Friday, October 26, 2012

The Limits of Cheek Turning

Jesus commanded us that if someone strikes us on one cheek, we should turn and offer him the other.  I must confess that for me this is a beautiful and difficult word.  It is a beautiful word when no one is striking me or threatening to strike me.  It is a difficult word when a haughty striker stands before me.

Today is the feast of St. Demetrius the Myrrh Streaming.  He was the military commander of Thessalonica under the Emperor Maximian at the turn of the fourth century.  Although commanded to persecute Christians, St. Demetrius rather preached Christ openly.  Eventually, he is thrown into prison and run through with lances.  However, before his martyrdom, St. Demetrius gave his young disciple St. Nestor a blessing to kill a certain gladiator named Lyaeus.

Lyaeus was a huge man, the emperor's personal gladiator.  Lyaeus fought on a raised platform surrounded by up-turned spears imbedded in the ground.  Whoever lost the fight was thrown onto the spears to writhe before the crowd as he slowly died.  Because no one wanted to fight Lyaeus, Christians who had been rounded up and thrown into prison were forced to "fight" him for the entertainment of the emperor and the crowds.  St. Nestor, who was not in prison, wanted to stop this barbarism, so he approach St. Demetrius to receive his blessing to fight and kill Lyaeus.

St. Demetrius gave St. Nestor his blessing, and told him that he would succeed, but that he would also have to surrender his life.  The next day, St. Nestor appeared in the arena as a volunteer to fight Lyaeus, whom he defeated and threw onto the spears.  Emperor Maximian was so upset by the death of his favourite gladiator, that when he found out that St. Nestor had defeated him "in the name of the God of Demetrius," he had St. Nestor decapitated by the sword.

There is a tension that Christians always live with.  On the one hand, we must turn the other cheek.  On the other hand, it sometimes seems that it is righteous to smite the cheek of someone in order to protect others.  What is the line?  Do you forebear to defend yourself but take violent action to help others?  Is a "just war" possible?  Is there a distinction between personal violence and state-sponsored violence?  Does God sometimes call us to use a lesser violence to avoid a greater violence?  If so, does that make the lesser violence somehow righteous?   My intuition tells me it doesn't.  

Actually, I don't think this tension can be resolved in a formula (just war theory, for example), but wiser and holier men than I have tried to offer one.  In my Orthodox Christian experience--the last eighteen years of my life--I have gone from being somewhat hawkish to being quite dovish.  And yet it is easy for me to be a dove in Canada, since no one is taking my stuff, no one is threatening my safety, no one is attacking my children.  However, I say this not to justify violence in protecting one's stuff, or in self defence or even necessarily in the defence of children.  I say this only to stress that it is easier to be a dove when there is very little real temptation to be a hawk.  

I have my limits.  I would like to think that I would not use violence to protect my stuff.  And on a good day, I might even be able to trust God and not use violence to defend myself--on a good day only, mind you, on most days I'd quickly lose my temper and go down biting, kicking and scratching.  But at this point, I think I would consider it God's will for me to do what ever I could to protect others, especially if the others are defenceless and vulnerable and I could immediately do something to protect them.  But this raises all sorts of other problems.  Again, what are the limits?  Where are the lines?  I don't know.  

When I pray, "lead us not into temptation," one of the temptations I am praying to avoid is this temptation: the temptation to use violence, to take matters into my own hands.  I don't know what I would do.  I cannot predict or control the future.  I can, however, today pray "lead us not into temptation."  And perhaps if I keep praying this prayer, God will have mercy.  God will have mercy and the temptation will never come; or if it comes, he will provide a way of escape so that I may bear it according to His will (1 Cor. 10:13).

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