Matthew 5: 38-48
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Voelkel
Root us in love, Holy One. Root us in love. Root us in love. Amen.
In A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engele’s theological masterpiece masquerading as a children’s book, she writes of a scene in which the protagonist, Meg, has managed to temporarily resist a totalitarian regime of control and evil (called IT and the Black Thing) and escape to a planet of beasts who will help her heal and return to the struggle. She arrives there deeply injured from her resistance, nearly broken.
“This little girl needs prompt and special care. The coldness of the—what is it you call it?”
“The Black Thing?”
“The Black Thing. Yes. The Black Thing burns unless it is counteracted properly.” The three beasts stood around Meg, and it seemed that they were feeling into her with their softly waving tentacles. The movement of the tentacles was as rhythmic and flowing as the dance of an undersea plant, and lying there, cradled in the four strange arms, Meg, despite herself, felt a sense of security that was deeper than anything she had known since the days when she lay in her mother’s arms in the old rocking chair and was sung to sleep. With her father’s help she had been able to resist IT. Now she could hold out no longer. She leaned her head against the beast’s chest, and realized that the gray body was covered with the softest, most delicate fur imaginable, and the fur had the same beautiful odor as the air.
… As the tall figure cradled her she could feel the frigid stiffness of her body relaxing against it. The bliss could not come to her from a thing like IT. IT could only give her pain, never relieve it. The beasts must be good. They had to be good. She sighed deeply, like a very small child, and suddenly she was asleep.
This brokenness and injury feels familiar.
I had lunch with a clergy colleague this week and we talked about how angry we are. I hear about Scott Pruitt’s confirmation and I’m angry. I hear about president #45 saying he’s the least anti-semitic person you’ll ever meet and I’m angry. I hear about the Dept of Education under DeVos’s tweet that misspelled WEB DuBois’s name and then misspelled the word “apology” in their apology and I’m angry.
And when I hear these things while I’m logged onto Facebook, I find myself clicking the red-faced angry emoji on almost every article or post I read. Black history month meeting at the White House—angry emoji. “This isn’t chaos, it’s a fine-tuned machine”—angry emoji. The US Army Corp of Engineers reversing itself on an environmental review and the drilling can begin at Standing Rock—angry emoji.
And then I’m in a meeting with other religiously-rooted justice folks—all of whom I honestly love—and we have to pause because we find ourselves going after each other in anger… And after a few deep breaths, we try to re-orient ourselves. And we talk about the fact that this anger we are engulfed in and directing toward so many we encounter—is totally appropriate to feel, given what we’re experiencing. AND it’s part of a strategy being deployed against us. It is both of these at the same time.
So you might be surprised to hear that I was absolutely ecstatic when Ashley and Mindy and I were doing worship planning and we read our Matthew text from this morning. It was one of those times when the Biblical text is like the beast with its exquisitely soft fur with the beautiful aroma who cradles me back to healing.
This may surprise you because this particular text has been used in such negative ways. But a theologian, Biblical scholar and activist named Walter Wink has helped me experience this text like an Aunt Beast—it appears ugly, but when one relaxes into it, it is a healing balm.
Wink’s book is called Violence and Non-Violence in South Africa: Jesus’ Third Way and his central message starts with setting our scripture for this morning in context.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not strike back at evil (or one who has done you evil) in kind. Do not give blow for blow. Do not retaliate against violence with violence.
Jesus is speaking to people living under Roman occupation. They are grappling with how to live in relationship to the Empire. Some have chosen fight. There was a violent uprising in Galilee that was crushed. Many of Jesus’ hearers would have seen some of the more than 2000 people crucified along the roadside for resisting the Empire. Or they would have known the inhabitants of Sepphoris just three miles north of Nazareth who had been sold into slavery for supporting the insurrectionists.
Others had chosen passivity or submission- an option which didn’t incur Roman crack-down but which was soul-crushing.
It is into this seemingly no-win situation—fight and be crushed or submit—that Jesus preaches.
But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;
Wink invites us to focus on Jesus’ referencing the right cheek. Why does he include the right cheek? The only way (in a right handed world—and there were fines in Jesus’ day for using your left hand which was reserved for unclean tasks) the only way to strike the right cheek of another person is to use the back of your hand. A backhand slap was the normal way of admonishing those with less power than you—those who are considered inferiors. As Wink says, “masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. One black [South] African told me that during his youth white farmers still gave the backhand to disobedient workers. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission.”
Jesus’ hearers would have been those being backhanded. They would have endured such dehumanizing treatment and been forced to stifle their rage due to the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status and imperial occupation. So why does he suggest turning the other cheek?
Because it robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. It says, try again, your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. But furthermore, it creates difficulty for the striker. If you hit the left cheek, you have to do so with your closed fist—acknowledging the other as your equal, your peer.
Likewise, the second example of and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well is another example of flipping the power dynamics. It is set in a court of law. Only the poorest of the poor would have nothing but an outer garment to use as collateral for a loan. And the economic system in Jesus’ day was one in which the Roman Empire had created a tax system in which people were falling further and further into spiraling debt. Many of Jesus’ hearers would understand that this was someone who owned only his coat (his outer garment) and his cloak (his underwear). Faced with a rigged legal and economic system, he isn’t going to win the trial. So when he is forced to give his outer coat, he takes off his underwear and hands it to his creditor. In his cultural context nakedness is a taboo and the shame falls on the one causing or seeing the nakedness, not the naked one.
By stripping, the naked one brings a curse upon his creditor. It becomes a public chastisement to both the system of Empire and the individual demanding his coat. And, as Wink points out, it might provide an opportunity for the creditor to have his participation in unjust systems revealed to him. It is a call to an ancient Jewish art of clowning. And it echoes a later saying in the Talmud which says, “If your neighbor calls you an ass, put a saddle on your back.” But it does more than that. “The Powers That Be literally stand on their dignity. Nothing [deflates their power] faster than deft lampooning. By refusing to be awed by their power, the powerless are emboldened to seize the initiative, even where structural change is not possible.”
Finally, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. This third example is also rooted in a context very familiar with Jesus’ hearers living under Roman imperial occupation. There existed a law that Roman soldiers could impose labor on subjected peoples. It was another bitter reminder that they were an occupied people in their own land. But to keep the subjected peoples from rebelling, there were strict rules that a solder could only make a person carry his belongings one mile and violation of them carried penalties for the soldier. So again, faced with an imbalance of power, Jesus counsels creativity which flips the power dynamic.
The soldier flaunts his power and demands that someone carry his bag (which often weighed sixty-five to eighty-five pounds). That person picks up the bag and starts walking, but when he gets to the mile marker where the soldier thinks he’s going to drop the bag, he keeps walking. The soldier doesn’t know what to do—are you being kind? Are you insulting his strength? Are you trying to get him disciplined for violating the rules? From a situation of servile impressment, you have taken back the power of choice. You have flipped the dynamic, claiming your own humanity and your equality with the soldier.
Seen through the lens that Walter Wink offers, this text can be a salve and a balm to the soul. In the midst of Empire, Jesus offers practical, creative resistance, rooted in the culture of his listeners that claims deep humanity, plays with humor and takes the rules of Empire and flips them on their head. It’s like the AIDS activists who, in the 1980’s in the face of a government who refused to do anything about this horrifying plague, wrapped Sen Jesse Helms’ house in a giant condom and at the same time made quilts for each person who had died with exquisite, palpable details about each, precious life. Claiming humor and satire and humanity.
I believe we are in similar times and the call to a kind of creative resistance is our call. It’s why Saturday Night Live is saving my life right now. Satire is one of the most profound kinds of resistance. It can expose and name and claim truth.
But it’s important to look at the last part of our scripture today.
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you
Any of this kind of resistance can easily be fueled by anger alone. And when we are driven only by anger, a kind of bitterness and hatred can be the motivation which drives us and begins to control us. And this is where the fact that we are followers of Jesus makes a difference. Jesus’ Third Way reminds us that our anger can be sacred, but unless we are rooted in love, we can become pawns of the very system or situation we are seeking to resist. To quote some of the signs at those women’s marches which are another wonderful example of Jesus’ Third Way, “only love trumps hate.”
After she is healed by Aunt Beast, Meg is sent back to confront IT again. Her job is to try to save her brother, Charles Wallace, who is enslaved by IT. To help her, she is told by one of her teachers, Mrs. Whatsit, that she has something that IT does not.
As she saw him it was again as though she had been punched in the stomach, for she had to realize afresh that she was seeing Charles, and yet it was not Charles at all. Where was Charles Wallace, her own beloved Charles Wallace?
What is it I have got that IT hasn’t got?
“You have nothing that IT hasn’t got, “Charles Wallace said coldly. “How nice to have you back, dear sister. We have been waiting for you. We knew that Mrs. Whatsit would send you. She is our friend, you know.”
For an appalling moment Meg believed, and in that moment she felt her brain being gathered up into IT.
“No!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “No! You lie!”
For a moment she was free from ITs clutches again.
As long as I can stay angry enough IT can’t get me. Is that what I have that IT doesn’t have?
“Nonsense,” Charles Wallace said. “You have nothing that IT doesn’t have.”
“You’re lying,” she replied, and she felt only anger toward the boy who was not Charles Wallace at all. No, it was not anger, it was loathing; it was hatred, sheer and unadulterated, and as she became lost in hatred she also began to be lost in IT. The red miasma swam before her eyes; her stomach churned in ITs rhythm. Her body trembled with the strength of her hatred and the strength of IT.
With the last vestige of consciousness she jerked her mind and body. Hate was nothing IT didn’t have. IT knew all about hate.
“You are lying about that, and you were lying about Mrs. Whatsit!” she screamed.
“Mrs. Whatsit hates you,” Charles Wallace said.
And that was where IT made ITs fatal mistake, for as Meg said, automatically, “Mrs. Whatsit loves me; that’s what she told me, that she loves me,” suddenly she knew.
That was what she had that IT did not have.
She had Mrs. Whatsit’s love, and her father’s, and her mother’s, and the real Charles Wallace’s love, and the twins’, and Aunt Beast’s.
And she had her love for them.
But how could she use it? What was she meant to do?
If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.
But she could love Charles Wallace.
She could stand there and she could love Charles Wallace.
Her own Charles Wallace, the real Charles Wallace, the child for whom she had come back to [this planet], to IT, the baby who was so much more than she was, and who was yet so utterly vulnerable.
She could love Charles Wallace.
Charles. Charles, I love you. My baby brother who always takes care of me. Come back to me, Charles Wallace, come away from IT, come back, come home. I love you, Charles. Oh, Charles Wallace, I love you.
Tears were streaming down her cheeks, but she was unaware of them.
Now she was even able to look at him, at this animated thing that was not her own Charles Wallace at all. She was able to look and love.
I love you. Charles Wallace, you are my darling and my dear and the light of my life and the treasure of my heart. I love you. I love you. I love you.
Slowly his mouth closed. Slowly his eyes stopped their twirling. The tic in the forehead ceased its revolting twitch. Slowly he advanced toward her.
“I love you!” she cried. “I love you, Charles! I love you!”
Then suddenly he was running, pelting, he was in her arms, he was shrieking with sobs, “Meg! Meg! Meg!”
“I love you, Charles!” she cried again, her sobs almost as loud as his, her tears mingling with his. “I love you! I love you! I love you!”
A whirl of darkness. An icy cold blast. An angry, resentful howl that seemed to tear through her. Darkness again. Through the darkness to save her came a sense of Mrs. Whatsit’s presence, so that she knew it could not be IT who now had her in its clutches.
And then the feel of earth beneath her, of something in her arms, and she was rolling over on the sweet smelling autumnal earth, and Charles Wallace was crying out, “Meg! Oh, Meg!”
Now she was hugging him close to her, and his little arms were clasped tightly around her neck. “Meg, you saved me! You saved me!” he said it over and over.
 Madeleine L’Engele A Wrinkle in Time (Square Fish: New York, 1962), 197-198
 Walter Wink, Violence and Non-Violence in South Africa: Jesus’ Third Way (New Society Publishers: Philadelphia, 1987), 12-23.
 Madeleine L’Engele A Wrinkle in Time (Square Fish: New York, 1962), 227-230.