it uses evasion and re-direction. You do what your opponent does not expect in a way that you use his power to your advantage. One of the ways Colbert does this in this particular interview is to allow the congressman’s own words to lead him into a trap of his own making. It goes like this: If the Ten Commandments are so important, surely he will know them. When we discover he doesn’t, we can begin to see that his motives are not as pure as he suggests and his intentions are exposed as something other than what he claims.
Jesus is using a similar soft technique in his Sermon on the Mount as he demonstrates a third way of responding to injustice beyond violent aggression and passive inactivity. He calls disciples instead to creatively transform relationships of domination and submission, victimizer and victim, into relationships that embody restoration and reconciliation.
You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say, don’t resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other also. Retributive justice--eye-for-an-eye justice—was a well-intentioned attempt to limit the spread of violence. But as we’ve seen played out over and over in human history, such response-in-kind justice still preserves the fundamentally violent character of human interaction. So the old saying, “’an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ leaves everyone blind and toothless” and still angry.
The scene takes a little unpacking to understand it for what it is. In this ancient culture, a slap was not so much about injuring someone physically. It’s not that it didn’t hurt, but its aim was to dishonor and subordinate the one being slapped. To turn the other cheek, then, was to refuse the role of victim, while also refusing to return violence with more violence. It reclaimed the dignity and honor of the victim without stripping it from the victimizer, without fighting back or even returning the insult.
If anyone forces you to go one mile, go the second also. In a similar vein, a Roman soldier had the right to conscript and compel subjects of Rome to carry their provisions for up to a mile. This was an effective tool of oppression that Rome used to assert Roman imperial authority. We will see this scene played out, in fact, when Simon of Cyrene is compelled to carry Jesus’ cross exposing capital punishment as a state tool of domination.
But going the second mile messed with the whole system. It reclaimed self-determination and dignity for the one compelled. And it would have surely surprised and unsettled the soldier, undoing the power imbalance and creating the possibility to imagine something new. Perhaps it is no wonder that soldiers were among the first converts for Matthew.
The other examples Jesus preaches are similar. They describe a common scenario of injustice or domination and imagine a third-way that refuses to accept the terms, the roles, and the common patterns of response that keep these systems in place. Passivity changes nothing. Revolution only reverses the roles of abuser and abused. Jesus envisions something better: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The heart of the law is to be like God and to live into a world where everyone gets to know the fullness of God’s love.
Paul’s getting to the same thing in his letter to the church at Corinth: You are God’s temple, and God’s Spirit dwells in you. He’s not speaking to individuals, though. As good as it is for us to take care of our body, to eat well and exercise, that’s not what he’s talking about. Paul is speaking to the group, to the church, to you all. Y’all are God’s temple. Y’all—you together—are the body that makes God’s intentions for the world visible. The character of our relationships demonstrate a third way of being beyond passivity and violence that disarms with love. And if we are not living out this way, we chip away at the very foundation of this Way of Christ.
In other words, our way with one another has everything to do with the quality of our life together. Our well-being has everything to do with our practicing this way of forgiveness, generosity, and reconciliation. It is through this way that God saves us, and that the love of God is exposed for what it is. It is through this way that God becomes real.
You see, Jesus has one more trick up his sleeves. His jujutsu teaching takes us back to this ancient Levitical teaching which seems so dominated with “you shalt nots”. You shall not steal. You shall not deal falsely. You shall not strip your vineyard bare and leave none for the poor.
But the thing is, all these “nots” free us from cycles of violence and other ways of lifelessness and bondage. Because they lead us back to the beginning, and to the God who says “be Holy, because I am Holy.” You see, God is already like this. That’s the whole point. God is like this because this is where life is found. And likewise, Jesus makes his own vow when he says, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” Implicit in his “I say to you” is the claim that Jesus’ own life is a revelation of this way, a living it out. In as much as Christ reveals the character of God it is this: that God is the One who goes the extra mile, turns the other cheek, gives coat and shirt and even God’s very life to everyone who begs and does not refuse anyone who asks.
It is God who loves friend and enemy alike. It is the love of God itself that disarms, that unsettles our violent ways, and leads us back to life. And when we choose to take another tact, we are only leading ourselves into a trap of our own making.
We affirm this every Sunday in response to our confession, don’t we? Because we have been forgiven, we forgive others. But we also forgive others because it is the way that leads away from old paths that never resolve anything. It is the way that leads to life. I wonder what might need to be different in your own life for you to live into this third way? Who might need your forgiveness? How might you break cycles of destructive behavior that only lead to despair. How might you give yourself to others creatively that demonstrate they belong to you and you to God?
Are you willing to give yourself to this Way? Are you willing to give yourself to this God?