“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)*
As we enter into the new year, we are invited to reflect on our spiritual state, to “take spiritual inventory” if you will. One of the things many people have been expressing about this past year, aside from the obvious reality of the current pandemic, is that they feel there has been a further increase in tension between people in this country.
Politically, folks seem as divided as ever, as an extremely controversial and divisive presidential term comes to an end. This seems to also have impacted the socio-cultural realms of life. Group-identity, and a dismissive and often spiteful and aggressive attitude towards people in other “groups”, be they cultural, social, economic, etc. seems to have accelerated. And then there is, of course, the ever-present tragedy of violent conflict, both domestic and international.
Clearly then, it seems appropriate for us, as we reflect on how we can best continue our regenerative journey to God in 2021, to contemplate how this tension may have impacted us spiritually. How do we deal, externally and internally, with conflict, feelings of anger or even hatred, and how might we cultivate an approach to these that brings us back to the source of everything: Love and wisdom?
In Christ’s request to “turn the other cheek” we are invited o reflect on our reactions to evil when we see it–when we are the victims. Do we clench with anger and coil up, repay wrong for wrong? Or do we have the courage to resist that primal urge and to be merciful instead of vengeful?
Let me offer a couple of examples to give a context in which to think about this principle of overcoming our native perspective:
If someone short-changes us at the checkout, it’s easy to assume that person is incompetent. It takes more effort to reflect that the person may just have made a mistake.
If someone lies to us knowingly, it’s easy to insinuate all kinds of negative things about that person’s spiritual character–maybe even say a few of them. It’s harder to open ourselves up to think about the reasons the person lied, and how best to deal with the situation.
If someone insensitively yells at us for something we didn’t do, our natural tendency is to yell back–to make sure he or she knows of the injustice. It takes more courage to explain the error calmly, and to hold no ill will towards the person. The list could go one and on. These things happen all the time…
It makes sense, then, that we sometimes need these words of encouragement, reminding us to rise above our instinctive desire to repay injustice, and instead be moved to think about what’s going on in other people’s minds as we experience our own thoughts and emotions.
It is difficult to counter cruelty with mercy. Christ addresses this by means of the very words He chose during His Sermon on the Mount. The things He asks there intentionally go against our common sense– beyond what we would reasonably expect the to be asked of us. Think about what it means to “turn the other cheek.” A person slaps you in the face. Such an act is an affront to our selfhood. It is a way of cutting someone to the core–of provoking us to almost certain anger. Yet the Christ, in the Sermon on the mount, says in effect, “Let him slap you again.”
Our inner life is the key. Again we are asked to focus on what’s going on in our minds- our intentions, affections, thoughts, attitudes. When someone insults us what happens to our spiritual life? What causes us to react in a merciful or vengeful way?
A major idea is contained within Christs introduction to His message: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…'” (Matthew 5:38).
This again is the law of retaliation. It is the exact opposite of the Golden Rule which the Lord spoke of later in the same address: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31). The truth contained within is that one is the law of heaven, while the other is the law of hell. In a state of heaven, people are motivated by mutual love, or charity–they do to others as they want others to do to them (see Apocalypse Revealed §762).
So on one hand, this is, as much of the Sermon on the Mount, a radical fulfilling, re-imagening and deepening of what we know as the Mosaic law, specifically the law of retribution. “You have heard it said, BUT I tell you…” and yet, there is an even deeper symbolic, correspondential meaning below the surface:
“Who cannot see that these words are not to be understood according to the sense of the letter? For who will turn the left cheek to him who deals a blow on the right cheek? And who will give his cloak to him who would take away his coat? And who will give his property to all who ask? And who will not resist evil? But no one can understand these words who does not know what is signified by “the right cheek” and “the left cheek,” what by “a coat” and “a cloak,” also what by “a mile,” and likewise by “borrowing,” and so on.
The subject there treated of is spiritual life, or the life of faith; not natural life, which is the life of the world. The Lord there opens, and also in this chapter, and the following, the interior things that belong to heaven, but by means of such things as are in the world. The reason why He did so by such things, was that not worldly men, but only heavenly men, should understand.” **
–Arcana Coelestia §9049
And that’s where the key lies. Sure, you can understand this stuff to be relating to physical, earthly life. In that sense, one could see it as a dramatic rhetorical reminder. “You know what, when someone strikes you on the face …..!” Yet when we apply a Swedenborgian reading of scripture, we uncover some of the deeper psycho-spiritual meaning behind this discourse.
A “cheek”, to Swedenborg, represents an interior understanding of the truth (see Apocalypse Explained 556:9; cf. Arcana Coelestia 9049:6). When we truly understand the the request to resist vengeful motions, we will see that we are asked to respond from a charitable perspective.
“Striking the cheek” represents a desire to destroy (Ibid.). When someone steals from us, or is cruel, the Lord asks us not to strike back–not to desire to destroy. Instead our goal is to respond from that interior understanding which is “the other cheek”-from an interior affection of love towards the neighbor. “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:43).
So, this speaks to whenever we are faced with an assault, spiritually a desire to destroy -from within or without.
We can imagine countless examples. Somebody deeply challenges our own spiritual ideas or identities, somebody says or does something to us we consider spiritually harmful, destructive. Often, we might be the victim and the perpetrator at the very same time.
Where do we respond from? As a spiritual person, who seeks connection with the divine, and our fellow beings? The answer is NOT from earthly point of revenge or retaliation. Not from anger, not from rage, not from the instinctive, animalistic, and distinctly earthly urge to meet violence with violence, destruction with destruction, injury with injury. But instead, we respond from what we know to supercede the natural world, from our inner understanding (as opposed to our outer conditioning). Symbolically, we respond with an assault on our being by means of a re-connection with our true (capital S) Angelic Self, and our constant connection and grounding within the influx of the divine.
Now, back to reality, this may still seem just as absurd and downright unnatural as turning the other cheek when someone randomly slaps us in the face. We might perceive this as just another unrealistic, saintly scenario, part of what pissed me off about Jesus as a kid.
And this might be another part where we are invited to reconsider the spiritual dynamics of this whole idea. If we look at this from a Swedenborgian perspective, this is not about living up to some kind of unrealistic high standard. In Swedenborg’s view, there is no angry and judgmental god looking at our actions and deciding to reward or punish us based on how “holy” our decisions are. In fact, there may be times when allowing ourselves to experience our own anger and frustration may be a very healthy experience.
What this is a reminder of is that, at least according to the old Swede, we choose, my means of our actions, our spiritual associations. If we cultivate the states of anger, revenge, a need for control and retaliation, we are welcome to do so.
But the point of the whole thing is that by doing so, we are essentially moving ourselves away from a loving connection to each other and the great I AM, which has at its very foundation the love and the wisdom we have at our disposal.
*New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
**Swedenborg, Emanuel. Arcana Coelestia. Translated by John Potts. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1998.
Rev. Thom Muller is pastor at Hillside, an Urban Sanctuary/Hillside Swedenborgian Church in El Cerrito, California, as well as co-editor of Our Daily Bread.
His passions include the intersection of religion and psychology, interfaith spirituality, comparative Mysticism, and the Western Esoteric Tradition.
Rev. Muller was ordained into the ministry of the Swedenborgian Church of North America in 2016, upon receiving his theological education at Bryn Athyn College of the New Church and the Center for Swedenborgian Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.