Offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well (Mt 5:39).
In ancient Israel, it was considered a good thing to fight back against one’s enemies. Jesus gave the teachings in today’s Gospel to an audience who were hoping to overthrow their Roman overlords. The strong stand of the Maccabees had occurred about 150 years earlier, and their heroic exploits were still the stuff of little boys’ dreams. Just imagine their astonishment at these words: You have heard that it was said, “You should love your neighbor and hate your enemy;” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Mt. 5:43). Jesus was turning the old teaching on its head.
As an anti-war activist during the 1960’s, I really liked these passages. Pacifism was a way of living in the world that I hoped to pass on to my children. Then the reality of the schoolyard struck. When he was in third grade, my son began to come home in tears almost daily, the result of bullying on the playground. I spoke with him about turning the other cheek, but it clearly was not resonating with him. I told Russ what was happening, so he went to intervene. He taught our son how to stand up for himself—what to say and what to do. “Don’t ever start a fight, but always finish it.” Our son responded much better to this advice. I, who had no brothers (and no experience of schoolyard fights), was horrified!
When we were alone, I questioned my husband. “Shouldn’t we be teaching our children to turn the other cheek? Isn’t that what God wants us to do?” “Yes, of course,” he replied. “But it’s wrong to teach a child to act meek when he is feeling weak. You can’t be a true pacifist out of fear—only from a position of strength. Once he knows he can stand up for himself, then he is free to choose to be kind to his enemies. And it probably won’t be until he’s much older.”
I thought about this a lot. As I turned to the Lord in prayer, I began to realize that my kindness toward my enemies was not because I chose to be kind, it was because I was afraid not to be. Sometimes I acted “nice” because I wanted to be well thought of. Sometimes it was because I cringed at the thought of confrontation of any kind and back-pedaled when someone disagreed with me. It took me a long time to work through feelings of fear in the face of harshness by another.
Since Jesus had instructed us to do it, I made the decision to pray for my enemies. They, too, were God’s children. I discovered that it’s impossible to continue hating a person when you’re on your knees. I didn’t want to become close friends, but there was no longer that hardness in my heart toward them. Now, with God’s grace, when I am kind to the unkind, it is no longer because of fear and weakness, but because of my strength in the Lord.