Image: Traditional northern games
Our first reading today describes a dreadful example of greed and corruption in the court of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. Plotting the murder of an innocent man is criminal on the face of it, but when we consider that it was over something as insignificant as a garden plot makes it all the more evil. A story like this is so terrible that it might seem to be a morality tale, something made up in order to teach us a lesson. However, if we are willing to look, we will find that such stories fill our history books and we must acknowledge that corruption is a constant threat to any system of government.
Over the past number of weeks, the world has been responding with protest to the issue of racism systemic in the institutions of our society. The catalyst for the demonstrations has been the violent acts perpetuated against people of minority by law enforcement officers and in particular the death of George Floyd, an black man, who died as a direct result of police action against him.
When we face injustice against ourselves, we feel it in our gut. It rises up inside us and we are motivated to respond almost as if we have been physically attacked. This basic human instinct is not something that we learn, it is hardwired in us and can be found in even in young children. But how we respond to that injustice is something that is in our control.
Jesus addresses this in the Gospel today and it is a particularly difficult teaching. “When someone strikes you”, Jesus says, “turn the other cheek”. Jesus is offering an alternative to a traditional code that allowed an equal response to any injustice that is committed against us, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. While such a code might seem reasonable, it does little to bring reconciliation to a difficult situation. It simply leaves people blind and without teeth. In other words, the situation is worse off than it was before.
Jesus’ radical response, while difficult and against our natural human instinct to hit back, offers an opportunity for profound change. The act of “turning one’s cheek” is like raising a mirror to the face of those who hurt us. When we respond with non-violence against a violent act the one who has committed the act is forced to reflect on what they have done to us and, if they have a conscience, self-reflection can lead to real change.
The difference in the two approaches can be seen in the media during this most recent period of turmoil. Where there have been violent protests, looting and acts of anarchy, governments have doubled down and increased their repression of the voices of those who have a justifiable grievance. Peaceful protests have been met with a much different response. We have seen battle hardened soldiers and street tough police officers taking a knee alongside those who are peacefully seeking transformation in attitudes and policies. In halls of government and the boardrooms of business the conversation is shifting because of the peaceful acts of so many dedicated people who have taken their natural outrage and converted it to a powerful, peaceful voice for change.
Of course, this will not be an end to racism in our society. We must always be vigilant against evils of all kinds but, as Christians we must do so without cynicism and despair. We are called to be people of hope who show by our own lives that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we have the capacity for real change and, with God, the forces of evil stand no chance against us.