Once there was this girl, having the time of her life in a happy relationship. Until her boyfriend cheated on her. After that, she couldn’t go on with him. So they broke up.
A year later, she met this other guy. Love at first sight. They started dating. A few months down the road of this new romantic affair, a little fear started creeping into her mind: “What if I’ll be cheated on, again?” The fear grew bigger, as did her desire to safeguard her relationship. So she started controlling her new boyfriend, pressing him to inform her about his whereabouts. He didn’t do anything wrong, but he nevertheless had to suffer from her anxieties. Until he couldn’t stand it any longer, and her worst fear came true: he broke up with her. Tragic. Ironic. All she had done to avoid the destruction of the relationship brought about the relationship’s downfall. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it… (Matthew 16:25a).
What happened? Well, the girl was hurt, and she had been sad and angry because of it. Instead of letting go of her sadness and frustration, she started focusing on these emotions again while being in a new relationship. And she started hurting a guy who hadn’t done anything to cause her pain, insinuating he was not trustworthy and accusing him of being a liar and a cheater. In other words, she imitated the blows inflicted on her persona by inflicting similar blows on someone else. It was her way of taking revenge. Her new boyfriend turned out to be her scapegoat: someone who had to answer for her anger, although he was innocent. There is indeed, as René Girard and so many other Christian thinkers rightly point out, a nearly inextricable connection between the mimetic principle of vengeance and the scapegoating impulse.
In order to break the vicious cycle of hurt inflicting hurt – the cycle of original sin -, Christ invites us to take part in an act of creation. This is a creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), meaning that our actions are no longer defined by the lesser and greater evil we endured in the past. To return to the situation of the girl: Christ invites her to “turn the other cheek” as she begins a new relationship. To turn the other cheek indeed means that you refuse to let your relationships and yourself be defined by the hurtful mechanisms that eventually destroy relationships. Christ invites the girl to trust being vulnerable again. He invites her to keep faith over fear – for “fear leads to anger, to hate, to suffering” as some famous wise man summarized Christ’s advice…
Forgiveness is at the heart of creation, destabilizing the balance of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” – for, as some other wise man allegedly said: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. Coming from outside the cycle of bad deeds or “bad karma“, the grace of forgiveness opens up the possibility of a new kind of imitation or mimesis. Instead of imitating each other in trying to assert ourselves over against one another – as theologian James Alison would say –, “turning the other cheek” is an invitation to begin an imitation of recognizing and accepting each other’s vulnerability. Recognizing that “no one is without sin”, in order to end “casting the first stone”. It’s an invitation to shy away from self-assertion over against one another – which would be called a movement of kenosis (“self-emptying”) in theological terms. The imitatio Christi would thus lead to the recovery of human beings, for “being human” means “being in relationships”, and the act of grace Christ invites us to take part in is precisely aimed at restoring those relationships. Therefore: Whoever loses his life for me will find it… (Matthew 16:25b).
So Matthew 5:38-39 is not an invitation to be masochistic. It’s quite the opposite. It’s a radical refusal to surrender to the evil that we experience from time to time. It’s an invitation to obey the creative call of Love (click here to read more) – which is, paradoxically, truly liberating:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…”