Saturday, September 30, 2006

Turning the other Cheek

St. Alexander Nevsky

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" Matthew 5:38-29.

The question we must ask about this passage is does the Old Testament law regarding an eye for an eye related to personal revenge, or defending ones family, faith, or homeland from attack? It in fact pertains to personal revenge. This law was an improvement on the usual practice of exacting many times more punishment than the original offense had inflicted on the person offended. Christ raised the bar to the next level, and said that we should not seek personal revenge at all. However, we cannot and should not turn the other cheek when the defenseless are being attacked, because it isn't our cheek to turn.

Let's take a look at some other statements from the Scriptures:

"Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked." (Psalm 81/82: 3-4

"Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor; Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:17).

Usually, oppressors don't respond to kum by ya. More often then not, force, or at least the threat of force is necessary. So do these scriptures contradict the commands of Christ? No, they refer to defending others, not to seeking revenge.

It is often asserted that Christ never used or advocated the use of force. This is simply not true.

"And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables" (John 2:15).

A scourge is not a bunch of daisies, or a tickle-me-Elmo doll -- It's something used to violently beat other people, so as to inflict pain, in order to violently coerce them in some way or other. Whether He actually struck anyone, or merely threatened to, we are not told, but we do know that the money changers at least believed he would have, and left expeditiously.

Saints Boris and Gleb are often cited by Orthodox Pacifists as examples of the way Christians ought to respond to war. After their father, St. Vladimir, reposed, their brother sought to usurp the kingdom, and so plotted to kill Ss. Boris and Gleb. They offered no resistance, because they did not wish to fight their brother, no to see a bloody civil war. However, they were not facing an external enemy who was seeking the destruction or subjugation of their people, but their own brother, and so they chose the path of martyrdom. Their act of personal sacrifice was praise-worthy.

St. Alexander Nevsky faced a completely different situation, and Ss. Boris and Gleb actually played a role in his course of actions. St. Alexander Nevsky faced an invasion from the heterodox Swedes, and so had to defend his people and his Faith.

Here is the Kontakion of St. Alexander Nevsky:

“As thy kinsmen Boris and Gleb appeared to thee, bringing thee help from heaven when thou didst battle against Velgar the Swede and his warriors, so now, O blessed Alexander, come to the aid of thy kinfolk, and contend thou against those who wage war against us.”

This refers to the following incident from the Life of St. Alexander Nevsky:

“But there was a miraculous omen: at dawn on July 15 the warrior Pelgui, in Baptism Philip, saw a boat, and on it were the Holy Martyrs Boris and Gleb, in royal purple attire. Boris said: "Brother Gleb, let us help our kinsman Alexander." When Pelgui reported the vision to the prince, St Alexander commanded that no one should speak about the miracle. Emboldened by this, he urged the army to fight valiantly against the Swedes.”

Had St. Alexander Nevsky decided to not resist the Swedes, it would not have been a praiseworthy act, but rather a dereliction of duty. It would not have been a higher path, it would have been a sinful path. So in these saints lives we see the balance between turning the other cheek, and defending one own. St. Alexander's actions were praise-worthy, and Ss. Boris and Gleb's were praise-worthy... and there is no contradiction between them because they all responded to differing situations in complete accordance with the commands of Christ.

The following quote from the Moscow Patriarchate’s Social Concept Document, and the section on “War and Peace” is instructive:

“When St. Cyril Equal-to-the-Apostles was sent by the Patriarch of Constantinople to preach the gospel among the Saracens, in their capital city he had to enter into a dispute about faith with Muhamaddan scholars. Among others, they asked him: 'Your God is Christ. He commanded you to pray for enemies, to do good to those who hate and persecute you and to offer the other cheek to those who hit you, but what do you actually do? If anyone offends you, you sharpen your sword and go into battle and kill. Why do you not obey your Christ?' Having heard this, St. Cyril asked his fellow-polemists: 'If there are two commandments written in one law, who will be its best respecter - the one who obeys only one commandment or the one who obeys both?' When the Hagerenes said that the best respecter of law is the one who obeys both commandments, the holy preacher continued: 'Christ is our God Who ordered us to pray for our offenders and to do good to them. He also said that no one of us can show greater love in life than he who gives his life for his friends (Jn. 15:3). That is why we generously endure offences caused us as private people. But in company we defend one another and give our lives in battle for our neighbours, so that you, having taken our fellows prisoners, could not imprison their souls together with their bodies by forcing them into renouncing their faith and into godless deeds. Our Christ-loving soldiers protect our Holy Church with arms in their hands. They safeguard the sovereign in whose sacred person they respect the image of the rule of the Heavenly King. They safeguard their land because with its fall the home authority will inevitably fall too and the evangelical faith will be shaken. These are precious pledges for which soldiers should fight to the last. And if they give their lives in battlefield, the Church will include them in the community of the holy martyrs and call them intercessors before God'.”