What’s the second most misunderstood passage of Scripture? (The first: “Judge not, lest ye be judged” in Matthew 7:1, quoted by the otherwise biblically illiterate or indifferent, as a kind of pseudo-benediction on moral relativism.) I’d say second place goes to Matthew 5:39, “…if a man strike you on the right cheek, turn to him the other as well.”
Misunderstanding this passage has led to public prayers for “our so-called ‘enemies’”—as if Christ and his Church don’t have enemies both human and spiritual. Misunderstanding this passage has led to exhortations to a literally helpless pacifism—which would have puzzled Pope Pius V who summoned the Holy League to resist the invasion of Europe by the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto.
I raise this difficulty not merely as a biblical conundrum, such as “Did Adam and Eve have navels?” It seems that Christ requires complete disarmament in the face of moral, spiritual and physical evil, so it’s right to ask, “How can this be so?”
How can it be right to “turn the other cheek” with passive indifference when the sacred is traded for sacrilege? When truth is traded for lies? When purity is traded for perversion? When beauty is traded for ugliness? When worship is traded for entertainment? When sacred tradition is traded for novelty? When open-handed charity is traded for the heavy hand of the state?
Are we called to passive indifference when Western Civilization, the cradle of our faith and reason, is under attack by enemies secular, sectarian and spiritual? Are we called to mute helplessness when the honor of Christ’s Virgin-Bride, the Church, is assaulted?
Saint Thomas Aquinas admonishes us for such an imperceptive and myopic reading: “Sacred Scripture should be understood according to the way Christ and other holy persons followed it.”
Regarding “turn the other cheek,” Aquinas recalls us to John 18:23 when Jesus rebukes the guard who struck him. He also reminds us of Paul’s beating in Acts 16:22, “Christ did not turn his other cheek here; and Paul did not do so either. Accordingly, we should not think that Christ has commanded us to actually turn our physical cheek to one who has struck the other.” Paul didn’t remain silent when struck in Acts 23:3, but warned his abuser of divine judgment and retribution.
Following the example of Jesus and the saints, how is “turn the other cheek” to be understood? Surely not in passive indifference to evil, or in a feigned helplessness when the treasures of faith and reason are in danger of being lost.
Aquinas shows us the way: “To interpret the injunction of the Sermon on the Mount literally is to misunderstand it. This injunction signifies rather the readiness of the soul to bear, if it be necessary, such things and worse without bitterness to the attacker.” Our Lord is teaching us, by his words and example, not to collapse in the face of evil, but, rather, to resist evil while resisting the temptation to hate the evildoer.
Yes, as Jesus said, we must love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. We mustn’t fail in that duty. That duty doesn’t preclude defending the vulnerable, resisting wickedness, or championing what Christ has entrusted to the Church he founded.
The holy season of Lent begins next week. That sacred time is given to us as a kind of “boot camp” and an annual reminder that our souls and all of creation are being contested for. Satan and his minions hate God’s handiwork and would destroy on Earth what has been made for Heaven. That war—one with eternal consequences—is being fought in our own hearts and minds. Our love of God is always in danger of growing cold, even as our passion for worldliness is always in danger of being enflamed. And all around us, the popular culture, the arrogance of the state, the witting and unwitting pawns and puppets of idols wish to seduce us or to silence us, and, finally, to consume us.
Lent is a time to discover whether anything other than God has power over us. It is a time to see with clarity who sits on the throne of our heart. It’s a time to ascertain whether we have the humility, docility and desire necessary to “enter through the narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13), which is the only passage into Heaven.
My friends, it is time to wake up and realize that we are in a war, and things don’t look very bright for the home team right now. Recall that Saint Bernard preached that, “God chastises the good when they do not fight against evil.” In his mercy, Our Lord gives us Lent to make us fit for the battle we must fight to our very last breath.
When I write next, I will speak of undertaking the commitment to militant intercession. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.