Wisdom in Absurdity
The opening of the Luke passage is almost comical: the pairing of Jesus’s oft quoted instruction to “turn the other cheek” with the instruction to offer our shirt when someone takes our coat begins to sound like advice to become accomplices in our own assault and robbery: “Here, let me help you with that…” Jesus is not advising us to be pushovers or patsies, as a surface reading might lead us to believe. He is wielding one of the most powerful tools of every mystical tradition: absurdity. Approaching truth with an appreciation for the absurd helps us to rebuff the efforts of the world around us to topple our hard-won understanding. “Turning the other cheek” has always been one the most difficult of Jesus’s commandments. If we are defiant in turning the other cheek, our intention might be to shame our aggressor into stopping the wanton act of violence. But shame is not the core of Jesus’s teaching. Cloaked in the absurdity of this passage is the revelation that empathy is the key to conflict resolution. As we seek to understand our enemies and aggressors, we grow closer to them: What was the injury that led the aggressor to raise the hand? What neglected need led the thief to steal the cloak? If we fail to rise above the melee whipped up by further injury and reaction, then we are doomed to be embroiled in it indefinitely.
The Psalm laments that the world is filled with fools and evildoers. This contrasts strikingly with Jesus’s message, which says that if we love our enemies, they will cease to be enemies. Jesus’s message is that “abominable acts” and “ungodly” ways can be destroyed by our persistence in practicing generosity and blessing. Held as an absolute or an ideal, turning the other cheek is next to impossible, for it leads to self-abnegation and ultimately self-annihilation. Instead, let us see it as an ideal to which we should aspire, one that will inspire us to respond to injury and selfishness with their ideological opposites, healing, love, and giving. To be people of God, to be the best we know how to be, is not about judgment and absolutes, but about seeking the path of reconciliation. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”