Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Between Vengeance and Victimhood

A lot of time has passed, but even still it doesn’t take much to get her blood boiling when she thinks about that landlord from long ago. The Rev. Candace Hodge and her husband were sued after leaving an apartment, accused of causing extensive “damage” to the dwelling. Knowing they had left the rental in good condition, the Hodges suspected that the landlord had destroyed the apartment in order to force his former tenants to foot the bill for renovations. Unfortunately they had no proof of this and ended up paying the landlord a huge sum of money in order to avoid court action.

The daily drive from her new home to her job took Candace Hodge past the landlord’s house and as she went by she held up her hand and “saluted him with the international sign of friendship.” She hated him with a perfect hatred whenever she thought about how he lied and cheated and stole from them and got away with it.

I suspect that each of us has “a landlord” in our past, or maybe even in our present. Perhaps it was a boss or a spouse. Maybe it was a friend or even a fellow parishioner. It might have been a peer or a rival. Those of you who have heard me rant on about it might want to chime in here that it could even be a neighbor. Each one of us knows what it is like to be powerless and backed into that corner where we have no options, no way to effect a just outcome, and sometimes even no ability to scream out. It is an awful place to be and the emotional trauma it inflicts on us stays with us for a long, long, long, long time.

It is such a common experience that Jesus speaks directly to it in His teaching:

“Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other also; if anyone wants to sue you to take your coat, give it to him, and give him your cloak as well; if anyone forces you to go a mile, go a second mile.”

This last teaching refers to the common practice of Roman soldiers conscripting civilians to carry their heavy bags for a mile. It was the law of the land and absolutely hated by the local population. Say you are out in the yard playing with your children, or getting ready to sit down to dinner, or resting after a hard day’s work. None of it mattered. At a moment’s notice you could be forced to drop it all and carry a soldier’s luggage a mile down a hot, dirty, dusty road. And once you had done that, you had to walk a mile back home; incensed and humiliated.

I am very much enjoying the daily practice of reading a passage from the Christian tradition. It offers insights from across the ages from men and women so powerful in the faith that if we were to know them in our present day we would know ourselves to be in the company of true godliness. Please don’t be too impressed when, in a sermon, I drop a reference to some obscure church figure. I am not that smart or well read, but I am trying to catch up.

So, on the heels of this disclaimer, let me tell you about something Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century bishop and theologian, said. He held that God’s law – God’s righteous way for us – always falls in between two extremes. “Virtue,” he said, “is to be discerned in the mean: evil operates either in a deficiency or in an excess.”

Take courage, he says. Cowardice is the deficiency of virtue, while impetuosity is the product of excess. Wisdom lies in a narrow middle way between shrewdness and innocence. Moderation is the middle way between the self-indulgence of pure pleasure seeking on the one hand, and total disdain for the world on the other.

Thinking about this sheds a new and helpful light on the teachings of Jesus we heard this morning. On the surface, turn the other cheek, give your cloak as well, and walk a second mile seem to be very extreme responses, or non-responses. “Jesus,” we want to say, “these things are really hard to do. Why must you make it so difficult?” But what if they are in fact a middle way response between the evil extremes of excess and deficiency, between vengeance and victimhood?

Turning the other cheek is the mean response between retaliation (an eye for an eye) and the complete passivity of allowing yourself to be repeatedly abused because you lack the courage to say enough, no more. Giving you cloak is a middle way response between worshipping your stuff above all and reneging on your obligation to be a steward of what is entrusted to you. Walking the second mile is the mean response between hatred of the other (being consumed with resentment) and hatred of the self (renouncing your human dignity).

Each teaching empowers us to make choices in situations where we feel we have no choice. Jesus says to turn the other check because the perpetuation of violence only begets more violence, whereas complete meekness and helplessness offers no judgment on inappropriate behavior. Turning the other check is an act of the will which shows both restraint where reactivity is expected and action where passivity is the norm. Giving your cloak to the person who takes your coat says that you will not clutch on to your things at all cost, but neither will you stand by idle while everything you own is pilfered. Walking the second mile says that you will not react to an insult either with disdain for the offender or with disdain for yourself.

With regard to the extra mile, early Christians used this particular teaching as a tool for evangelism. As they carried a soldier’s pack they told the story of the Gospel. One of the reasons Christianity spread as far as it did as fast as it did was that converted soldiers, who travelled to the remote ends of the empire, took their new found faith with them. By the grace of God, they found the Gospel as it was lived out by believers who followed the middle way between excess and deficiency, between vengeance and victimhood.

Back to Candace Hodge and her landlord. She began to discern how her hatred was having adverse affects on her life, even though years had passed since the offense. She was lashing at others in anger, displacing her rage on those who did not deserve it. She had a heightened sense of stress and suffered physically and emotionally.

Studies suggest that anger is a human response to injustice that helps a person to gain a sense of control in the face of a situation of powerlessness. One researcher believes that we hold on to grudges because they make us feel more in control and less sad. But studies suggest we enjoy an even greater sense of power as we try to empathize with our offenders; gaining insight into their behavior and doing the hard work of offering forgiveness.

Hodge came to realize that it was difficult to forgive her ex-landlord because she had actually grown to enjoy hating him. But as long as she hated him, he had a power over her. Eventually she got to a point where she was able to write this:

I may not be able to make my former landlord any less of a lying, thieving jerk, but I can control of how I feel about that sort of person. Instead of hatred, I now feel a sense of pity for him. I forgive him now because I know he honestly doesn’t know any other way to behave. He has problems that I can’t begin to understand…

I remember, quite clearly, every detail of the legal hassle with that landlord. But, through the lens of forgiveness, I see it with different eyes. I see a man with little or no conscience, who takes advantage of people. I see him now as a man who schemes and connives, and I take pity on him. I hope one day maybe he’ll become a better person. In the meantime, I must move on with my life, if for no other reason than my own health and well being.

Jesus knew something very important. When we react to injustice from the extremes of excess or deficiency, we tie ourselves to the offender in way that lasts well beyond the offense. Long after the landlord has taken our money or the boss has taken our job or the spouse has destroyed our trust we allow ourselves to be fused to that person and that moment because at the time we could not find a middle way to empower us, nor can we now find the path of forgiveness which allows us to let it go and move on with life.

Jesus offers us teachings, which on the surface appear to be very difficult, but they are in fact the path of life.