Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Saying no to violence, and yes to human dignity

Ghandi observed (and I paraphrase): there is one word in the English language worth saying more often - 'no'. One Sunday morning recently, these words were offered in the context of a reflection on Jesus' teaching to 'turn the other cheek', and the notion of creative response to violence and persecution.



I was worshipping with my Edinburgh faith community, and our ecumenical partners, and the preacher was Rev Ali Newell, of the University Chaplaincy. Ali asked, does 'turn the other cheek' mean passive acceptance of violence? Is Jesus telling his followers to become door mats to those who would wield power over us? Or might he – here and in the breadth of his lived and spoken teaching – be saying something else?

Drawing on the insights of Walter Wink, Ali invited us to consider the turning of the other cheek as a demand on the part of the one being struck to be seen as a fellow human of the one who would strike the back of their hand across the right cheek of a subordinate. Turning your face presents the left cheek, which for a right hander cannot be struck with the back of the hand, but with the fist: and fists, we know from Jewish sources of the time, were used between equals. Present to one who would strike you the alternative cheek and demand the dignity of the human as equal in that common humanity.

This is profound; it is challenging; and it is, in Ali's words, creative.

It is most certainly not becoming someone's door mat.

And these words of Jesus were spoken to the subordinate masses, the ones who were used to being struck with the back hand of those with higher status.

As those words from Ghandi celebrate, so also Jesus says: say no. Do not accept the diminishing of your humanity.

And Ghandi went further. For there is another word in English we must also say: yes. Say yes to the dignity of all human beings. What would it be like, Ali asked, to say no to violence and persecution from the position of that fundamental yes to the dignity of each human being.

That is not a resistance of violence that becomes revenge. That is not a subverting of abuse of power that becomes an abuse of power itself.

This is strength. This is empowerment. This is claiming my dignity as an act which does not diminish the dignity of the other.



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