I’m excited to share another guest reflection with you today, from my dear friend and colleague Jennifer Helminski. Here she meditates on the often-misunderstood teaching of Jesus to ‘turn the other cheek’ — is there a way to love even our enemies while not negating our own dignity?
If you’d like to hear more from Jennifer, come see her at Wisdom Camp and the Wild Goose Festival July 14-18! And please consider contributing to Jennifer’s GoFundMe — if everyone who’s able contributed even $5, we could fully fund her urgent medical needs today!
Troubling the Waters: The Revolutionary Power of Creative Love
Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Thank you all so much for your kind response to my first guest-reflection, Love You Two Pennies! I’m grateful to Mike for introducing me to you, his blog readers. As we dive into this week’s reflection, I’d like to take just a moment to tell you a little bit more about myself and where I’m writing to you from.
I have an unusually interfaith background. I was raised Roman Catholic and was as involved in my church as I could have been, up until I was about 16 or 17. I left my church for a number of reasons, and shortly after began exploring Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, through family connections. That was in 2001, shortly before 9/11. At the time, I was a junior in a fairly small public high school in an overwhelmingly white suburb in New Jersey. I will forever remember watching the hijacked planes fly into the Towers on live TV in my American History class. I remember watching pillars of smoke billowing upwards on the horizon for days afterwards. And, I will always remember the many ways Americans responded to that unthinkable tragedy. Communities came together in solidarity, embodying the greater love and compassion we all know we are capable of. First responders, like my cousin Danny, became heroes who literally put their lives on the line in unimaginable conditions. And, while so many of us rose to the occasion as our better selves, there were those of us who did not, and moments where we fell short of the great love that we are called to embody in this world.
In the days following 9/11, a parallel stream of public discourse arose alongside the narrative of American brotherhood. 24/7 news coverage ramped up, sensationalizing our military response, campaigns of “Shock and Awe,” displaying our might and exacting our vengeance upon a foreign enemy. The thirst for revenge, for the violent eradication of the Other, bled into every space, tainted every conversation. I was in my chemistry class when my teacher pulled down a map and declared that we should blow up the entire Middle East, “women and children included.” He inflamed the voracious appetites of the impressionable teenage boys in the front row, many of whom enlisted in military service after graduation. One of those boys confronted me in gym class, asking me what was so wrong with my “own people” that I needed to “defend those monsters,” that I dared name the frightening injustice I was witnessing. His meaning was clear: I was a white American, and that meant that I had certain loyalties to uphold; that it was unacceptable for me to be anything other than complicit in our collective projections of fear and hatred of anyone that wasn’t a white Christian American. It was around this time that my uncle, a Sufi sheikh and a man of deep wisdom, cautioned me not to wear hijab or go to any mosques; to not visibly identify myself as Muslim for fear of violence. And, while the directive to hide absolutely had a deeply fracturing and alienating impact on my spiritual and social lives, I am also aware that I had the privilege of being able to hide in plain sight if I so chose; to blend into my surroundings in a way that others could not. I could be protected by the sound of my name, by the color of my skin. A few years later, my 42-year-old mother began to lose her long battle against cancer. She had begun watching televangelists and asked me, one day, if I could just be a Buddhist or something, if I couldn’t be a Christian. I’m not sure if she was more worried for the fate of my soul or for the difficulties I might face in life. Maybe both.
There is a lot more to my spiritual journey and background than this, but I just want to highlight one more thread before tying it into the above selection from Luke’s Gospel. In addition to having been Christian and Muslim, I am also Jewish, descended from Jews on my mother’s side of the family. My Jewishness was in the periphery for most of my life and is something I’ve only been able to comfortably engage with in the past few years. It is a part of myself that I love, and an important connection to my ancestors. And I share it with you today because I’ve had to do a lot of difficult work to claim this part of myself. When I was growing up, I was, on at least one occasion, expressly forbidden by my grandmother from telling anyone that we were Jewish. She was a practicing Catholic, a Holocaust survivor, and had spent most of her childhood in hiding with her mother, sister, and aunt. Most of her other family members were murdered by Nazis, including her father who was arrested, imprisoned, and beaten to death for being involved in anti-Nazi activities. Although I didn’t believe it at the time, my grandmother seemed to know that anti-semitism was alive and well in America, hence her demand that we keep our identity a secret. If she were alive today, I wonder how terrifying the past several years would have been for her. I have often wondered, myself, if I am witnessing similar political and social events to those that eventually, unimaginably, culminated in the Holocaust.
So, why have I shared all of this with you? Because, in the journey of my own life, I have been both insider and outsider in our great American empire. I have been keenly aware of Christian supremacy in its range of benign and violent forms. And I want to call that supremacy to mind, and to trouble the waters with its close, perhaps inseparable, relationship with white supremacy, as we encounter Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain.
Jesus is a Jew, a rabbi, and in this sermon he was addressing a group of marginalized people living under Roman imperial occupation. Early Christianity, or Jesus’ particular brand of Judaism, was based on teachings and promises specifically intended to uplift the oppressed, to liberate and to bring loving justice to the social order of the day. Understanding the context of the Roman empire is essential to understanding Jesus’ teachings.
In this sermon, Jesus tells his listeners that if someone strikes them on the cheek, that they should turn and offer their other as well. Now, I don’t know what feelings that teaching conjures for you, but I imagine they might be complicated feelings. The platitudinous phrase “turn the other cheek” has become synonymous with a kind of complacency, of submitting to one’s abuser, of an unhealthy lack of boundaries or self-preservation and respect. But to understand Jesus’ meaning, one must understand the social hierarchy central to Roman imperial society. Theologian Walter Wink, in his book The Powers that Be, frames this teaching thusly:
“The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place. Notice Jesus’ audience: ‘If anyone strikes you.’ These are people used to being thus degraded. He is saying to them, ‘Refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.’ […] By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again: his nose is in the way. […] The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality. This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship. […] By turning the cheek, then, the ‘inferior’ is saying: ‘’I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.’ […] The Powers That Be have lost their power to make people submit. And when large numbers begin behaving thus (and Jesus was addressing a crowd), you have a social revolution on your hands. In that world of honor and shaming, the ‘superior’ has been rendered impotent to instill shame in a subordinate. He has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. As Gandhi taught, ‘The first principle of nonviolent action is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating.’ How different this understanding of Jesus’ teaching here is from the usual view that this passage teaches us to turn the other cheek so our batterer can simply clobber us again! How often that interpretation has been fed to battered [partners] and children. And it was never what Jesus intended in the least. To such victims he advises, ‘Stand up for yourselves, defy your masters, assert your humanity; but don’t answer the oppressor in kind. Find a new, third way that is neither cowardly submission nor violent reprisal.’” For similarly subversive understandings of Jesus’ directives to “give the shirt off your back” and “go the extra mile.”
I highly recommend reading Walter Wink’s The Powers that Be.
Jesus’ strategic teachings lend dignity to the oppressed by subverting the norms of empire and inverting well-worn power dynamics, weakening the claim of these corrupt systems on our beings. Blessing those who curse us opens the door to not only liberate ourselves from oppression, but to invite our oppressors into a collaborative liberation as well. The subversive meanings of Jesus’ teachings, which were so clear to his audiences, have been lost as Christian supremacy and white supremacy have consistently re-framed them against the oppressed, twisting them to the benefit of oppressors. Jesus’ teachings, far from telling folks at the margins to keep their heads down and stay in their place, instead placed creative, nonviolent tools into the hands of those oppressed by imperial rule, empowering the people to subvert these life-denying systems of oppression and instead co-create life-affirming networks of liberation.
But what does it mean to love our enemies? What is the quality and feeling of this love? Understanding Jesus’ meaning, this isn’t a wishy-washy love or a permissive love, but a tough love, a humanizing love. A love that begets moral and spiritual liberation and alignment, that leads to right-relationship with the Divine. Doing good to those who hate you means doing good in an ultimate sense, beyond the “good” of this world that often translates into reifying power, wealth, and status. If those who hate you are your abusers, real power lies in reclaiming your dignity, which in turn helps them clearly see and renounce their prisons of status and so-called power. Recalling our dignity and honor when we’re wronged invites oppressors to reclaim their own humanity by seeing ours. The measure of forgiveness Jesus calls for invites oppressed and oppressor alike to bear witness to the Divine destiny we all share.
So, how can we put this word into action? Jesus’ teachings shouldn’t make us complacent; they invite mobilization to intelligent, creative, nonviolent resistance, re-framing, and renewal. This doesn’t come from re-enacting these ancient contexts, but through Spirit-led reimaginings of everyday witness, like kneeling during a nationalist liturgy at a football game.
As lovers of God and aspiring followers of Jesus, let’s reclaim these ancient meanings. But let’s do so with full clarity and deep understanding: These teachings had Jesus executed by the powers-that-be as an enemy of the state, a dangerous disruptor to the status quo— but they gave birth to a resurrection people.
So I ask you this: Are we ready to claim our place in this procession of loving liberationists who dare to trouble the waters in the pursuit of justice for all? If so, what steps will we take today?
Jennifer Helminski (she/her) is an author, poet, artist, and preacher who has a burning heart for ecological advocacy, sensual exploration, and spiritual renewal. Across her multifaceted vocation, she has recently co-authored federally-funded climate change research, assessed and advocated for the protection of our waters, led congregational chant, composed multimedia eco-chapel gatherings, and facilitated faith-community grief circles.
Jennifer has deep roots across the Abrahamic family of faiths, including Roman Catholicism, Mevlevi Sufism, and open-source Judaism. She is currently training in the ways of interfaith, ecological, and psychedelic chaplaincy.
Jennifer is a Master of Divinity candidate at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, where she co-authored Union’s Declaration of Climate Emergency and a 10-year Climate Mobilization Action Plan for the surrounding community.
In her writing, painting, poetry, and preaching, Jennifer explores the intersection of ecology, love, and Spirit, helping all beings find belonging in this fertile and joyful tapestry.
Experience Jennifer’s teaching for yourself as part of Wisdom Camp 2022: The Ecology of Desire, this July 14th before the Wild Goose Festival. Use the code ‘WisdomCamp’ at checkout to save 10% on Festival registration!