My blog musings are written, in part, to inspire myself—and anyone else who reads them—to challenge the church we love to point to Christ, to imitate Christ, and to align with Christ first and foremost, instead of pointing to, serving, and protecting itself as an institution. I believe that when Jesus established the church, He had no intention of creating a corporate bureaucracy filled with rules and rubrics but, rather, was setting forth a path of loving and way of living that leads to heaven.
We need His way because our world’s infrastructure contains so many other roads that lead elsewhere. One of those major highways is the road of injustice. Injustice exists all around; it always has. Some of the victims are people of color, immigrants, same-sex couples, those with physical or mental disabilities, and pre-natal babies. The church is also guilty of grave injustices, perhaps especially to women, even if primarily because of an inherent patriarchal system. Jesus spoke about injustices in His Sermon on the Mount, in which He said: “If somebody strikes you on one cheek, offer him the other…if someone demands your coat, give him your cloak as well…and if someone forces you to go one mile, go further.” He was not suggesting that those who get put down should allow themselves to be walked on or taken advantage of—He was suggesting the opposite.
Theologians like Walter Wink, John Dear, and Dennis Hamm, S. J., remind us that Jesus is instructing us to active and creative nonviolent responses. To strike the right cheek with a fist requires the left hand but the left hand, in biblical times, was only used for unclean work and people could be punished for using their left hand; similarly, to backhand someone using the right hand would turn the potential fight to an insult that His Jewish audience (living under Roman oppression) would liken to the uneven relationship between slaves and slave owners. In other words, the one being oppressed would essentially be turning the table on the one targeting him saying: “I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you.” Similarly, in Jesus’ time, poor people were sometimes taken to court and sued even for the clothes off their back. If that person gave not only his outer garment but also his inner garment, he would be naked. To appear naked before the court was a criminal act in Jesus’ culture but not for the naked person—rather for those who looked upon the nakedness. In this case, the soldiers who arrested him and judge who presided would have to arrest themselves. Also, in Jesus’ time, Roman soldiers could legally force a person to carry their heavy packs for them, but only up to one mile; if they went further, the soldier could be imprisoned for breaking the law. Jesus is teaching His followers to guide oppressors to a change of heart by creative and clever means whereby the one who is attempting to shame another is, himself, shamed.
Like Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird as he quietly, without condemning, and even with dignity, shamed a whole county that falsely accused a black man of raping a white woman in a blatantly prejudice scenario, Jesus wants us to maintain honor in what is good, right, and true as we shed light on what is evil, wrong, and false. He wants us to know that there is another way. Rather than condemning the president—this one or the last—for his stance on abortion or immigration, we, Catholic leaders, would do well to get creative and present another way that gives acknowledgment to the baby and dignity to the immigrant, another way that allows oppressors to change their hearts. Like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who studied Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we need to imitate Him more closely, more cleverly, and more creatively, whether facing societal bullies or injustices within our own community of faith. Pope Francis is a good example of this way. While he acknowledges that canon law cannot allow the blessing of same sex marriages, civil law needs to afford all rights and protections to them. While making it clear that abortion is preeminent to all life issues, others (poverty, racism, immigration, euthanasia…) flow from it and are of equal value. While acknowledging that our male dominated hierarchy is a manifestation of inherent patriarchy (including erroneous beliefs that souls were infused in baby boys before girls and that male brains were larger than those of females), he also realizes that most Catholics recognize the absurdity and will see to its correction.
In the face of things that are unjust or simply wrong, we would do well to not condemn or staunchly defend, not be entrenched in only one way, but seek another way, Christ’s way.