The Sound of Angel Wings Lk 6:27-38
On June 17, 2015, nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC—known locally as “Mother Emmanuel”—were shot and killed by a stranger, a young white man they’d welcomed into their Bible study. In the days that followed this mass murder, the families of the victims came together publicly to offer forgiveness for the one whose hate-filled actions had violated the sanctity of their house of worship and caused them unspeakable heartbreak.
That’s what I remembered when I read this week’s texts about Joseph forgiving his brothers who’d tried to kill him, and Jesus’ sermon about loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. I thought about the unfathomable pain the family members of the Mother Emmanuel victims must have experienced. I marveled at the profound the witness to God’s grace they embodied when they forgave someone who—to this day—has never repented or acknowledged guilt.
If something that awful happened in this congregation, or to other people I love, could I forgive the murderer? I like to hope that I might manage it, but I’m not at all sure I’d be able. So how am I supposed to respond to Jesus’ admonition in Luke to “Be merciful just as your God is merciful”? (Matthew’s Gospel is even more challenging, recording Jesus’ command as “Be perfect, therefore, as your father in heaven in perfect”!)
Theologian David Lose has a great response to that dilemma. He writes, “It’s not our job to bring in the kingdom; Jesus does that. It’s our job to live like we really believe Jesus actually is bringing in God’s kingdom, and to realize that we get to practice living like Jesus’ disciples and citizens of this new kingdom in the meantime.” So knowing we can’t attain the kind of life Jesus describes in this sermon, we are free to practice living like disciples. Whew!
Jesus calls us to practice being radical and countercultural in our interactions with our neighbors, including the ones we prefer not to think of as our neighbors—as those families from Mother Emanuel Church so vividly demonstrated. Jesus makes it abundantly clear that we are not to retaliate when someone behaves badly toward us. This is challenging, because it’s not in our nature to respond to violence with non-violence. We are tempted to fight fire with fire or to hide under the covers, sometimes feeling they are the only two options available to us. Turning the other cheek, as we’ve come to understand the concept, sounds like lying down like a doormat and taking the abuse.
But what if that’s not what Jesus meant? What if Jesus is rejecting the suggestion that the only options are fight or flight, and is, instead, opening a door for a creative third way?
Theologian Walter Wink wrote a series of books about creative non-violent resistance that has really helped me understand how we can to stand up for ourselves and resist sinning at the same time. In The Powers That Be he specifically addresses this idea of “turning the other cheek” by inviting us to imagine someone striking us in the face with a fist. He points out that the blow would have to come from the attacker’s right fist because in Semitic societies, the left hand was only used for unclean tasks, like wiping your bottom, so would never be raised in public. That means it’s most likely the blow would land on our left cheek. But if you offered your right cheek as the only way the assailant could hit you, then—other than using the forbidden left hand—the only way they could strike would be with the back of their hand.
A backhanded slap is not intended to hurt you, typically. It’s more symbolic, a sign of the power and superiority of the one bestowing it. And it couldn’t be repeated if you turned the other cheek. And Wink observes, ”You can’t backhand someone twice. It’s like telling a joke a second time. If it doesn’t work the first time, it has failed. By turning the other cheek, you are defiantly saying to the master, ‘I refuse to be humiliated by you any longer. I am a human being just like you. I am a child of God. You can’t put me down even if you have me killed.'” Turning the other cheek brings you eye to eye with your assailant. Eye-to-eye puts you in the defiant (and somewhat intimate) position of insisting that the bully is your equal, neither more nor less human than you are.
It needs to be distinctly understood that turning the other cheek or expressing forgiveness and mercy does not mean allowing people to get away with sin or to perpetuate evil. Jesus resisted every sort of evil with his whole being, but he never retaliated violently. Advocating neither fight nor flight in the face of oppression, Jesus lived the Third Way: the way of non-violence. This Third Way humanizes the situation and levels the playing field. It is a way to meet an oppressor as a fellow human being, rather than as an enemy.
If we can respond to cruelty creatively and bravely, we not only defend our humanity against inhumanity, we honor God. Think about Gandhi’s march to the sea, protesting the British monopoly on the production and sale of salt in India. Or those brave African-Americans who first sat down at the lunch counter in Woolworth’s in the 1960’s here in the US. Civil Rights workers trained protestors to take all kinds of racial slurs and physical abuse without striking back. That’s why the protestors let themselves be mocked, endured sodas and mustard poured on them, but never lowered themselves to respond in kind. They were claiming their humanity in the center of inhumanity, and right in front of TV cameras that made sure everyone could see who was maintaining dignity in that scene, and who was not.
One of my favorite examples of non-violence resistance happened in Wyoming in 1998. You may not recall the first time that the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church hate group arrived on the national scene, but it was when two young men, accused of beating to death a young gay man named Matthew Shepherd, were brought to trial. Days before the trial began, Phelps’ group arrived carrying their now-familiar signs with horrifying slogans like “God hates fags” or “Matthew Shepherd is burning in hell.” As the national media descended on Wyoming to cover the trial, Shepherd’s friends watched the Westboro Baptist protestors getting more and more attention, distracting people from the real gruesome reason for the trial.
In response, on the first day of the trial, a group of Matthew’s 20-something-year-old friends chose to fight the hatred of the Westboro Baptist crowd not with hate, but with creativity. They constructed six-foot-tall angel wings out of old sheets and wore them down to the courthouse. Whenever the media started to zoom in on the Westboro Baptist sign-waving crowd, the angels formed a circle around the protestors and waved their majestic wings, blocking the evil signs from appearing on the national news. Wherever hate was flung out like a poison that day, the response was not poison spewed back. At that moment, turning the other cheek sounded a lot like the flapping of angel wings.
We shouldn’t forget that following Jesus, The Way means following The Third Way. And that means following Jesus is following the way of the Cross. It is not easy or obvious, and it will not keep us safe. With all his miraculous power, Jesus never once used it to take away life, or to make anyone feel smaller or less important. Everything Jesus did, he did so that people’s lives would be richer, healthier, stronger, and lovelier! Jesus offered himself, his whole life, for everyone: for me, and for you, for our enemies, and even for his own enemies. From the cross he spoke the words of The Third Way: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Having been loved and forgiven, named and claimed as God’s beloved children, made in God’s own image, we are called to follow in this way.
When the people of Mother Emanuel forgave the murderer in their midst, they didn’t say he hadn’t done anything wrong or dismiss the chaos he’d wreaked in their lives and in their community. But they didn’t try to hurt him the way they had been hurt by him. Instead, they rose above his shameful behavior. They looked for the human being inside that bully, and forgave him for the sake of Jesus.They took the Third Way, and turned the other cheek. And that day, the sound of mercy was the deafening sound of six-foot angel wings flapping.
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 2-24-19” name of the sermon.