Megan Meier was almost fourteen years old when a boy on Myspace courted her electronically. He told her how beautiful she was and how special she was to him. Then one day he turned on her, saying terrible things about her and rejecting her utterly. Distraught, Megan hanged herself.
The cyber boyfriend turned out to be not a boy at all. It was Lori Drew, the mother of another teen girl. Drew had purposely drawn Megan into a relationship with a fictional boy in order to wreck her emotionally.
This was in 2006. “Cyberbullying” is now a part of our everyday vocabulary. And since that time we have grown in our awareness of bullying in all its forms. We recognize that it happens not only in schools and cyberspace, but also in adult work places like board rooms and NFL locker rooms.
The bully seeks to be more by making another person or class of persons less. Bullies take aim at the dignity of another human being.
I bring up bullying because the Bible repeatedly tells the story of God’s response to injustice in terms of God’s deliverance of his people from the power of a bully. Pharaoh, the Babylonians, the Persians, and finally the Romans promoted a social, economic, and political order that demeaned the many to serve the interests of a privileged few.
The very essence of God’s justice is that no one is any better or any worse than anyone else. We are all equal in our dependence upon God. God loves us all with the same infinite extravagance. Bullying simply sets in relief the essence of injustice in this world.
Wherever some person or some group insults and degrades the dignity of another person or another group to enhance or ensure their own status, God’s justice is being violated. This is true in personal relationships, in social structure, in economic activity, and in political organization.
In Christ, God is acting decisively to restore his justice. And yet, to paraphrase Marcus Borg, without us God will not restore justice, and without God we cannot restore justice. When we practice justice, God is delivering us all from the bullying powers of this world.
In today’s Gospel Jesus teaches us how to practice justice in our ordinary lives. As we shall see, at the heart of practicing justice is a relentless commitment to respect the dignity of every human being.
A Slap in the Face
Jesus’ first lesson may be his most famous: turn the other cheek.
Jesus asks his followers to think about being slapped in the face. Then he teaches them how to respond.
To see his point, you have to realize that Jesus has in mind a backhanded slap. Using the left hand, a person who occupies a higher social station slaps a servant or a slave or just someone with less money and fewer connections across the right cheek.
No doubt the slap hurts. But the physical injury is less important than the message that the slap delivers. It says, “You are less than me.”
Many of us have been slapped in the face figuratively. In other words, we have felt insulted. When someone else cuts in line in front of us, cuts us off in traffic, bluntly dismisses what we say, or makes a joke at our expense, we can feel our resentment button getting pressed.
Maybe we think, “Who do you think your are?” or, “What a jerk!” The road from resentment to retaliation can be pretty short. That’s because we’ve forgotten a basic principle.
Even the person who sets out to humiliate us has an inherent worth. God loves jerks just as much as God loves saints. To be honest, there’s a jerk in every saint just screaming to get out. And there’s a saint in every jerk that only God’s love can bring to life. And it just so happens that God imparts that love only through the likes of hybrid jerk-saints like us.
So, in the face of insults to our own dignity Jesus teaches us to practice humility. We remember that our dignity comes from God’s love for us. It cannot be diminished by someone who refuses to share that love. And practicing justice means to extend that love to someone who doesn’t deserve it. You know, someone just like us.
Your Stuff and You
The next lesson in practicing justice revolves around how we posses our stuff. Or maybe more accurately, how our stuff can come to possess us.
Jesus talks about a legal proceeding in which you lose your shirt. Literally. Most of us would be pretty upset by this. Jesus says, “Go ahead and give them your pants and underwear while you’re at it.”
Here’s his point. Jesus doesn’t really mean for us to stand around naked in the courthouse. He’s giving us a lesson in simplicity. We can grow pretty attached to our things. So attached in fact that we begin to see them not only as an extension of ourselves but as essential to ourselves.
That’s why we feel so violated when someone swipes an iPod from our car or a bike from our garage. It’s not just that we miss the thing. And it probably has little to do with our deep devotion to the Ten Commandments.
Nope! When somebody else takes my stuff, the toddler inside of me wants to scream, “That’s mine! You can’t have it!” Again, it’s a short road from the resentment I feel toward thieves to my desire to strike out at them.
Jesus wants us to be the grownup who says something different. Everything I have I have on loan from God. One day, I will give it all back. There is no thing that I can lose that in any way diminishes me, because God’s love makes me who I am. Not my stuff. It’s precisely those things that I don’t want to lose that maybe I should learn to give away.
You Don’t Always Deserve What You Need
As challenging as these lessons in practicing justice have been so far, the next one will be especially difficult for us Americans. Jesus teaches us to respond generously to human need. And then he drops the bomb. People don’t always deserve what they need. But they still need it.
The American ethos—and mind you, I’m just as American as any of us—is an ethos of personal responsibility. Work hard to get what you need and what you want. Nobody owes you anything. You get what you earn through the sweat of your own brow.
Apparently, Jesus has a different idea. He teaches radical generosity. If somebody begs, give. If someone asks for a loan, lend. Walk the extra mile. Respond to the need, not to your sense of whether or not someone else deserves to have his or her needs met.
That was the lesson of the parable of the workers in the vineyard. The owner of a vineyard hired workers at the beginning of the day, at the middle of the day, and at the end of the day. When the day’s work was done, that owner paid everybody the standard day’s wages. Those who worked the longest were furious. The owner simply said, “It’s my money. I’ve given you what’s fair. Why are your resentful about my generosity?” (Matthew 20:1-16)
Jesus said to feed the hungry. Shelter the homeless. Visit those in prison. At no point did he tell us to screen out the undeserving. (Matthew 25:31-46)
And just in case you’re tempted to give Jesus an economics lesson, remember that God wants to reign over our economy just as much as our personal morals, our social arrangements, and our political structures. The divine economy centers on the cross.
On the cross Jesus gave all of us what we need but could never earn. He ransomed our lives from all manner of bondage, restored sight to our blind souls, replaced our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, slaked our spiritual thirst, and provided the bread for eternal life.
Love for Hate
Finally, Jesus teaches us to love our enemies. Hating the ones who hate us is an old human story. Hate rejects and even actively corrodes the dignity of the other. It is the anti-justice agent. The motivating energy for all bullies.
Jesus teaches us to do battle with hate in the only way that will reverse its destructive power. Refuse to forget that the very one who seeks to undo you is still the beloved child of God.
When others see with prejudiced eyes or sabotage good efforts for their own selfish gain or deny people a living wage or keep health care unaffordable, look for the good in them. Seek to nurture that good. Refuse to respond in kind. In other words, show mercy and compassion.
Funny thing about hate. The more hate you hurl back at it, the brighter it burns. Compassion and mercy, by contrast, frustrate and confound hate. While hate may initially rage against the merciful heart, it gradually sputters out in an atmosphere flooded with love. (See Romans 12:19-21 and Proverbs 25:21-22)
In Christ God is restoring justice to this world. God will not do it without us. We cannot do it without God.
We practice justice by assuming a daily posture of humility, simplicity, generosity, mercy, and compassion. And through our imperfect and halting practices, God is spreading his perfect justice. A Kingdom in which no one is better or worse than anyone else.