It’s about family violence, but not as you might think

To suggest victims of family violence should ‘turn the other cheek’ is a toxic distortion of Jesus’ teaching. A look at the context of these words, and how they are an invitation to challenge all forms of violence and control, including within the family. (Listen.)

It has been a terrible week. Those of us who keep an eye on the news know that, yet again, a family has been destroyed by violence. Hannah Clarke and her children are only the most recent victims of a culture which infects our nation. For while this event is at the extreme end, family violence is very common. Some of us have been personally scarred by family violence; many of us work with victim-survivors of family violence; and most of us have friends and loved ones for whom family violence is a lived experience.

The question so often asked by those who are not experiencing it is, “Why do they stay?” And there are many answers to this question, not least that leaving is the most dangerous time. But there is another reason particular to Christians, and that is theological. I know a number of men and women who have stayed, and stayed, and stayed, because they were told to “turn the other cheek.” As we just heard, Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also … Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” And so women and men stay in violent and controlling relationships, turning the other cheek again and again and again.

So, is Jesus really telling us to be doormats? Is he really saying to turn the other cheek in situations of family violence? You can probably guess my answer, but first let’s go back to the context in which he was teaching.

His first audience were Jewish peasants living under Roman military rule. They were at the bottom of the heap, and were regularly slapped, spat on, and taunted for being Jewish and poor. To Jews, pigs are unclean animals, yet the symbol of a wild pig was carved, scratched and painted everywhere, to further humiliate the Jews, render their holy sites unclean and unusable, and remind everyone who controlled this region: the Roman Legio X Fretensis, whose symbol was a boar. Meanwhile, Roman taxes siphoned the wealth out of the countryside and towards the aristocracy in other cities, and many peasants ended up in debtor’s prison.

In a situation such as this, what do you do? Do you join one of the violent guerrilla resistance movements, knowing it will lead only to your body joining the lines of crucified bodies flanking the major highways? Do you capitulate to the daily humiliations and allow the oppressors to destroy your sense of self-worth? Or is there a third way: a way between violence and capitulation?

Well, yes: the path of nonviolent resistance. Jesus is talking here to male disciples about how to resist being shaped and dominated by other people’s power. For example, when someone hits you on the right cheek, they are hitting you with the back of their hand. Man-to-man, this was, and continues to be, shameful, for you are being hit like a woman or child: a no-person in that world. So Jesus says, when this happens, turn your other cheek: invite the powerful person to hit you as an equal. Don’t fight back, but don’t cringe. Don’t let them use their power and violence to destroy your self-respect.

“When someone wants to sue you and take your tunic,” you are a debtor and that person is rich. They have lent you money, and are taking your tunic as collateral. So, says Jesus, give them more: give them your cloak, too. He’s speaking to people who own only two garments; in the first century, peasants had no underpants. So, when you are sued for your tunic, don’t fight back; instead, give them everything you have, because in your nakedness their exploitation of your poverty will be evident to everyone, even God.

“When someone forces you to go one mile,” that someone is a Roman soldier. A soldier had the legal right to force a peasant to carry his pack for one mile, and one mile only. Any further, and there were serious consequences for the soldier. But, says Jesus, “Go a second mile with him.” Don’t resist, but don’t quite do what you’re told. Instead, carry the soldier’s pack cheerfully and graciously, maybe even singing, and keep right on carrying it for a second mile. The chances are the soldier will be hopping alongside you trying to get his pack back.

In other words, these teachings of Jesus are not about submitting to family violence or any form of bullying. Instead, they are about nonviolent resistance and political theatre in the face of terrible social injustice. These words helped shape the Indian nationalist movement led by Mahatma Gandhi; the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr; the Liberian women’s movement for peace led by Leymah Gbowee; and many other movements around the world; and they are shaping Love Makes a Way in Australia now.

This, then, is the invitation: in the face of great injustice, find creative ways to join together and resist oppressive structures, even as we love and pray for those who build those structures, and who use violence to maintain the status quo. And so these teachings of Jesus are highly relevant to family violence, just not in the way people have often assumed. Rather than telling people to “turn the other cheek” and “pray for those who persecute you,” we must name and resist the social structures and narratives in which family violence so easily proliferates; we must stop blaming and shaming the victims; and we must continue to challenge bad theologies which elevate certain people’s power, which diminish and silence people, and which make it so difficult for people to leave intolerable situations.

Let me be clear: if someone strikes you on the left cheek or anywhere else, capitulate only as much as you need to to survive. Then, when you can, get the hell out. Call the police, call CASA, call me, call someone else you trust, and together we will work to help you find a safe place where you can flourish and grow. And as a church, let us become ever more powerfully Christ’s new community of love; the sort of community so permeated by gentleness that family violence, indeed any violence, can never take root again. Amen? (And all the people said, Amen.)

A reflection on Matthew 5:38-48 given to Sanctuary, 23 February 2020 © Alison Sampson, 2020. Image credit: Kat J on Unsplash.

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