Monday, May 28, 2012

On Turning the Other Cheek

You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I tell you not to resist evil. whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away
Mathew 5:38-40
We normally associate these verses with pacisfism but there is a little more to it than that. These verses were spoken in a culture where honor and shame were culturally significant. A slap in the face was viewed as degrading and was an effort to lower someone's status as they were publically shamed. What does this have to do with the right cheek and then the left cheek? For an answer we have to turn to the Mishnah, which is a collection of legal regulations from the 3rd century AD rabbinic Judaism. In the Mishnah penalties and compensation are prescribed that are due as punishments for various infractions. There was a difference in slapping someone with the back of the hand versus the palm of the hand. When Jesus says, "If someone strikes you on the right cheek," he is talking about a slap with the back of the hand as most people are right handed. The Mishnah lays out compensation for those who experienced such a shaming action: a slap with the palm of the hand carried a penalty twice as much as a slap with the back of the hand. Why should it contain a higher fine? Because to be struck on the right cheek, with the back of the hand, would be more degrading and shameful than to be struck on the left cheek with the palm of the hand. In effect, Jesus is saying, if someone degrades or shames you greatly by a backhanded slap on the right cheek, turn your left cheek to him and see if he's willing to say you are closer to his equal than the initial slap indicated. Of course, this would also inflict more compensatory damage to the one doing the slapping. This verse does not say as much about pacifism as it has to say about the culture of honor and shame that they lived in. They heard the words totally different than we hear them today.
Matt Dabbs, "What Does it Mean to Turn the Other Cheek"

20 comments:

nicrap said...

...Sounds rather thin to me, what do you think?

Thersites said...

A bit, but it does add since the expression originated by those following aJewish tradition. A backhanded slap is a blow that I can't imagine being thrown today. Mostblow are closed fisted.

Thersites said...

It does sound like something one would reserve for a "slave"... not wanting to damage one's property too severly.

nicrap said...

heh. Just curious, what's the problem with the "literal" meaning - the "pacific" solution?

nicrap said...

...i mean purely at the "mythical" level (irrespective of what He actually meant), do you not find it enough life-affirming?

Thersites said...

That depends upon the motivation of the cheek turner, was it Nietzscean (the world is will to power and so now I seek a higher rank) or Christian (only G_d is the Power, and therefore I leave all retibutive justice in His hands). I see the former as life affirming (of a free man), and the latter as life extinguishing (acceptance of slavery status). In other words, a masculine vice feminine response.

As Shakespeare states in Hamlet (Act IV, Sc 4)

What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unused. Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th' event—
A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward—I do not know
Why yet I live to say “This thing’s to do,”
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do ’t.


Cause, Will, Strength and Means... possess all four and you own your own actions and reactions in every circumstance, but lack 1 of the 4, and one's response to the slap is but a 3/4 reasoned "excuse" for inaction.

Thersites said...

Cause, Will, Strength and Means.

Deny me my tunic, I'll grant you my cloak, also. I have the four necesaries. Ask me to go one mile, I'm strong enough to go two. "I" have the power... it may have originally come from Him, but "I" have it now.

There's a story that Slavoz Zizek tell in "Living in the End Times" where a not-so-devout Jewish man decides to celebrate a Jewish fast while in the concentration camp, knowing that it will weaken him and likely get him culled out and gassed.

When one has been reduced to "homo sacer" as the Jews were in WWII, this is a true act of rebellion, of maintaining one's own "sacred" as opposed to the exclusionary "other's." Of not being like Kalfka's waiting man in "Before the Law".

Thersites said...

Now I do slightly disagree with Ambegen's characterization of the Jews as "Homo Sacer" as they were, in my opinion, being used by the German State as "victims for sacrifice", but the Jewish man in the parable, by excercizing his own "original" sense of the sacred, was able to negate the original negation of the German sacred.

Thersites said...

...and so to me, this "religious freedom" negation of the State's power of negation of the individual, becomes "doubly" important.

Thersites said...

Perhaps this distinguishes the Romans from Germans as well, as the Romans would not use an ostracized former citizen in a sacrifice (like the games), but the Germans would (and as the Russian gulag demonstrated, the Russians were no "better" than the Nazi's in this regard.

Thersites said...

By denying themselves the use of of their former citizens services as "sacrifices", the Romans honored the sacred, "Roman citizenship". IMO, the Germans and Russian's p*ssed on the meaning of "citizenship". In other words, Roman citizenship was "worth" something, German/Russian citizenship was demonstrated to be nothing more than an empty "hypocrisy".

Thersites said...

from Wikipedia:

Homo sacer (Latin for "the sacred man" or "the accursed man") is a figure of Roman law: a person who is banned, may be killed by anybody, but may not be sacrificed in a religious ritual.[1]

The meaning of the term sacer in Ancient Roman religion is not fully congruent with the meaning it took after Christianization, and which was adopted into English as sacred. In early Roman religion sacer, much like Hebrew קֹדֶשׁ qōdeš, means anything "set apart" from common society, which equally covers the meanings of "hallowed" and "cursed". The homo sacer was thus simply a man expunged from society and deprived of all civil rights and all functions in civil religion.

The status of homo sacer was a consequence of oath-breaking. An oath in antiquity was essentially a conditional self-cursing, i.e. invoking one or several deities and asking for their punishment in the event of breaking the oath. An oathbreaker was consequently considered the property of the gods whom he had invoked and then deceived. If the oathbreaker was killed, this was understood as the revenge of the gods in whose power he had given himself. Since the oathbreaker was already the property of the oath deity, he could no longer belong to human society, or be consecrated to another deity.

A direct reference to this status is found in the Twelve Tables (8.21), laws of the early Roman Republic written in the 5th century BC. The paragraph states that a patron who deceives his clients is to be regarded as sacer.

The idea of the status of an outlaw, a criminal who is declared as unprotected by the law and can consequently be killed by anyone with impunity, persists throughout the Middle Ages, medieval perception condemning the entire human intrinsic moral worth of the condemned outlaw, dehumanizing the outlaw literally as a "wolf" or "wolf's-head" (in an era where hunting of wolves existed strongly, including a commercial element) ( see, Mary R. Gerstein, Berkeley, Ca., 1974, "Germanic Warg: The Outlaw as Werwolf", in G.J. Larson, ed., Myth in Indo-European Antiquity, p. 132) and is first revoked only by the English Habeas Corpus act of 1679 which declares that any criminal must be judged by a tribunal before being punished.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben takes the concept as the starting point of his main work Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998).

Thersites said...

The universal condition of man is that he is homo sacer before the law... and so when one chooses to return a kindness for a harm dealt, one elevates himself and powers above that of a mere citizen, and into that of an ethical actor who accepts that he is homo sacer. He takes unto himself the sovereignty previously ceded to the State and negates that sovereignty...

...but all ofthe above is true ONLY if one has the four necessaries... else it is merely an admission of inapacity and self subordination to grredy Lords who sit in judgement... from Hesiod's "Works and Days"

Thersites said...

Just call me "Antigony"... ;)

Thersites said...

Contrast the actions of Bishop Myriel with those of Inspector Javert from Hugo's "Les Miserbales"... which affected Jean Valjean more deeply? The punishments meted out by the State or the forgiveness of the Bishop?

nicrap said...

Interesting comment about Homo Sacre... thanks!

Thersites said...

I'd best get back to exercising my "beyond the law" now.... ;)

nicrap said...

lol! As against "before the law"?

Thersites said...

Exactly! ;)

-FJ said...

Who might I be, were I to simply accept as factual the problem of our laws?

Hesiod's tale of the hawk and nightinngale in "Works and Days" (li 202-273) works for me. The eye of Zeus (and/or Amun) is upon them and also sets the scales. ;)