Lectionary Passages for Feb. 23, 2014. Lev. 19:1-2, Ps. 119:33-40, 1 Cor. 3:10-11, 16-23, Matt 5:38-48
It's been a sad week for news listening. There are ongoing tribal conflicts in many parts of Africa, people tortured in North Korea, "Christians" and "Muslims" killing each other in Syria. Where atrocity is visited on a group, there is often retaliation. Then more retaliation. The cycle gets harder and harder to break. It' is impossible to understand how people can be so awful to each other, and how we don't seem to understand what it takes to stop the downward spirals.
The scriptures this week are all about how we deal with each other-especially when things are not going well. Matthew 38 is the familiar passage where Jesus tells his follows not to respond "eye for eye", but to break the cycle by refusing to fight back in kind. It's important to note that Jesus is not prescribing neutrality, he is pushing the wronged party to turn their cheek and go the extra distance. It's not good enough to simply not respond, we are to respond with generous kindness. This is an immensely hard teaching! Choking down anger when we are wronged is next to impossible. It feels like a triumph sometimes just to bite our tongues and refrain from making a situation worse, let alone finding the fortitude to respond in the ways Jesus asks. I've always wondered too, how far should we take this teaching? Jesus is referring to the specific instance of a Roman soldier requiring a citizen of the subjugated nation to carry his gear, a legal (if insulting) act. But what about the people in a village in Africa, whose families are killed by a neighbouring tribe? What about those Koreans whose loved ones were taken and tortured? This teaching seems ridiculous in the face of such evil.
And yet, where will the violence ever stop if everyone insists on their right to fight back?
In the Corinthians passage, Paul addresses a quarreling church, reminding them they should be focused on Christ, not themselves or their leaders. The leaders are only transient workers, the people are only a field in which God's work should grow. It's never about the one, it's about the health of the whole. It's a humbling reminder to keep perspective-another difficult thing to do in the midst of turmoil. Again, however, this keeping of proper perspective is a way forward, a way to break the cycle of jealousies and quarreling. It must be about Christ. Verse 18 points out that none of us is wise-no one person has the answer and we have to constantly be open to learning.
A few years ago, I read a book called; The Lucifer Effect; Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. by Philip Zimbardo. It was a real "changer" for me. Zimbardo, (a social psychologist and creator of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment), does a thorough job explaining how any one of us could 'go bad' given the wrong set of situational pressures. After reading this, I resonate with Paul's assertion that none of us is wise (v 18). It was frightening for me to realize that I could also be capable of atrocities, not just petty things, but real harm to myself and others. Just being aware of this reality is already helpful! It is difficult for anyone to "buck the system" and actually manage to turn the other cheek, to react with kind generosity in the face of evil, and to break the cycles of retribution and harm.We have to help people see opportunities to stop hurting each other so that negative cycles are broken.
In spite of the difficulty, sometimes people can change things. Zimbardo calls them heroes. One of the best ways to help create the opportunities for heroes to emerge is to educate people. To help all of us understand that no one is exempt from going bad, to help each of us understand we can make choices to break downward cycles. Reading scriptures like Matthew and Corinthians (and Leviticus which sets up humane structures to guard against abuse...) and letting them soak into our understandings gives us options-choices of how to respond. These choices may be sacrificial, but somewhere the cycle has to stop. It isn't all about us. It is about how God wants us to respond, so that others who come behind us are not still caught in the negativity.