Sermon - 23rd February 2014
Scripture - Matthew 5:38-48
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Over the years I've found that I've enjoyed preaching more and more – whether or not the congregations I preach to share my joy is, perhaps, something to muse on another time. I've found, however, that this week the Gospel text for today to be especially challenging. It's not because I don't understand it – Jesus is very clear; it's because most of this week I've been angry – sometimes I've been raging. Not at anyone in particular, but at a system.
A member of my congregation, Alain, is a bisexual man from Cameroon. Cameroon, in common with many African countries, has a poor human rights record in general and is particularly vile towards lesbian and gay people. We have two other regulars from Cameroon and some occasional attenders from there too.
Alain's claim for asylum was based on his sexuality. A judge didn't believe him because he couldn't prove he'd been in a sexual relationship with a man in Cameroon. It's quite difficult to prove these things anyway, but particularly difficult when you're in a different country.
Alain was detained last week when he went to report at Dallas CourtReporting Centre in Manchester. His solicitor started to get to work but then realised that the Legal Aid contract he works under precluded him from continuing to represent Alain now he was in detention. No matter, we were told Alain had a right to see a solicitor in the detention centre he was being held in, which was in Lincolnshire.
He was given removal directions last Monday and told he would be deported last Friday. He was also told it was a two week wait to see a solicitor!
So I got new evidence for Alain. He told me about his boyfriend who had written a statement, I asked people from church to write witness statements, and contacted the two other groups he'd been involved with since being moved to Oldham last autumn. I put these together and, with some help from a lawyer, we submitted a fresh claim on his behalf.
Just after this he found a solicitor. The Home Office then moved him to another detention centre, adjacent to Heathrow, on the morning of the day he was due to see his solicitor at the Lincolnshire centre.
On Thursday a woman from the Red Cross found him a solicitor at the detention centre near Heathrow, who came to see him on Friday – with just hours to go before the deportation. Happily the Fresh Claim which had been submitted on the Wednesday did the the trick and he has been given a stay whilst the new evidence is considered. We hope he will be given bail now.
As you can imagine with Alain's case, throughout last week I found myself getting angrier and angrier.
Legal Aid was one of the pillars of the Welfare State set up after the Second World War to allow everyone access to justice; yet it's been chipped and hacked away so that now it's almost impossible to get help if you're about to be deported – just the time when you need it most. Yet they say there is a right to it – just almost no chance of getting it.
As a country we say we have a proud tradition of welcoming refugees and, a few weeks ago, there was a huge outcry because the government weren't going to take many Syrians. Yet our proud tradition has a dirty little secret – the Immigration Removal Centres are full to bursting, and people quietly get shipped back home.
The system keeps asylum seekers away from mainstream society: only a few get to make friends and alliances with people who might help them – Alain only started coming to us in December and we don't know him well, so it's been hard to mount a campaign for him.
So I found myself getting angrier and angrier. And then I read the Gospel passage! I read that revenge isn't what we're supposed to do - and oh did I want revenge! I'm not sure who I wanted to revenge to be meted out to, but someone deserves it!
Turning the Other Cheek and Resistance
The problem with this passage is that, at face value, it lets the powerful get away with it. Jesus says that we're not to resist an evildoer – presumably the context indicates that we're not to use violence. But it's hard to be a pacifist – I've lots of respect to those who are; but if someone I loved was being attacked and I had the means to use violence to stop it, I don't think this passage would flash through my mind! Jesus seems to indicate that we should let the powerful get away with it – even aid them to take more – the extra mile, the cloak, the other cheek. This is not what I wanted to read this week when I thought the powerful had taken far too much from Alain.
Clearly this has been a difficult passage for Christians to live by since the earliest days of the Church. Over the years we've come up with interesting ways to make sense of it so that it doesn't disturb us quite so much.
- Some thinkers argue that Jesus was setting forth a set of values to which his disciples should aspire. They are impossible but that's the point. By striving toward them, we live better than we would otherwise.
- Some thinkers follow Martin Luther and hold that Jesus' words throughout the Sermon on the Mount reveal the impossibility of human righteousness, preparing us for the advent of grace.
- Some writers believe that Jesus was speaking to his disciples as individuals. In our modern world, with its complex relationships, global economics, and violent military threats, they think that his advice simply does not hold.
As interesting as these ideas are it seems to me that, in St Matthew, Jesus seems to mean what he says! The interpretations try to rob his words of their power. So why does he tell us to turn the other cheek, to eschew violence against evildoers, to give the cloak when the shirt has already been taken, to lend to those who demand and to go the extra mile?
I think Jesus is teaching us to shame the powerful into changing their behaviour.
- To stand and turn the other cheek is to keep one's dignity in the face of unjust violence.
- To refuse to seek revenge is to raise ourselves above the behaviour of the bully.
- To refuse to allow ourselves to be drawn into violence keeps us aware of our humanity.
- To offer the shirt as well as the cloak is the clue to all this. In Jewish law cloaks, outdoor garments, coats, could not be taken as surety on a loan. This was to allow the poor to have some protection against the cold at night – your cloak or coat was also your blanket. Some level of dignity had to be maintained. Jesus' words show that the act of offering this would shame the person seeking your shirt. It's a reminder that they're not supposed to go this far.
Standing and turning the other cheek reminds the attacker of our dignity, our humanity.
We've all been very conscious of the situation in Ukraine over the last week which is fast-moving and where violence has been used by both sides and, in truth, simply muddies the issues and makes both sides look less than honourable. Ghandi, famously, used Jesus' words to develop his passive resistance to British rule in India. It's a matter of debate whether the same strategy would have worked against the Nazis.
I think Jesus' words are about passive resistance. They tell us not to collude with the oppressor in the attempt to deny our humanity, our dignity, our rights. We don't fight back with violence as that reduces us to their level, instead we turn the tables.
Turning the other cheek keeps our dignity when it's been denied; going the extra mile shames the person who uses forced labour. It's about keeping control and power in a situation where we're powerless. It's about showing love to enemies instead of wreaking revenge.
In doing this Jesus builds on the Law – something we forget in our insistence to compare the Law with the grace offered by Jesus. The Jewish Law, to be sure, empowers victims to seek restitution that fits the crime (Exod. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). On the other hand, various scriptural passages voice the determination not to retaliate against a wrongdoer
- You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord. (Lev. 19:18);
- Do not say, “I will repay evil”; wait for the Lord, and he will help you.(Prov. 20:22)
- Do not say, “I will do to others as they have done to me; I will pay them back for what they have done.” (24:29).
Jesus is, interestingly, telling us to forfeit our rights in these instances. The Law forbade taking of a coat as a guarantee for a loan – as then the person would be cold at night as coats were used to sleep under. The Roman Law demanded that anyone could be told to carry stuff for a Roman soldier, but only for a mile. Jesus by saying we should go the extra mile is telling us not to press for our rights. This is rather counter-cultural and, also, rather disturbing for those of us who have worked hard over the years for the rights of various minorities within society. And I've spent the last week asserting the rights of Alain in immigration detention. So this is a hard passage.
Maybe the key is to work for others' rights rather than my own; to be willing to put my own interests, rights, security and status after those of others. Maybe if we all did this the world would be better, or maybe the bullies and oppressors would just use that attitude to gain more power. It's a hard one and, unusually for a preacher, I don't know the answer!
Yes But How
So with the caveat that I really don't know how society would work if we gave up violence, if we put the rights of others before our own, nor how we'd deal with those who didn't want to live like that: I think we can find some pointers for how to live by turning the other cheek, by not getting revenge, and by seeking to resist evil in non-violent ways.
The key is love. I think as Christians we often confuse loving and liking. We're called to love each other but not, necessarily, to like each other. In any organisation we're part of, there will be people that we don't like – the Church is no exception. But we're called to love each other, regardless of whether or not we like each other.
Love can sometimes be tough. It's love that turns the other cheek, that says “I refuse to let you humiliate me.” It's love that tells the truth. This week Cardinal Nichols told the truth, with the church leaders of the Baptists, the URC, the Methodists, and some Anglican Bishops, about breadline Britain. He was tough, he made those in power profoundly uncomfortable, but he was loving. It was love that drove Bonhoeffer to tell the truth about the Nazis, and led him to oppose the Nazi state. When faced with the atrocities against the Jewish people he, famously, said:
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
So this week I hope I've acted in love in my anger as I've put a few spokes in the wheels of injustice that have surrounded my parishioner Alain. In the weeks ahead, I hope each of us will find ways to do more than bandage the wounds of the victims of injustice in our society - and to find ways, as a congregation, as individuals, to help stop the damage in the first place.