The Love that surprises
An ethical teaching unique to Jesus and those influenced by him

Harold N. Miller

There is one of Jesus' teachings that holds the key to human peace. "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matthew 5:38). Today in our culture Jesus would say, "if someone shoves an obscene gesture in your face, don't look away--smile, try to strike up a conversation."

This ethical teaching of Jesus is unique to him, and our first reaction is "no wonder!" If someone gives us a black eye, they deserve to find out what it feels like so they won't do it again: give them a black eye. Just don't in anger give them two black eyes--only "an eye for an eye".

Jesus forbids retaliation and force, not because they are too strong, but because they are too weak. They cannot make an evil person good.

Jesus is not saying we do nothing to stop the evil-doer, that we allow injustice to continue. He is advocating that we deal evil a creative blow of goodness, that we overcome evil with good. He's calling us to respond to an evil person with a disarming act of love. When someone curses you, smile and strike up a conversation--take the initiative in a courageous, surprising act of love that places both parties in a new situation.

Only this love-that-surprises can change an enemy. Only it has the power to turn one into your friend so they want to please you, to stop wronging you. Only it is strong enough to really change a person--from the inside out. Only it can bring positive peace, not just the absence of war.

Whereas retaliation (to "teach them a lesson" so they won't do it again) and force (to prevent them from doing it again) actually block them from changing. A law of human behavior is that when persons are forced to change, they become more set against changing. Any change they do make is begrudging and external. They do what we want of them solely because our club is bigger than theirs, resenting it all the while. And as soon as the club is removed (or we get tired holding it), they're worse.

Yes, sometimes we need to use force. The same Jesus who taught "turn the other cheek" did not do so when struck on the cheek at his trial, but rebuked his accuser (John 18:23; see also Acts 23:3). Nonresistance or pacifism is not the goal of Jesus's teaching. Paul saw policemen as servants of God (Romans 13:4).

The goal is that we act out of love, out of what is for the other's good, not out of what is for our good, what may save us suffering and pain. And that involves nonresistence and pacifism -- we use violence far too quickly. When someone attacks us, Jesus calls us to respond with the gentle initiative of a potential healer, not the rigid fear of a potential victim. We may suffer--Jesus did. But we also may move the world toward being a better place--Jesus did.

This column appeared in The Leader (Corning NY)