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Chapter 28 - Turn the Other CheekWhen someone strikes you on one cheek, turn and offer him the other cheek as well, and when someone takes your cloak, offer him also your coat.
Every Christian knows that Jesus instructed us to “turn the other cheek” when attacked, but few Christians are willing to follow the instruction. Perhaps more would be willing to do so, however, if we understood the principle more fully. Not only is turning the other cheek a symbol of humility and nonresistance, it is also a powerful tactic towards victory without violence.
The secret is that most people do not do bad things willfully, but rather because they are deluded into thinking of themselves as right. If you can make them aware of the wrongness of their attack on you, they may abandon it. Turning the other cheek, or in other words, inviting a second attack from your adversary, supports this goal in three ways: First, it avoids feeding into an escalating series of attacks and counterattacks. Second, it clearly establishes that you are the victim and that your opponent is the aggressor. Third, it demonstrates your strength, both in your ability to withstand a direct attack and in your willingness to be attacked again. Ideally, this will force your opponents to reevaluate themselves and what they are doing, and perhaps choose to call off the attack. If not, however, it may still rob your opponents of their supporters, and thus of much of their power.
Identify a situation in your life where you feel attacked. What would it mean to “turn the other cheek” in that situation?
One way of viewing Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. is to see him as having been the general of a non-violent army. When viewed in this way, he is revealed as equal or the superior of many of the great military minds of history. He achieved victory on many fronts, and he did so with a weaker, smaller, unarmed army, and without killing or using force.
In planning his battles, King was true to the dictum of the great military genius, Sun Tzu, “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.” He was also following the example of the revered Indian leader Gandhi, who had shown that nonviolence could be an effective political tool. Kings real inspiration, however, was using the teachings of Jesus Christ as a blueprint for effective non-violent activism.
King used this new strategy most effectively in his campaign in Birmingham. The situation he and the movement faced was this: Black people in the South were being brutalized in a number of different ways. They were being physically attacked by the members of corrupt police forces, and by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. They were being economically oppressed, by being forced into low-paid menial labor; and they were being spiritually attacked, by being treated as though they were less than human, by always being given the worst of everything, and by never being allowed to share in the fruits of their own labors. All of this fell in the category of what Jesus might have called the strike on the right cheek, the initial blow, the first offense.
The problem was that all these crimes were visible mainly to the victims. Those who perpetuated the indignities of segregation were often respected citizens. They saw themselves as good and upright people, and believed they were justified in their actions because they also believed the lies that said black people were intended by nature to be subservient. Meanwhile, those who were distanced from segregation were able to ignore the situation altogether. They believed it was someone else’s problem, with nothing to do with them. It was here that Kings true genius emerged. His community had already been struck. But where others might have chosen to strike back, he instead charted a course of turning the other cheek. Where a military general might have chosen to attack where the enemy was weakest, King instead elected to take his army to where the enemy was strongest, Birmingham, one of the most virulently racist strongholds of segregation in the South.
What few people ever understood was that the entire purpose of going to Birmingham was to be hit again, to be struck on the left cheek as on the right, without having done anything to deserve it other than to present it as a target. In this regard, Birmingham was ideal, largely because of the presence of city commissioner Eugene Bull Connor. In contrast to Laurie Pritchard, the intelligent, temperate and moderate police chief who had outmaneuvered King in Albany, Connor was a one-man representative of all of the worst aspects of segregationism. In addition to being a city commissioner, he was also a member of the Ku Klux Klan and a staunch defender of all forms of racial discrimination. He had a hot temper, a history of overreacting, and in the past had arrested people merely for meeting around the topic of civil rights. To top it all off, he had a record of political scandal, and had recently made headlines by refusing to relinquish control of the city government, even after losing a campaign to become the mayor of Birmingham.
The next few months were the most delicate and dangerous for Kings plan. He had against him the perfect adversary, a man who personally despised black people, and who, with his dual membership in the city government and the Ku Klux Klan, represented both the legitimate and illegitimate segregationist power structures of Birmingham. The difficulty, however, would be to maintain discipline among his own troops. It was vitally important that they play the perfect victims opposite Connors textbook villain. Over and over, King coached his followers. No matter what happened to them, no matter whether they were attacked, or spat upon, called vile names or beaten, they must not respond in kind or take any violent action whatsoever. They must remain absolutely committed to the principles of Christian non-violence, even if that meant the loss of their own lives. Like soldiers marching into battle, King and his followers had to come to terms with risking their lives on a daily basis.
All that remained at that point was to present the target of the other cheek. Accordingly, King presented Connor with a variety of morally blameless provocations, including boycotts, marches and sit-ins. At first, Connor tried to respond intelligently. He staged orderly arrests, and quietly put people in jail without violence or brutality. It was at that point that King raised the ante by bringing the children of Birmingham into the movement.
Many people, even after Birminghams success, criticized the decision to include children on the front lines, where they were at risk of their lives. What King understood, however, is that the black children of Birmingham were already being struck on the right cheek. They were already facing physical danger, the loss of opportunities, and the death of their dreams and their futures even as civilian onlookers in the struggle. To join the movement and offer the left cheek was no greater a risk than the risk of doing nothing. Faced with the unexpected influx of hundreds of new protesters from out of Birminghams own schools, Connor finally let his true colors show through. There, under the glare of the cameras of the nations media, he struck with full force at the movement’s left cheek, unleashing police dogs, turning on high-powered firehoses, and allowing his policemen to club the unarmed, non-violent men, women and children of the movement.
The results were dramatic. Almost overnight, the mood of the nation shifted. It became impossible for Americas white mainstream to continue to support segregation and still think of themselves as good people. By turning the other cheek, King had created an indelible image printed in stark black-and-white in newspapers from one coast to the other. On one side was the living embodiment of all the sins of segregation people would have rather ignored, the corruption of government and abuse of authority, the violence and brutality, and the lack of any human regard for those of another color, even if they were unarmed children. On the other side was a group whose moral authority and belief in the rightness of their cause was proven by their refusal to take up weapons and strike back. By the time it was all over, segregation had lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people. The victory belonged to King, but the strategy that produced that victory belonged to Jesus.
CLOSING PRAYER (inspired by John 16:33)Lord, help me achieve victory without violence. Amen.
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