Turning the Other Cheek

Turning the Other Cheek

Jesus was nonviolent. Jesus was the first feminist. Jesus was the first anti-racist. Jesus welcomed all people. The Catholic Church is the face of Jesus, the non-violent Revolution. We are gently bringing a new Church into being holding hands and singing.

Jesus is nonviolent, yes. Jesus is a feminist, yes. There is NOTHING wrong with non-violence. What I am calling out is nonviolent arrogance. Trumpeting Jesus’ non-violence goes hand-in-hand with dismissing other religions and movements as violent. Christianity is non-violent, with groovy flower power – and Islam is an oppressive faith. Christian women are feminists, modeled after Jesus, while Muslim women are ‘not given a good example, the poor things.’ (I just read about it in the paper!) (Even though Jesus is a prophet in Islam, people don’t know this). “It’s too bad,” a Catholic woman said, “that Muslims don’t follow Sufi mysticism more, which is similar to the teachings of Christianity, and more loving.” (Not to mention that Sufism is not this monolithic force that is in perfect alignment with that universal phenomenon some say transcend religion, called mysticism, but that’s another post). The white Christian woman in The Faith Club (which is a book I loath, and that’s another post, but I’ll use the pop culture reference here) – feels very smug about Christianity going into interfaith dialogue because she believes that Jesus is the perfect, non-violent model. It is easier for nonviolent arrogant leftist Catholics to buy into “Under the Burqa” or Three Cups of Tea. It is easier for nonviolent arrogant leftist Catholics to be accepted in feminist movements (because radical, woman-centered Catholicism is in line with mainstream peace-loving feminism). Liberal Catholicism and nonviolently ending the oppression of women, especially if that woman is wearing a veil, is feminist chic. (The caveat here is that I know it is hard to be both Catholic and feminist, especially in secular circles, but I think it is easier to identify as Catholic and feminist than Muslim and feminist. Muslim and feminist implies contradictions to a lot of mainstream feminists. I think this also comes from, as many women have said before me, the word ‘feminist’ having a very narrow focus. The word feminist implies a white woman who will yell at you if you say the b-word, desire liberation for all women on her standards, and want women’s ordination or contraceptive freedom NOW! But there are no issues that are not feminist issues. Granted, Catholic and feminist is also a regular wtf, but the ease that Catholicism fits into a Western feminism that still gawks at Islam begins with saying “Jesus was sooo nonviolent and feminist!”)

Jesus is a pacifist, yes. But it’s like saying that Malcolm X was somehow too intense, that there was no need to be so aggressive. This doesn’t mean the Civil Rights Movement isn’t as important. It still is. But being arrogant about Jesus’ nonviolent status lessens his badassery. Really. It lessens Catholic Reform movements. Loving your enemies is a really beautiful thing, something I love about Christianity — all that agape and stuff. As long as you don’t get tromped on or made into a doormat. (I want to point out here that there are plenty of Catholic movements that don’t snub noses, so thumbs up!) Something Jesus DIDN’T do was make himself a doormat, even if he was all pacifist about it, he was very aggressive — so why are we doing that? As Malcom X stated, “We have thought it was Godlike to turn the other cheek to the group that was oppressing us.” It’s like saying there was no need for Muhammad to reclaim Mecca – or – even worse – that the reclaiming of Mecca or Muhammad’s other military campaigns means that the entire religion is violent. (Muhammad’s march on Mecca was nonviolent, by the way. Armed, but nonviolent). There was a need in the seventh century Arab world for politics to be intertwined with religion, the need for self-defense – a political and social climate that Jesus didn’t face. It doesn’t discount God’s message of peace as revealed in the Qur’an. It doesn’t discount a religion of entire emotions.

Nonviolent arrogance implies several things, as Veena Cabreros-Sud points out in her essay “Kicking Ass”:

The messages are, on the surface, 1. I’m educated and you’re not, 2. I’m upper class and you’re not, 3. I’m a feminist and you’re not (since [the nonviolent white woman’s] brand of feminism is equated with nonviolent moon-to-uterus symbiosis). My ‘men’ can do the fighting, but I, gentle maiden, shan’t; the new feminism remaking a generation in the image of the suburban, wealthy, sophisticated, genetically genteel.”

There are personal repercussions for this. Arrogance about nonviolence makes us feel guilty about our own thoughts. After all, it is not just the man on Law and Order who has had thoughts of violence. I think a lot of us are afraid our violence will explode, if unchecked. So we store away those thoughts as sins. It keeps the insane from us and us away from the insane. They’re over there. We? We can control ourselves. It keeps us calm. We are not crazy. We are reading stories about women who say they’re going out to get a cup of coffee, and then kill themselves. We are reading stories about Amber Hill, Andrea Yates, Medea, Margaret Garner — (although Andrea Yates was trapped in a very different way than Margaret Garner, an escaped slave).

As Cabreros-Sud writes,

In many of the well-protected enclaves where feminism is discussed, a woman’s response to violence with violence is not viewed as one of the many expressions of resistance nor as a natural, human response to daily humiliation, but as a sociopolitical faux pas. The crazy woman. . . . Terrorized as I am by my understanding and horrified as I am by the act of seemingly random violence, I’d like to go beyond dismissing [the man who shot commuters on the Long Island railroad] as the Crazy Man. Because then I would be the Crazy Woman and we would be living in a society of Crazy Millions. Perhaps the challenge is the question why America created so many Crazies.”

I think we need to get openly angry. Very angry. Lenelle Moïse says (and I’m paraphrasing here) in the “Fuck You Now Manifesto,” “I’m sick of this shit…this be-polite shit, this eloquence is more powerful than profanity shit. It’s elitist bullshit, classist bullshit, it’s keep-oppressed-people-passively-aggressive-type-shit….I’m not going to recommend a good book to the jerk-off who is holding a real or metaphorical gun to my head.”

I have to take a page from Jesus and wonder about some aspects of nonviolent arrogance which have become so palatable they are almost selling out. Nonviolent arrogance tends to think that everything is all one love, one peace, one Earth – I heard it on NPR! —- but also thinks “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and “One Thousand Splendid Suns” is where it’s at. The solution is hardly “to get a gun, Sally,” as Cabreros-Sud points out. She goes on to say: Because the answer would be armed yupettes en masse blowing away mostly brothers of color in mid-town. It is more a question or a series of inquires into how we can incorporate our daily resistances, the hitting back; the spitting in the boss’s coffee; the ugly contortions of our loud, angry, cuss-ridden mouths, to create an opening, a space where “we” are allowed our multiple forms of resistance which go beyond tame-able, controllable, mass consumable, and ultimately nonthreatening feminism. How this seemingly modest defiance becomes stepping-stones to redefining who the enemy is, what is resistance, why we fight back in the first place.

I still want you to be kind. Nonviolent arrogance doesn’t always mean you’re kind. I want some deep, soothing kind that can ease the fires. I think this blog is a good way to provide lots of Catholics with a voice, all becoming like the Temperance card in Tarot. But in thinking about turning the other cheek, I have to wonder about the image I had when I was younger. I imagined, when I read that verse, that my cheeks would be hurt, and my teeth, and my eyes, and it was GOOD to get hurt. That God somehow wanted that. I wondered, what if I didn’t want to get hurt anymore, to turn another cheek. Where is God, then? Lenelle Moïse continues in her peace, neither my silence, nor my silence nor my silence camouflaged with well-thought-out phrases will protect me. May our understanding of nonviolence enhance our movement, not diminish it and may we keep fighting, keep living, and keep making mistakes.

Quote from Malcolm X from a television appearance. Courtesy of the Black Media Archive.

Veena Cabreros-Sud’s essay entitled “Kicking Ass” appears in To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism.

Lenelle Moïse’s poem “The Fuck You Now Manifesto” is available on her CD Madivinez.

Thanks to Mohja Kahf for delightful conversation.

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7 thoughts on “Turning the Other Cheek

  1. I appreciate your reflection, but I disagree with and am offended by your limited definition of feminism: “The word feminist implies a white woman who will yell at you if you say the b-word, desire liberation for all women on her standards, and want women’s ordination or contraceptive freedom NOW! But there are no issues that are not feminist issues.” In both secular feminism and Catholic feminist theology, the vast majority of writers have moved into the Third Wave of feminism where culture is very much taken into account and a discussion of race, ethnicity, socieo-economic status, sexual orientation, and eduction are thoroughly addressed and used in making arguments. As a good example, I suggest Susan Moller Okin’s “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” We hear very strong voices such as bell hooks and Catherine MacKinnon in the secular world and the growing number of feminist theologians who come from (African-American) Womanist, (Latina) Mujerista, African Woman’s, and Asian Woman’s theology backgrounds who give strong voice and leadership to the non-white feminists that you have stereotyped.

    I am also confused about your argument on non-violence. Are you suggesting that Jesus was really saying “just take it” without it participating in his mission? Jesus may well have suffered and died (turning the other cheek to the greatest degree), but he knew well what he was doing when he went to Jerusalem (last Sunday’s Gospel) as everyone knew that prophets who went to preach in Jerusalem, that is to spread the message to the largest number of people, were killed. That was why Jesus called Peter “Satan.” Satan means “adversary” and Peter wanted to stop Jesus from fulfilling his mission in Jerusalem, i.e. his dieing in Jerusalem. Jesus certainly lead a non-violent revolution prior to his death. Everyone expected a warrior David-like Messiah, and Jesus came in drawing people in through a message of love, repentance, and adherence to the Greatest Commandment. He very clearly told his disciples that in following him that they must give up everything (including “hating your mother, father, brother and sister”) and live a a difficult life (cheeks and teeth would be very sore) as long as they continued to preach and work for the Reign of God. Jesus wasn’t preaching and living non-violent arrogance, he was living a difficult truth and preaching that message, and that is what non-violent activists are still doing today.

  2. Hey there, so I wanted to make two comments. The first being that arrogance would probably be categorized as a violent communication in my mind. One could not be nonviolent and arrogant, as that would be doing violence to others. er something like that!

    Second is about turning the other cheek. I did some exegesis on this Scripture when I was in seminary and learned that Jesus was actually talking about a form of nonviolent resistance when he said that. The explanation being a bit culture bound, I love to share this info so we don’t miss out or ‘misinterpret’ (I dont want to say other interpretations are wrong). When someone turns their other cheek, it makes the person who is slapping have to use the front of their hand to slap you again which would really sting (unless you changed hands, but I guess that wasn’t the custom then).

    So, there’s all kinds of symbolism to take from that. First is the suffering we bring upon ourselves by being violent towards others. Two is that Jesus was not advocating door mat Christianity. And three, do not let others violate your dignity.

    I’m sure there is more, but that’s what I’ve got tonight. I wish we emphasized this interpretation more because I think it would be very transformative (anyone ever read that book called “Reframing” by Donald Capps? He actually advocates for some of the spit in your boss’ coffee thing to reclaim your dignity and that that is perfectly in keeping with Christian ethics). It is certainly a different message that what I picked up growing up.

  3. Hi, Becky — Thanks for your comments. First, on feminism: I’m not saying that that is what a feminist is — I’m a feminist and I don’t fit all of those stereotypes. I’m sure most people who advocate for equality in the world do not fit those stereotypes. I’m saying that’s what the picture of mainstream feminism looks like, and I painted that picture of watered-down feminism, if you will, to talk about contradictions between nonviolent feminist movements and discrimination in those movements. I still think, even though there are very strong voices who speak out against mainstream feminism in and out of Catholicism, voices who feel isolated from these movements are growing. Actually, “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” seems to be an example of this. It’s an essay that tends to pull out all of the superiority stops, the arrogance that I am talking about. A good critique of this essay can be found here: http://www.bostonreview.net/BR22.5/bhabha.html

    And yes, Jesus was nonviolent. I’m not trying to say that he wasn’t. I’m not saying Jesus said “just take it.” What I’m saying is holding up nonviolence on a pedestal when there was clearly enough forces in play to allow him to be nonviolent — he didn’t have crops, people, and land to protect (while Moses and Muhammad did not have the basic societal structure that Jesus had and therefore had to act accordingly — even though Moses and Muhammad were nonviolent as best as they were able). I also think that putting nonviolence on a pedestal distorts the message of Jesus so that it turns into “Just Take It,” or “Pacifism is the only option,” which is a politically correct version of “My religion is better than yours.”

  4. Hey Lauren, thanks for your comments. I get that arrogance would be seen as a violent communication. So maybe nonviolent arrogants aren’t really nonviolent, just comfortable? It’s really cool that you did exegesis on ‘turning the other cheek. I probably have to go to bed because I’m not really understanding what you are saying? How someone slapping you with the front of the hand — on which cheek? — not letting someone violate their dignity? I really want to hear about this because I think the core of Jesus’ teaching is to not let anyone violate your dignity.!!

    I’ve never read “Reframing,” but I’ll check it out. I think the spitting in your bosses’ coffee is certainly something that Jesus advocated, not necc. in that context, but the rebelliousness aspect of it!

    I do think violence is necessary sometimes. I think it is not pretty or nice, but I think that there are some cases where overcoming people with our capacity to love will not change anything. I think Malcolm X is a prime example here. It is my honest opinion that those tactics would be in line with teachings of Jesus (as I know them).

    Yes, this is different than what I experienced growing up, too! But it’s never too late for what my therapist calls a relearning story, eh?

  5. Theodora-
    I did not give the proper reference to what I was talking about when I mentioned Susan Moller Okin’s “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” Since I read it as a part of her larger book that contained about 10 response essays from women and men in different cultures around the world, I forgot that it was originally a stand alone essay. So, I was referencing the entire collection, where there are some pretty strong rebuttals to her argument, that come from some cultural contexts.

    Anyway, without context of knowing you or how you were talking about the stereotypical “feminist perspective,” many, like me, would see much of your essay as plainly bashing both feminism and the non-violence movement. What you have said in your comments helps to clarify, but I guess we all need to consider how we say things in these vacuumed soundbites of blogging. I’m sorry if I misunderstood your argument the first time.

  6. I wish I could be in person to explain the cheek thing! Would be so much easier. But let me try again. If someone slaps me on the face with their right hand (palm side) on what would be my left cheek and I turned my face to give them the other cheek, to slap me again, they would have to use the front side of their right hand. This would give a little sting to them because the skin is more sensitive than the palm side.

    So in this sense, Jesus would have been saying, in effect, ‘I will not let you dishonor me by letting you slap me again’ (in that way, I guess!). Hence, resisting his dignity being violated. It wasn’t a matter of ‘here, slap me here too’. I imagine the old fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice shame on me saying could apply.

    And nonviolence. Its a tricky topic because although I try always be nonviolent, I fall short of the goal often (just like the folks you may be thinking of in terms of nonviolent arrogance). In my mind I am still going to strive to be a pacifist, even if it seems impossible to or that its not practical. Call me a dreamer. At the same time I also admit freely that I don’t have any other solutions to offer when it comes to questions of what to do with safety, war, etc.

  7. My own understanding — without the benefit of scholarly exegesis! — has always been that “turning the other cheek” is a way of standing firm and keeping cool. I think the more common reactions to being slapped on the cheek would be to back down, or to hit back. So turning the other cheek is a form of resistance that doesn’t escalate the conflict.

    And I’m really highly uncomfortable with the idea that violence might ever be necessary. I like what Pope John Paul once said: “War is always a defeat for humanity” … I’d take that a little further and say that violence seems to me to always be an admission of defeat. Pacifism — I mean true pacifism — requires great spiritual strength. Just because we can’t always manage it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try!

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