Monday, October 11, 2010

Turn the Other Cheek

New Testament scholar Walter Wink coined the phrase “the myth of redemptive violence” and reinterprets angelic and demonic principalities and powers as the ethos exuded by groups, institutions, and governments. He also challenges the Sunday-school versions of Jesus’ teachings, identifying them as much more earthy, radical, and subversive when situated in the sociopolitical, economic, and religious matrix of first-century Roman-occupied Palestine. In particular, Wink vehemently challenges the assertion that Jesus taught passive compliance, or said nothing at all, toward the powers that be. Faulty translations and ignorance regarding cultural and historical context have led to the assumption that Jesus promoted submission in the face of conflict. However, says Wink, Jesus offered an alternative response to fight or flight, a third way. That third way is what we call nonviolence, and what Jesus called “do not resist an evil person with evil” and “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Nonviolence, loving our enemies, is a way of engaging conflict without dehumanization through violence. Blessed are the peacemakers, those who go the second mile, who give their cloak as well as their tunic, who turn the other cheek.

These are not spiritual platitudes uttered from a serene mountaintop, encouraging good little boys and girls to play nice in the schoolyard. These are life-threatening reversals strategically crafted in the dirt of poverty and imperial occupation for the weak to use the power of powerlessness. Peacemakers are like sheep among wolves, but these sheep have a few tricks up their wool coats, as innocent as doves but as shrewd as serpents.

“Now,” says the Galilean prophet, his voice lowering to a humming whisper as the crowd leans in to listen, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek.”

Wink digs down to the gritty nature of this act. A strike on the right cheek logistically requires a punch with the left hand. But the left hand was considered unclean in that right-handed world; a member of Qumran could be excluded for only gesturing with the left hand. Striking the right cheek meant using the back of the right hand, and a backhand slap was an insult, reserved for punishing or humiliating inferiors. “Masters backhanded slaves,” Wink writes, “husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews.” Responding violently would be suicide. The only possible reaction was submission.

But turning the other cheek, Wink explains, “robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate.” The oppressor can’t backhand with the unclean hand, but using a fist recognizes the inferior as an equal. The first attack reinforced humiliation, but the second, if it comes, will unintentionally level the ground. In that moment, for a brief moment, the dehumanizing hierarchy of power shatters with the slightest turn of the head.

My family's good friend Edward Tabash owns a souvenir shop near the Bethlehem checkpoint, inside the ghetto formed by the separation wall. The store sits on Hebron Road, once the main road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. With a prime location on the shoulder of the major street and his own olivewood factory, Edward and his store garnered an esteemed reputation and a steady stream of customers. However, the second intifada exploded and the separation wall fell on Hebron Road like an axe, amputating it on either side of Edward’s shop. Business rapidly evaporated without the regular procession of tour buses. Instead of firing anyone due to budget losses, Edward paid his entire staff out of his pocket for several years.

Edward’s commercial transactions have awarded him some privileges, including a Businessman's Card which occasionally allows him to drive into Jerusalem and fly out of Ben Gurion Airport. However, the card does not prevent ethnic profiling even though he has flown out of Ben Gurion for years and his status as a businessman is well-known by security.

On one particular trip, airport security escorted Edward to a backroom. He asked why this was necessary. He received no answer. Guards stood nearby as security officers strip-searched him, invading every cavity and exploring every stitch of clothing, even turning up his collar and feeling along the seam. Edward speaks perfect Hebrew and said, "Look me in the eye when you do this. Treat me like a human being. You have absolutely no reason to harass me like this. I have come to this airport for many many years. What is so suspicious about me?"

Simply protocol, one of the officers responded.

When security finished, Edward picked up his cane. He contracted polio as a child, before the vaccination was readily available, and he walks with a pronounced limp. He followed the officials back into the expansive main terminal where hundreds of passengers filed through metal detectors and baggage checks. Suddenly Edward stopped.

"You forgot something,” he said as airport personnel turned to face him. “You didn't check my cane."

He tapped his cane on the floor between them.

They assured him they were quite satisfied. He was free to go. But Edward adamantly refused.

"No, you must check my cane,” he said, his voice rising. “It could have a bomb! You checked everything else. Why would you not check it?"

Security said it would be unnecessary.

“But if it is protocol to strip-search me, why would you not search this?” Edward yelled, shoving his cane toward them. “If I deserved that, then surely you must make certain I do not have a bomb!”

His loud voice began drawing attention from the terminal. Curious passengers and passersby watched as the guards attempted to usher Edward to the front of the line, but he shrugged them off.

"I insist you check my cane! I could have a bomb in this cane! You must check it now!"

The security officers finally took Edward’s cane and scanned it before letting him pass through. He didn’t have a bomb.


  1. Great analysis of nonviolence. I love the disarming nature of Edward's story. He breaks their power structure with one simple protest. Truly biblical. Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

  2. A beautiful story of the third way. I remember the first time your father told me this story and how struck I was by the power of it. It's been nearly six month's though, and I needed to be reminded.

  3. Nice. I know you are busy, but we need more posts! Yella!