Snowflake Strong

Matthew 5:38-48 and Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Preached FCCW 2/19/2017

There’s been a lot of talk about snowflakes lately.
And not the kind we’ve been shoveling, snow-blowing and plowing.
Recently, “snowflake” has become a label of disdain, used to describe people who the world judges to be “politically correct” or “bleeding hearts” — ignoring the fact that the Bible is filled with passages like the one from Leviticus that Greg read, which support their views about society and politics.
Snowflake carries a whiny, weak connotation. There is nothing strong about a snowflake.
Unless you have read the Sermon on the Mount.
In the section of the Sermon on the Mount that I just read Jesus redefines what strength looks like.
And what he preached sounds like a snowflake manifesto.
He says to his disciples, you have heard it said, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
This is, by the way, what is known as lex talionis, the law of retaliation.
Someone blinds you in one eye; their punishment is to be blinded in one eye.
Someone kills a member of your family, that person’s life must be forfeit.
This law was recorded in the book of Exodus, but it was already the oldest law in the world.
The fundamental premise of this law is, Do unto others as they have done to you.
It is a kind of raw, primal justice that operates on the principle of regulated vengeance.
It relies on superior strength to enforce justice.
Jesus said, “You have heard it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
But I say to you, “Do not resist an evildoer.”
When someone strikes you, he says, don’t retaliate — turn the other cheek!
If someone takes you to court to sue you, don’t put up a defense.
Give them what they are looking for –and even more!
And, if anyone forces you against your will to do something for them,
do double the duty they were demanding of you!
Love your enemies and pray for them, He says.
Which is the exact opposite of lex talionis.
And it all sounds pretty wimpy. Like a delicate snowflake.
Anyway, doesn’t Jesus want us to resist evildoers?
How on earth are we to oppose evil by turning the other cheek or going the extra mile?
It helps to know that the Greek word there that translates as “resist,” when it occurs elsewhere in the Scriptures or in other writings from that time, is usually in the context of warfare or armed struggle.
So a better way of understanding Jesus’ meaning here would be,
Do not use violence to resist an evildoer.
Jesus doesn’t want us to accept evil.
He just doesn’t want us to adopt evil’s ways when we oppose it.
He doesn’t want us to become the very thing we resist!
Jesus is saying, you’ve been taught to fight fire with fire, but I’m telling you, no, fight fire with water.
You’ve always believed that violence can only be controlled by the threat of violent retaliation.
But I’m telling you, that way only creates a never ending cycle of violence that gets you nowhere.
The only way to break the cycle is to learn how to respond to evil without becoming like the thing you oppose.
Jesus gives his followers a trio of scenarios that actually redefines what it means to be strong in the face of opposition.

Scenario # 1 goes like this: if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
In the ancient world, the left hand was considered to be unclean and so was almost never used to make contact with another person.
So, if you were going to strike someone on the right cheek with your right hand, it would have to be a backhand slap.
That kind of blow is as much about delivering an insult, than inflicting physical pain.
It is the way a superior would strike an inferior, to assert his dominance.
But if you then turn your other cheek to the one who hit you, they wouldn’t be able to backhand you again. They could only strike you the way they would an equal.
Turning the other cheek isn’t a passive acceptance of the other person’ right to hurt you.
It is a gesture of peaceful defiance.
Of defining your own self and not letting someone else define you as “lesser than them.”

Scenario #2 is: “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.
Jesus’ scenario is of a rich person literally demanding the shirt off a poor man’s back.
Jesus says, in that case, don’t just give him the coat, give him your undergarment, too.
That would leave the poor man standing naked in the courtroom.
In ancient Jewish culture, public nakedness was extremely shameful.
But it was not just the person who was naked that experienced shame.
Even greater shame fell upon anyone who caused or witnessed their nakedness.
Giving your “coat also” is a way of publicly confronting an injustice done to you.
It says:  by exposing myself I’m exposing the injustice you are doing to me.

The third scenario of non-violent resistance Jesus described was: if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
A Roman soldier could commandeer a Jewish civilian against their will, to carry his gear for him.
But there was a limit to how far they could be made to carry his pack, and that limit was one mile.
If he made you carry it more than a mile he could be punished.
Jesus is saying that if a soldier forces you to carry his pack for a mile, don’t give it back to him when the mile is up. Carry it for another mile. That way you take the upper hand.
Instead of being the one forced against your will to do something, you take control of your own fate and put him in the humbling position of having to beg you to return his pack.
When Jesus’ words are understood this way, it becomes clearer that he was not commanding his followers to be doormats.  He was teaching a way of resisting, and possibly even reversing evil, without stooping to the level of the evildoer.
Does a strategy like this really stand a chance of succeeding, though?
Can non-violent response overcome evil?
The truth is, there isn’t a lot of data to go by.

As the meditation on your bulletin says, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
But there have been a few people who have put Jesus’ strategy for resisting evil into action.
And the results might lead you to rethink what strength and courage truly look like.
Gandhi, although not a Christian, used Jesus’ teaching on non-violent resistance to win freedom from the British Empire for India.
Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. followed Jesus’ advice when he led the fight against segregation in the South.
Years ago, Sue and I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
One display I’ll never forget was a news film taken in a “whites only” restaurant.
A young African-American couple were sitting peacefully at the lunch counter.
Even though they were refused service they quietly remained at the counter.
Soon a crowd of angry whites surrounded them, shouting insults, pouring coffee over their heads, and stubbing cigarette butts out on their backs.
The black couple just sat there and absorbed all that hatred without retaliating.
They simply refused to concede that they did not have an equal right to a seat at that lunch counter.
But never for a second, for all the indignities being heaped on them, could there be any mistaking who were the strong and who were the weaklings in that diner.
Their turning the other cheek did not make them look weak, but it weakened the moral justification of the Segregationists whose hatred boiled over for the world to see.

Then there’s the story of Desmond Doss – the subject of the movie “Hacksaw Ridge.”
After Pearl Harbor, Doss felt compelled to enlist in the Army to oppose the evil of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
But, being a devout Seventh Day Adventist, he would not take up arms against another person.
So he signed up as a combat medic.
You could say that, as a pacifist and vegetarian who lived by God’s Commandment against taking a life, Desmond Doss was a classic Snowflake. And he was treated with contempt by everyone in his unit.
Yet, in the brutal Battle of Okinawa, Doss earned a Congressional Medal of Honor — and the respect of the officers and fellow soldiers who at first despised him as a coward – when he repeatedly charged unarmed into enemy fire to rescue dozens of wounded soldiers on the battlefield.

Jesus’ never meant for his followers to be silent or passive in the face of evil.
His words should never be used to tell someone who is being abused or bullied that it’s their duty to just be quiet and take it. Or, to ignore injustice perpetrated on others.
His message is that in the struggle for justice in the face of evil, there are more than the two obvious choices – violent retaliation or being a willing victim .
There is a third way.
The way of non-violent resistance.
A way of peaceful heroism.
What today we might call, being “Snowflake Strong.”
When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he isn’t saying we have to feel good about them, or condone what they do.
To love one’s enemies does not mean feeling affection for them; it means to will them good and to do them no harm.
That’s why he said, “Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”
He wasn’t talking about us being morally perfect or without faults.
“Perfect,” in this case, stems from the Greek word for “end,” or “purpose.”
The sense of the word is more about choosing a path that leads us to becoming what God intended us to be, as we resist that which opposes God.
And what God intends for us is that we reflect to the world the love that God demonstrates,  by making the sun rise on both the evil and the good, and giving rain to both the righteous and the unrighteous.
Here in New England we could expand that metaphor to include the saying that God sends the snow on both the righteous and the unrighteous.
And around here, we know that when enough snowflakes come together, they are strong enough stop the world in its tracks, bring a hush to the noisy din of conflict, and transform the landscape of the world.

© Raymond Medeiros 2017