I have never advocated ‘passive’ anything. –Mohandas Gandhi
Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living. –Mother Jones
First of all, let’s get one thing straight: Jesus never said to “turn the other cheek.” What He said was:
Do not make use of force against an evil man; but to him who gives you a blow on the right side of your face let the left be turned. (Matthew 5:39[i])
In the Roman world, one struck a social inferior with a backhand blow to the right cheek; striking a social equal required a forehand blow across the left.[ii] Jesus was telling His followers to insist, non-violently but unambiguously, that they were as dignified and important as the powerful who abused them.
In Sunday School, I was taught by well-meaning teachers that Jesus was crucified because He “violated the Sabbath,” or “claimed to be the Son of God.” Balderdash. He was crucified because He stood up to the established social order: by healing the crippled man at the well[iii], He indicted the “selfish, individualistic society where people don’t care for him.[iv]” By healing the man born blind[v], He was making it clear to the religious authorities that “he is begging because you are blind.[vi]” By ordering the man with the withered[vii] hand to “step out into the center” of the synagogue, He was–and this would not have been missed by the original hearers–inviting him out from behind the screen that separated the ritually unclean in the back from the privileged few in the front, thus giving the righteous patriarchs spiritual cooties. When He compared the religious authorities to thieving, malingering tenants,[viii] declaring that God would take away the “vineyard” from them and give it to others, they wanted to arrest Him, “but were afraid of the crowds.”
Apparently, Jesus found the Psalmist’s vision of good government more compelling than what the Romans and their Jewish collaborators were selling:
Give the King your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the King’s son; That he may rule your people righteously and the poor with justice… He shall defend the needy among the people; he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor. In his time shall the righteous flourish; there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more… For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress, and the oppressed who has no helper.
He shall have pity on the lowly and poor; he shall preserve the lives of the needy. He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence, and dear shall their blood be in his sight.[ix]
Now, anyone who has heard Glenn Beck urge Christians to leave their churches if they hear “social justice” preached in them may well wonder if Beck has read the Psalms–or the prophets, for that matter:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”[x]
The fact is, conservatives embrace “charity,” in the sense of writing checks to “help the poor,” but eschew the prophetic demand for “social justice”–the dismantling of unjust social structures. The Republican House can insist that America is a “Christian nation” while branding government social programs “Un-American,” because they refuse to acknowledge that the ”law of Moses and the Hebrews clearly issued an institutional way of providing for the poor that did not depend on the good will of any individual. Not only was individual generosity encouraged, but, as a matter of law, part of everyone’s produce or income was to be set aside to aid the poor.”
In short: the right wants the oppressed to turn the other cheek. Jesus wants them to stand up for themselves–and for the rest of us to stand up, too. And that, of course, is precisely what people get crucified for.
“6 Priests, 2 Others, Slain in San Salvador”
By Lee Hockstader and Douglas Farah
November 17, 1989; Page A1
Six prominent Jesuit priests, including the rector and vice rector of El Salvador’s most prestigious university, were killed early today along with two other persons at the house where they slept in the capital.
The priests were the most prominent victims of Salvadoran violence since 1980, when eight leftist politicians were gunned down by the military, three American nuns and a lay worker were shot dead and archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated as he said mass…
At the scene of the killing of the churchmen, a Jesuit priest said witnesses had reported more than 20 armed men in uniforms enter the house between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., apparently through a back door blown off by an explosive device. There was no fighting in the area, which was in the hands of the army and police under the state of emergency and night-hours curfew imposed by the government.
November 16, 2011 is the twenty-second anniversary of the University of Central America martyrdoms. And while the US is still no El Salvador, we are witnessing a brazenly naked collaboration between our putative democracy and the plutocrats whose interests it apparently exists to serve. As discontentment intensifies, I fear the current “wave of government crackdowns on numerous #occupy encampments” is only the beginning, either of the birth-pangs of a new order, or the death-throes of the American Experiment.
We need a prophetic revival.
Let me be clear: the United States is in no sense a “Christian nation.” And yet, throughout our history, all the great movements of social change–from the abolition of slavery to child labor laws, women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement, from Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement to Cesar Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association, have originated in the churches. Like all human institutions, the churches aren’t perfect, but before the rise of the so-called Moral Majority, they were always in the forefront of the struggle for social and economic justice. Happily, the slumbering social conscience of the American churches, with its urgent insistence on justice, seems to be re-awakening in our time.
And when we take the broader view, we see the same spirit at work everywhere: the Buddhist monks of Viet Nam, Tibet and Myanmar, the Depression-era Jewish labor organizers in Europe and America, J Street and Jewish Voices for Peace today, the Solidarity movement in Poland, the Roman Catholic priests, nuns, and lay “base communities” of El Salvador, Gandhi’s satyagraha, the house-church movement in China, the Baha’i diaspora–all have been prophetic voices in a world in dire need of prophecy.
I want to see the Yoga community find its prophetic voice. I want to see voter guides that cite the yamas; I want to see Yoga move beyond the workout regime for the individual that it has become to the program for spiritual transformation it was meant to be. I listen to a lot of right-wing talk radio, and I can tell you that nothing cracks these people up like the “protest yoga” being practiced at some Occupy sites. And given what they know, it’s understandable; “protest jazzercize” would be pretty damned funny, too. The only way to change these perceptions is for the Yoga community to own, explicitly and proudly, its spiritual heritage and mission.
So it seems to me that it’s time for people of all faiths to, in a sense, “take up the cross”–to become crucifixion-ready by standing on spiritual principle against “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.”[xi] Whether at the keypad, in the shelters or on the barricades, we need to be taking ahimsa, karitas, and shalom to an aching world. We need to be offering the “peace such as the world cannot give.”[xii]
In the wake of the NYPD’s precipitous clearing of Zuccotti Park, The Rt. Rev. Mark S. Sisk, Episcopal Bishop of New York, wrote:
Capitalism is of no help at all in determining what is morally good – that is something that must instead be determined by the community’s wider values.
And there should be no question that when an economic system fails to reflect those communal values, it should be modified and governed until it does. To say, as some do, that any attempt to control or guide our economic system is neither wise nor possible is to admit that an economic system has decisive control of our lives. For a Christian, such an admission would be nothing less than to yield to idolatry…As the OWS protestors point out, wealth in our country is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, the real income of the broad middle class has not increased in more than a generation, and the ranks of the poorest among us each year become ever more solidified. These are the facts – and the reality behind them is, quite simply, morally wrong. Ultimately, left unchecked, that reality is deeply dangerous. It is at odds with our vision of ourselves, and as Americans we ignore it at the peril of our most cherished national ideals. As Christians, we ignore it at the peril of our souls…As followers of Jesus, we know that our calling now and always is to seek the welfare of the people, the children of God.
[i] The Bible in Basic English
[ii] Thanks to the Rev. Jarrett Kerbel for this information.
[iii] John 5:9-11
[iv] Vishal Mangalwadi, quoted in “Jesus the Troublemaker.” PRISM, December 2005, by Scott Robinson.
[v] John 9
[vii] Mark 3:1-6
[viii] Matthew 21, Mark 12 and Luke 20
[ix] Excerpted from Psalm 72
[x] Isaiah 58:6-7
[xi] Baptismal service, Book of Common Prayer
[xii] John 14:27