The first congregation I served as Rector was stunned when it was revealed that the wife of a prominent couple in the parish was the victim of years of domestic abuse. When divorce proceedings started the abuse escalated and threatened to spill into the church itself. We were forced to be attentive for the safety of everyone, most especially the wife and children. A few years later a colleague at another church experienced a tragic domestic violence episode in her congregation, when a wife tried to have her abusing spouse murdered. He lived and she went to prison. Then the news reported that a woman, who had been kidnapped by her former husband had been found alive but severely beaten, bound and gagged, stuffed in a trash can and locked in a storage unit, not far from my house, where she had been left to die.
A few years later I attended a conference called, “Not In Our Pews” held in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin and sponsored by Project SAFE, an organization composed of a number of religious institutions and service provider agencies in Wisconsin. One of the panel speakers at this conference was the woman who had been kidnapped and left to die in that storage unit. She was permanently damaged from the abuse, her legs and back would never fully heal, and walking was painful. She told her story of fear and hope and of her ongoing resistance to violence through the lens of being a person of faith, which connects her story to our scripture readings this morning in both Leviticus and Matthew, because they are often used by people of faith to coerce women into submitting to abusive partners, as if this is their cross to bear. This is a misunderstanding of the readings.
Leviticus is considered the book of rules for the ancient people of God. It is filled with rules for how to live - what one can and cannot eat, drink, or do. However, if we take the rules literally we miss the point Leviticus is making - that people are holy because God is holy. We are holy when we live in right relationship with God, with our selves, and with other people. Being in right relationship with God is about our integrity as individuals and communities, one’s ability to be centered in one’s values and beliefs, one’s capacity for introspection and self reflection, and the degree to which one can learn and grow and become a more mature person of faith by loving God, loving self, and loving others.
The Gospel of Matthew builds on the laws of Moses, not just the ten commandments, but all 613 commandments found in the Hebrew Bible, which essentially define how one lives in right relationship with God, self, and others. The focus of the Gospel of Matthew is to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. This point is made clear in Matthew 22 when one of the Pharisees asks Jesus which commandment is the greatest, and Jesus replies, that one should love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind and love one’s neighbor as one’s self, thus summarizing all 613 commandments into one. In other words, Jesus claims that there is no justification for violence and abuse, love never demeans or diminishes another.
So listen carefully to the readings today. Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek and not resist the evildoer points to a different level of resistance, a non-cooperation in hate and violence. The readings this morning formed the foundation for the nonviolent resistance of Gandhi’s strategy against British colonial rule, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement to dismantle racism. Love your enemies is not an instruction to be passive toward cruelty, rather it guides one to defiance, to work against the system and cycle of violence or racism or any other way people are demeaned and diminished by refusing to be part of it.
A scene in the movie 42 helps to illustrate this point. In this scene Branch Rickey is talking to Jackie Robinson, who was to become the first black baseball player in the major leagues and he’s checking out Robinson to see if he has the wherewithal to do what it takes to navigate the challenges of breaking down barriers.
Jackie Robinson says: You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?
Branch Rickey responds: No. No. I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back. People aren’t gonna like this. They’re gonna do anything to get you to react. Echo a curse with a curse and, uh, they’ll hear only yours. Follow a blow with a blow and they’ll say, “The black man has lost his temper.” That “The black man does not belong.” Your enemy will be out in force… and you cannot meet him on his own low ground. We win with hitting, running, fielding. Only that. We win if the world is convinced of two things: That you are a fine gentleman and a great baseball player. Like our Savior… you gotta have the guts… to turn the other cheek. Can you do it?
To which Jackie Robinson says: You give me a uniform… you give me a, heh, number on my back… and I’ll give you the guts.
Because non-cooperation with hate and violence means we hold people accountable for their behavior and we hold ourselves accountable, too. These readings call for radical transformation of individuals and communities through the simple, yet incredibly challenging commandment to love. These readings speak into and aim to direct one to one’s core sense of self, one’s soul. When the soul of the individual and the corporate soul of faith communities and even the soul of entire cities and countries, live with the guiding principle of love then one will do everything one can to ensure that all people are cared for equally. People are holy because God is holy and therefore abusing any one, demeaning or diminishing another in any capacity, is as if one is abusing God. People are holy because God is holy.
As Christians who believe in Jesus, resisting all forms of abuse that demean and diminish human beings is Incarnational, its God’s love in human flesh, God’s love activated in Jesus, in you, in me. Incarnational and holy because it requires one to have a clear understanding of what love actually means and then the capacity to live with that kind of love as one’s foundational value and guiding principle in life. Incarnational love because God is holy and therefore we are holy too.
A reflection on the readings for Epiphany 7A: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48