One of the most counter-intuitive things Jesus of Nazareth said was, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:39)
I’m not sure how many of us, Christian or otherwise, would obey that command in the moment of the slap. And certainly, there are times we have to fight to stop evil, World War II, for instance.
Yet, Monday we celebrate a man who led a movement that changed a nation by turning the other cheek. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers endured violence while they peacefully protested the evil of segregation, refusing to lift a hand in return.
And they won. Segregation is now illegal in the U.S.
Christian author Philip Yancey, in his mid-1990s book “The Jesus I Never Knew,” writes that when the Civil Rights Movement began, he thought the protesters were wrong and segregation was proper.
However, as he watched the marchers remain non-violent despite suffering violence — i.e., turn the other cheek — Yancey was forced to evaluate his beliefs.
He found he could no longer endorse segregation and realized the protesters were right. The commitment of King and his supporters to turn the other cheek was a tool in changing an individual’s heart and mind, just as much of a victory as changing laws.
This country still has work to do in race relations, but King and the Civil Rights Movement made huge progress.
In an everyday scenario, my friend Victoria, now in her late 1960s, once told me about a childhood experience when her father took her out to eat.
The young woman serving their meal was sulky and surly, practically throwing their plates at them and sloshing Victoria’s father’s coffee around. He said nothing.
When paying the bill, he left a $2 tip, which Victoria said was exorbitant for that time. The server burst into tears and apologized repeatedly, saying she didn’t deserve the tip.
She explained her boyfriend had just broken up with her. Victoria’s father told her, “It’s OK,” and insisted she keep the tip.
He would have been justified in not tipping a penny. Yet, he chose to be gracious — almost irrationally so.
He changed a young woman’s outlook, possibly long-term, and made such an impression on his daughter that she told me the story decades later. He even got an apology.
I’m a long way from being good at turning the other cheek. When I feel attacked, I usually respond in anger.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe in speaking truth in the face of lies and fighting to defend myself and others being unjustly attacked when necessary.
Still, maybe fighting isn’t always as necessary as my pride would have me believe. Maybe I could remind myself to answer meanness with kindness, quietly shrug off insults and look for the good in people I don’t understand.
Maybe turning the other cheek, after the example of Rev. King and Victoria’s father, could make a difference in ways I can’t foresee.
It’s worth considering …