Power and Turning the Other Cheek
The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
On February 20, 2022, the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, we continued our sermon series Epiphany: A Season of Self-Discovery, and I talked about recognizing that we can change and we can choose (see above). We looked at the story of Joseph's reconciliation with his brothers (Genesis 45:3-11,15) and Jesus' continuation of his "Sermon on the Plain" (Luke 6:27-38).
I mention during the sermon how important it is to note the power dynamics in the Joseph story as an example of loving an enemy. Joseph has all the power in the part of his story. It would be very easy for him to use that power to exact revenge against his brothers, yet he chooses to be loving and forgiving instead. I think this power dynamic matters a great deal, especially when we're reading this passage as a thematic pairing with the gospel reading. There are a couple of things I'd like to add to the context of the sermon.
First, both readings, I believe, are (among others things) making a comment on how to hold roles of authority and leadership. Joseph, again, has all the power here, and it would be so easy for him to misuse it. There is great potential here for him to abuse his authority. He's been abused by his brothers, and now has the opportunity to give them a taste of their own medicine. Instead, we get a lesson on love, forgiveness, and resisting the temptation to misuse positions of power.
In the Luke reading from Jesus' "Sermon on the Plain," it's easy to miss that Jesus has just chosen "the twelve" from among his followers, and called them "apostles" (Luke 6:12-16). He's picked his leadership. Luke then tells us he came down from the mountain with them, and he delivers his sermon "on a large area of level ground" or "a level place" (Luke 6:17). He performs some healings, and then it says he looks at his disciples and delivers the sermon. By mentioning, 1) Jesus choosing the 12 apostles, 2) descent from a place on high to a "level place" with those in need, and 3) that the sermon he gives is not to the crowd at large but to the disciples, Jesus' words become a comment on how he and his followers are to lead. They are not to lead from a position "on high," but as equal to those most in need.
Secondly, in context, the teaching to "turn the other cheek," etc., is not in any way about being a doormat and letting people walk all over us. It's not about allowing ourselves to be abused and robbed of our dignity. To conflate gospel accounts a little, I read an interesting post about "turning the other cheek" as it appears in Matthew. In that gospel, Jesus says "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." This writer offers some interesting insight into how turning the left cheek back on someone would have been an assertion of power and defiance in the ancient world. It's an assertion of humanity, not an invitation to further a powerless acceptance of abuse. I can't help but think of the way that old footage of nonviolent civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s looked to people then and now. When African American protestors where shoved, kicked, hit with batons and water hoses, attacked by police dogs, people could not help have their consciences activated. Who in that footage looks like the "good guys," and who looks like the "bad guys"? The protestors are essentially "turning the other cheek," and it upends the power dynamic.
Being a follower of Jesus, and taking readings like these seriously, is not a call to be a pushover. It is meant for us to consider the proper way to use authority, and to rethink our tendencies to perpetuate cycles of violence. For Luke, it seems clearly to have a lot to do with putting everyone together on "level ground" in the Kingdom of God.
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