Turn That Cheek
Forgiveness always beats revenge
By Norris Burkes
Today’s media can seem like a name-blame-shame game with its frequent demands to have someone’s head on a platter, at least in a figurative way.
The language is not new. It recalls the literal beheading of John the Baptist in Mark 6:14–29.
If it’s been a minute since you read the passage, John was Jesus’ cousin. He was also a prophet who publicly condemned King Herod for the despot’s illegal marriage to his brother’s wife.
As they say in my church, “The preacher stopped preaching and commenced to meddling.” Herod threw the prophet in the clink.
Meanwhile, Herod hosted his birthday party where his stepdaughter, Salome, entertained him with a sultry dance. Stepdad was so pleased with her performance that he offered the girl anything she wanted.
After consultation with her mother, Salome demanded the Baptizer’s head on a platter. Request granted.
Gruesome yes, but the intention wasn’t much different from the phone call I received while serving as an Air Force chaplain at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida in 2002.
My caller told a story about his wife and a sergeant who was “messing” with her.
“The UCMJ demands adulterers be prosecuted,” he said. “If the sergeant doesn’t see some brig time, I’m calling my congressman!”
I told him chaplains don’t practice military law. But we both knew the Uniform Code of Military Justice specifies adultery as a court martial offense.
“I just now left a voice message for the sergeant’s commander,” he said. My caller wanted the sergeant’s career decapitated.
I pressed further, asking how his wife met this man.
“They never actually met,” he said. “But they email each other.”
“So, you’re going to hurt the sergeant’s family for what he’s planning to do, not for what he’s actually done?”
“This home-wrecker is going down!” he said as he hung up.
I suspect my anonymous caller was a proponent of something I call “The Moses Plan.” It’s a page from the book of Exodus that demands “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”
Centuries after Moses suggested this surgical retribution, Jesus employed some skillful hyperbole to introduce his own plan:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.’’
I say, “hyperbole” because if we took the advice literally, we’d all be giving our clothing away piece by piece and soon become a bunch of bruised nudists.
Jesus’ strategy does three things. First, it calls for us to re-examine our motives when seeking justice. Second, it removes the necessity of revenge by removing the power from the insult. But most important, it demands that we seek the power of love and forgiveness. That’s a much higher level of justice than revenge.
The nuts and bolts of the plan can be difficult, but I’ve found practical advice in the writings of the apostle Paul, who advised readers in Philippians 4:8-9 to find things in people that are “… noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst. The beautiful, not the ugly. Things to praise, not things to curse.”
After that phone call, I sat for a moment and hoped the man would call back with a more dispassionate tone. He didn’t.
I imagined him impatiently waiting for a return call from the commander.
But, knowing the commander was a man who played no part in vengeful games, I can assure you the angry caller waited a long time for a call that never came.
Norris Burkes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit thechaplain.net