Sunday, March 12, 2017

Turning the Other Cheek: An Exercise in Fear and Joy, from 3/12/10

"But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you." - Luke 6:27-31, NIV

(this blog is originally from the writing I did as the Director of DOOR Los Angeles, and was first posted March 12, 2010, seven years ago today.  The "Dwellers" were primarily Young Adult Volunteers from the Presbyterian Church USA.  Facebook popped it up in my memory feed, and I felt it still has great relevance in #DismantlingWhiteousness.)

So, I tell you the truth: this verse has always irked me, troubled me, bothered me, even angered me. I get it, it sounds nice, but is it really true? Is it, at all, based in reality? I remember middle school, where the kid who had been taunting me and my 8th grade friendlessness, said that all the other kids avoided me because they thought I was gay. Adding injury to insult, he attacked me one morning at my locker, shoving me from behind so my head hit the edge of the metal. I thought, "don't fight back, turn the other cheek." That ended miserably, as he continued to pummel me to the ground, and the other kids looked on. If this is what you mean, God, I thought, no thank you.

And recently, after reading Shane Claiborne's Irresistible Revolution with our Dwellers, I've picked up his second book, Jesus For President. Again, I tell you the truth: I am not enjoying this book. I am finding myself too rocked by what he says, agreeing with so much. But in my agreement, I am feeling alone and paralyzed by not knowing how to act accordingly. However, he brings up a different perspective on "turning the other cheek" than I had ever heard in Catechism or Sunday School. Basically, turning the other cheek forces the perpetrator to recognize that you are a human being. "By turning the other cheek, the person made the abuser look them in the eye, and the other person said, 'I am a human being, made in the image of God, and you cannot destroy that.' Do not cower and do not punch back. Make sure the person looks into your eyes and sees your sacred humanity, and it will become increasingly harder for that person to hurt you." (Jesus For President, Claiborne, pgs 92-93.)

Last night, I learned this to be true, and even more glorious and miraculous than Claiborne suggests.

I leave my work volunteering with the Dwellers' afternoon neighborhood tutoring program and make it home around 9:30pm, almost. It's dark. I had just gotten off the phone with my wife and had had a small argument about our 5-month-old daughter. I am flustered, but eager to get inside. As I pull into the shared driveway of our townhome complex, I see a young couple standing at the threshold of the sidewalk, street, and driveway. They have a baby stroller with them, God would make sure I notice.

I pull into our garage, and as I step out of the car, can hear them screaming at one another: "Fine! Go off with your hommes, your cars, play your stupid games! See what I care!" I walk around to where I can see them, feeling an urge to show love and see if they are okay. I notice the man respond to another neighbor, presumably shouting down at him, by angrily answering back, "Shut the (expletives removed and softened throughout this re-telling) up, or I'm going to come up there and mess you up!"

And then, he notices me. Without taking a breath, he starts running towards me, shouting, "you want to mess with me! You don't know me!" Running directly at me, fast. Then, I see him slam his hand into his coat and pull something out, something that catches the light and shines. Without thought, I turn and start running to my still-open garage. I just panic and flee. Before I can make it to the button to shut the door, he is inside the garage with me, already, and raging.

"I should (f) you up! I'm from the barrio! I should take you out right now!"

"Look," I plead, "I just wanted to see if you two were okay. I meant you no harm."

He looks like he might smash in the window of my car. Looking me straight in the eyes with fire, he takes a breath, and he backs off a bit. He's not listening to anything I say, and interrupts me, looking around, "what unit is this?" He finds our unit number on the edge of the door. "I'm gonna come back. I know where you live. You shouldn't have messed with me."

I'm able to shut the garage door, now, so I do. My heart beating in every joint, even my nostrils, painfully. But as the door is closing, God grants me the ability to notice two things: there is a clear look of fear and shame in his face. And what I had thought to be a gun, I see now, is actually something like a crumpled-up soda can.

I walk upstairs. My wife has heard the commotion, our baby is upstairs sleeping. She is obviously concerned. We wonder if we should call the police, to which I decide would a bad idea because he'll know it was me, and he knows where we live.

But then, something calming comes over me. I recognize that I will not be able to rest peacefully in fear of what he may or may not do. I keep seeing his face, his rage, his anger, and maybe, just maybe, even a hint of his pain. I suddenly become resolved that I must go out and face him again. Should I take anything to defend myself? No, something tells me, that could look threatening and cause a backfire. My wife is, again, obviously concerned, but allows me to go. In a very tangible way, I think I feel God urging me on. Maybe it's connected to my need to protect our family, our daughter, I don't know. I just know I have no choice but to go back outside and find him.

And here is the space for miracle. Here is the truth of God's word in action, in stark reality. Here is Jesus backing up what he preached so fervently on the Mount:

As I walk towards the couple, the man notices me again, and his entire body language slowly starts to shrink. He turns and crumples. I feel God pushing me forward, strengthening my every step. Before I can even say a word, he says, "man, I'm really sorry. I am really, really sorry." And then, he reaches out to shake my hand.

I learn they have a 2-month-old. I tell them I have a 5-month-old. I ask if I can pray for him. He says, "just pray that it'll all work out." I say I will. The woman is clearly ashamed and won't look at me, so I decide not to ask to see the baby. I do ask them if they live nearby. He says he actually lives in these townhomes too, he just moved in.

I say goodnight. I thank God. I weep gently and quietly as I walk away. I hear the echo of the end of these verses: Do to others as you would have them do to you. I sincerely feel that if my wife and I were arguing like that, I would long for someone to step in with love and compassion. (In fact, I confess that we've had fights recently, and I truly wish someone would have done just that!) I pray and suddenly notice, finally, that I understand why Jesus asks us to turn the other cheek. I had been praying for this to make sense to me for quite some time, and though I never would've asked for it to come in just this way, I understand why it did. I went out to show him that he had just messed with a real-live human being, and to ask him to drop his threats. It never even came to that, because just "turning" to face him again gave him the opportunity to act like a human being as well. Building on what Claiborne says, exposing our humanity, in faith, can make it possible for others to do so as well.

People ask me all the time if it's safe to come to Hollywood. I wonder what they are looking for me to say. I have family who live in Littleton, Colorado; cousins who attended Columbine High School. By the looks of it, I'd guess that Littleton would appear to be "safe." The neighborhood our Dwellers live in is decorated in ample tagging, some of it even on their house. By the looks of it, I'd guess people might see this neighborhood as "less safe." But, my answer, now, is that this world is a dangerous and broken place. Period. Desperation leads to desperate and risky acts. Loneliness and feeling alone cause us to do some crazy things for attention. I believe that can happen anywhere. Even in my very garage last night.

So should we focus on being safe? Should we focus on being preemptive or retaliatory? Or, and by that I mean a hefty or, should we focus on being bold in love, and trust our safety to a God who promises to save us, a God who already has? I'm not sharing this story to promote myself as a hero in any way. In fact, much the opposite, as I felt like the biggest coward running away from a man armed with a Coke can and his own embarrassment. Nor would I advocate walking into a potential hornet's nest just because you should be bold for boldness' sake alone. But I can say this: if the feeling of God's protection is strong inside you in a given situation, and the feeling of God's urging you to enter the conflict exists, go forth. Go forth in faith. For I truly share this to celebrate that God's word is indeed good, and true, and inspiring, and emboldening. It was not my strength last night. It was the strength of the one who has saved me and aches for me to trust in that. Even died for me to trust in that. God has got your back. God will have your back.

I pray for that young family. I pray that they do not succumb to the anxiety and stress involved in young parenthood, but rather, find ways to come together despite it. If it be God's will, I pray to cross paths with them soon again. I'd like to know them.

How to end this blog, other than by continuing in the path of working to build community, instead of divide it, with our every act. The Dwellers relaunched the neighborhood garden last Sunday. Despite rain and thunder the group that had gathered transformed the space. So I will close this blog with photos of that work day to metaphorically remind us, well, mostly myself, of the lovely lesson that even under the darkest and loudest storm clouds, our God provides, our God encourages, and our God wants us to grow, together.

May Christ be with you in every way,

Matthew +Matthew John Schmitt - The Table Setters @matthewjschmitt

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