Turn the other cheek

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…”

Bruce Springsteen’s Passion

Bruce Springsteen‘s take on the story of Christ’s Passion certainly reflects a profound spiritual awareness of what this event is actually about. In an episode for VH1 Storytellers, Springsteen meditates on his song Jesus was an only son, and brings out the universal and existential truths the story of the Passion reveals.

CLICK TO WATCH it right here:

Click here to read a full transcription of this video.

Springsteen’s interpretation of the song’s ending is especially moving. A transformation takes place. Whilst in the beginning of the song Jesus is comforted by his mother Mary, at the end it’s the son who comforts his mother. Mary is asked to respect the particular destiny of her child. Jesus chose the path of compassion and love. He was touched, so deeply, by the suffering of the outcasts that he couldn’t do anything else but reach out to them. By associating him with these scapegoats, he eventually became a victim himself. In refusing to take part in a social system that constructs itself by means of sacrifices, Jesus was eventually sacrificed himself.

Following Springsteen’s reasoning, Jesus cannot start some sort of ‘civil war’ to defend himself, because that would make him the imitator of his persecutors – Jesus would thus become a sacrificer himself, a ‘prince of this world’, a ‘Muammar Gaddafi’… Christ’s kingdom, on the other hand, is ‘not of this world’. Jesus follows, in the song’s words, ‘the soul of the universe’ which ‘willed a world and it appeared’. Indeed, by withdrawing from vengeance (i.e. the imitation of the persecutors), Jesus creates the possibility of a new world. Imitating the one who ‘offers the other cheek’, the one who forgives and approaches his persecutors and betrayers with compassion, allows us to accept our own and each other’s weaknesses and iniquities, without us being victimized or ‘crucified’ for doing so…

At the end of Springsteen’s song, Jesus seems confident that his ‘Heavenly Father’ would ultimately refuse the sacrifice of his son – and this confidence is reflected in the stories of Christ’s resurrection. Jesus fully imitates ‘the One who doesn’t want sacrifices or victims’ and therefore he is said to be the ultimate incarnation or ‘materialization’ of Love: A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory.” (KJV, Matthew 12:20). Bruce Springsteen speaks of this mystery of the incarnation at the end of his ‘sermon’:

“Whatever divinity we can lay claim to is hidden in the core of our humanity… When we let our compassion go, we let go of what little claim we have to the divine.”

Love seeks to be concrete and ’embodied’. The very nature of Love is to throw off its spiritual garment, to ’empty’ itself from the ‘sacred’ realm in order to become ‘flesh’ – which is called ‘kenosis’. The story of Christ’s Passover can be considered a pinnacle in our clumsy attempts to express this reality. However, if these attempts produce songs like Bruce Springsteen’s Jesus was an only son, we should be grateful, as we are comforted by the fragile light of hope amidst our own ‘darkness on the edge of town’.

The sports-minded Jesuit Patrick Kelly wrote the following on Bruce Springsteen’s faith and his Roman Catholic background in a column for America Magazine (The National Catholic Weekly) – February 10, 2003 (click here to read):

Faith, hope and love have always played a part in Bruce Springsteen’s songs, but this has become more explicit in recent years. Springsteen’s willingness to talk about these themes also is relatively new.

The Rev. Andrew Greeley’s article, “The Catholic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen” (click to read Am., 2/6/88), seems to have been a catalyst in this regard. The Catholic novelist Walker Percy read the article and wrote to Springsteen in early 1989, particularly interested in the fact that Greeley described him as a Catholic. “If this is true, and I am too,” his letter read, “it would appear the two of us are rarities in our professions: you as a post-modern musician, I as a writer, a novelist and a philosopher. That and your admiration of Flannery O’Connor. She was a dear friend of mine, though she was a much more heroic Catholic than I.” Walker Percy died before Springsteen responded to his letter, but the musician wrote in a four-page letter to Percy’s widow:

“The loss and search for faith and meaning have been at the core of my own work for most of my adult life. I’d like to think that perhaps that is what Dr. Percy heard and was what moved him to write me. Those issues are still what motivate me to sit down, pick up my guitar and write.”

Percy’s nephew, Will Percy, subsequently interviewed Springsteen about the formative influences on his song-writing for the Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles’s magazine Doubletake in 1998 (click here to read).

I assembled some excerpts from this interview. Click here if you’re interested.