A Whimsical Reading of ‘Turn the Other Cheek’

I come back time and again to Jesus’s paradoxical claims in the Gospel. I want to distinguish between a hermeneutically responsible reading based on the text, an understanding of the historical context, and a grasp of theology and a whimsical reading that is literary in nature. I’m not asking, “What did Jesus (truly) mean?” but rather “How is it possible to read these words?”

Take another look with me at Matthew 5:38-40 in the NIV version. There Jesus states,

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a] 39 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. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.

We know that he is rejecting retributive justice (you get what you deserve to be meted out in kind) as well as retaliation (get back at that evil person and then some). We know as well that he rejects fighting back. Also implicit in the proposal to “turn to them the other cheek also” is the claim not to run away. Hence, it seems clear that Jesus recommends neither fighting nor fleeing.

My whimsical reading begins here. What could be meant were one, in such a paradoxical manner, to urge us not to “resist and evil person” but instead to “turn to them the other cheek also”? It could be that we do the unexpected, performing a kind of gag on him, a gag, it turns out, with very high stakes. Do something he would have never seen coming. Not only are you not attached to your flesh or to your coat (call to mind a Buddhist understanding of non-attachment or “not clinging”) but you’re also doing something he could not have foreseen and isn’t readily able to respond to. He may be flabbergasted, perplexed, stunned, or enraged.

Do something unexpected with a view to creating an opening in which he can wake up to his evil. The unexpected functions, as it is said often today, as a mirror. It must surprise the evil person to discover (a) that you’re not so attached to your body or your possessions, (b) those things aren’t worth being so attached to, and yet (c) that he is so attached to what is temporal, not eternal.

If this reading is whimsical, it’s also radical. I’m not convinced, then, by the common depiction of the “meek and mild” Jesus or by the nonviolent Jesus. Here, Jesus is daring us to provoke the evil person by other, radically surprising means

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Spiritual Transformation Portraiture by Alexandra Lauro

Alexandra continues to be moved and inspired by the process through which one passes in order to be spiritually transformed. This fascination lends itself to the paintings that she is currently working on.

In these mixed media pieces on wood board, Alexandra’s aim is to portray “the false self” (in Trappist monk Thomas Keating’s words) or “the small self” (in Zen Buddhist terms) as it disappears and as some other self begins, ever so slightly, to merge with eternity. In each of the three portraits below, one observes the tension between the face and the background, the visible and the invisible, the hard lines and thick textures fading into the indeterminate and the unconditioned. On the one hand, they suggest that as human beings we remain creaturely through and through, each of us needing, in the end, to make our peace with our creatureliness. On the other hand, each awakened creature longs for eternity. Each is struggling still, none yet enlightened, with finitude and infinity.

As I see it, in this project Alexandra is reinvoking the tradition of the medieval icon: the icon being that “threshold,” in Ivan Illich’s words from The Corruption of Christianity, that draws the eye past the represented object in the direction of what is most real. A “gateway” (Illich again), the icon beckons us to venture to the other side.

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In the first portrait, the woman looks preoccupied. With what? With her thoughts. The eyes and lips suggest something more, pointing to her wariness with her self-preoccupation.

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Unlike the woman in the first portrait, the man above is determined. There is the suggestion of sorrow in his eyes, yet for all that it is the expression of someone who has lived through, without being weighed down by, past distress. His face represents someone capable of bringing oneself back to the sacred gaze, neither being complacent with oneself nor admonishing oneself for having thoughts. He returns again and again. A different reality awaits, abounds, is here: washing down the board, the colors in the background hint, very gently, at no-thought.

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In this young man, I find a certain masculine or “husky” meditative countenance, the lines of the grid nonetheless implying incompleteness. The abalone shell reveals, even while the textures of his clothing deny, his desire to merge with eternity.

Meditation: Cold and Hot

The mistake is to believe that meditation should cool you down to zero. That is to take meditation as a way of making you docile, into mere mush, a spongy pushover, just such a mellow dude and lady. I too had made that mistake, having become inordinately calm over the years. A mistake.

Now I realize–that is, feel–how meditation, so hot, is meant to wake you up. It’s intensely focused, rigorous, not without its struggles, indeed right in the midst of the inner struggles. And you know what? When you open your eyes and speak, your words are to be clear while snapping. Your words–close to crackles, bursts, snaps, claps–are to be crisp, compact, and dynamic. Very, very dynamic. Meditation, properly understood, raises your energetic power so that you can listen with the fiercest ears and speak with the fiercest tongue.

Not calming down the system but clearing out the mental rubbish so that the system can recruit all its energies and express them in every single act. The best word I have, and thus it recurs, is dynamo. To become a dynamo.

Or: to become most fully alive by virtue of intuiting what is most completely real. Don’t think that solely; be that entirely.

Strangeness Dwells Within Us

This is what I’ve learned over all the years I’ve had philosophical conversations with all sorts of human beings: there is a great mystery at the heart of human existence, indeed at the heart of each of us. A creature may seem so plain, so ordinary, to live such an unadventurous and boring life, only to find through some experience, event, or chance moment that there lies within him or her these immense, vast inner depths, depths that until such revelation had remained hidden.

We have vast inner depths that may be so close to us that we cannot see them or so removed from our ordinary consciousness that they seem extraordinarily far from us. So immanent, we might say, as to be intimate or so transcendent as to be infinite. (Like God.)

I see it as my gift to reveal through words, presence, and silence, through a certain orchestration of these, the mystery at the heart of each of us. The question is the seed of revelation. When all the questions have run dry, wordlessness then allows that mystery, that strangeness welling up in us, to make its presence felt, to be felt in laughter and in tears, often in both, or in silent acknowledgement of sacred ineffability.

Strangeness dwells within us, and we just don’t know it. And there is something stranger still: that strangeness is immeasurably beautiful and incomprehensibly astonishing and irreducibly mysterious. Just think of that, allowing yourself the barest hint of what it would be like to experience it.

The Need for Action and Vengeful Fantasies

We need to act; otherwise, our mind will have its way with us, seeking its own, second-rate satisfactions while tearing us apart.

When someone pushes us, we need to learn to push back in the right way. We had better not educate ourselves to give in. If we don’t push back in the right way, then we’ll fantasize about hurting him or, even stranger, we’ll fantasize about hurting someone else, someone unrelated to the one who originally injured us. Worse, we may become what we despised.

If we remain unconscious of this pattern, we’ll continue to replicate it. We’ll be angry with those we love when the perpetrator is someone else, someone somewhere else. We’ll carve lines in our skin. We’ll get ulcers in our bellies and ruin our digestions. We’ll constantly daydream of being free without knowing why we daydream of being free. The clouded mind will have its desires fulfilled unlovingly.

All because we didn’t learn to act in the scene; didn’t learn to speak up for ourselves; didn’t have the courage to talk back. We caved in and grew sad at our depletion, angry in our false helplessness.

But you’ll tell me: “Come on, man. If we always talk back, speak up for ourselves, act with great sharpness, won’t we be retaliating? Making matters worse? Doing unto them what they have done unto us? What you offer is a blood feud. Isn’t it far better to cool down, stand back, go away, try to understand ‘where they’re coming from’ and ‘why they’re hurting,’ and come back and ask them, ‘what’s wrong, brother?'”

Yes, sometimes but often this involves overlooking something deep within ourselves: it’s that there’s something about ourselves that we’ve failed to feel, recognize, and reflect upon. When you do only this, you’re leaving yourself out of this, and in so doing you’re leaving yourself open to all sorts of vengeful fantasies.

Instead, I advocate our following a “middle path” between softness and aggression, between wimpy non-violence and exceptional, awful violence. This is what Laozi and Christ both sought to teach us. Call it firmness. We need to be firm with others. How? By standing firm, sticking up for ourselves, raising our voices, showing that we have a Real Presence. We neither flee the scene nor fight back. We stand in it and find a way of channeling our power. We speak up. We really feel and push back (though with a different energy) at that violent force. Here is Matthew 5:38-39

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Notice Christ’s claim. Do not follow Hammurabi’s Code and seek redress by retaliating (“An eye for an eye… a tooth for a tooth”). If he yells and screams, do not you also yell and scream. But Christ does not say: well, walk away then. No no no! Do not resist evil, he says, but if he should strike out violently, stay and show him how disgraceful that action was. Reveal to him the ugliness of that wrong. Stay put. Be strong and stay put. Show yourself as a living power. Speak out–out of love, self-respect, proper pride. Be a different source of energy. Be a force for living.
Spinoza’s great insight is that we must act or grow sad. Only, act as such a force. Be firm yet gentle in deed and your vengeful fantasies shall, in time, fall away.