Thursday, October 13, 2011

Is Doormat-Theology Jesus-Theology?

At first glance, it might appear that Jesus was teaching us to allow whomever to do whatever they want to us – doormat theology:

• But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Matthew 5:38-41)

However, I think that there are many reasons that we shouldn’t take this teaching literally. If we did take it literally, others could coerce to commit sin, something that Jesus would never have allowed. Besides, it doesn’t seem that Jesus had taken this teaching literally. He did not allow Himself to be used as a doormat. He threw money-changers out of the Temple (Mat. 11:15), He forbade Mary from touching Him (John 20:17, and He corrected all who argued against Him. In fact, nothing that Jesus did was compelled by the whims of others. Instead, everything was carried out according to divine plan.

As a substitute public school teacher, I struggled with this teaching. I was fearful that I might be disobedient if I didn’t take it literally. Perhaps I was required to “turn the other cheek” when the students misbehaved and even when they assaulted their fellow students. However, it eventually became clear to me that this passage required some serious interpretive reflection. If I allowed the students to kill each other, it would not only bring censure upon me but also upon Christ! Clearly, Jesus couldn’t have intended that we take this teaching literally. Besides, if we did, we would be violating many other passages about the necessity of justice and punishment and even how we were supposed to rear our children:

• Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent--the LORD detests them both. (Proverbs 17:15)

• Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him. (Proverbs 22:15)

In fact, I found many teachings that ruled against doormat theology. Ultimately, we are supposed to be servants of Christ and not of man:

• You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. (1 Cor. 7:23)

What a relief! Clearly, Jesus’ difficult teaching had to be understood figuratively, according to the context. Jesus admitted that everything that He taught came in the form of a parable. If this is the case, then we have to understand His teachings in light of this fact. Even within the immediate context, Jesus’ teaching couldn’t possibly have been intended as literal:

• If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:28-30)

Clearly, no one takes this teaching to gouge out eyes and to cut off hands literally. If we did, we would all be rendered handless and eyeless. Instead, Jesus seemed to be teaching that sin is so lethal that if necessary, it would be better to remove these than to enter hell.

I began to try to apply this understanding to the subsequent teaching about turning-the-other-cheek. Perhaps Jesus was teaching that if would be better to offer the cheek and to go the extra mile rather than to seek revenge for the injustice? This understanding would then match His teaching on eyes and hands.

But where does “revenge” enter into the picture? Jesus was teaching about the misapplication of an essential Old Testament principle:

• You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39)

The “eye for eye” principle was a reflection of the wisdom of God. It required that the punishment fit the crime, although not literally (Exodus 21:23-27). However, it seems that this judicial principle was wrongly appropriated by the rich and powerful to justify revenge on their enemies. Therefore, Jesus taught that they should not “resist an evil person” in this manner. Instead, it would be better to allow oneself to be the object of injustice rather than retaliating vengefully.

More than twenty years later, the Apostle Paul commented on this very teaching:

• Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." [Proverbs 25] Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)

Many Christians have mistakenly taken this as another example of doormat theology. According to their understanding, we have to allow ourselves, our family and our church to be victimized by any abuser. They also wrongly understand “God’s wrath” and His vengeance as something that will only right the wrongs in the next life. However, Paul explained that “God’s wrath” was also to be exercised in this life:

• Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves…For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent (“revenger” KJV) of WRATH to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:1-4)

The reason that we are not supposed to take revenge is because our Lord has instituted another institution to exercise His revenge and “wrath” upon evil. This frees us up to love and to embody grace, while the criminal justice system exercises His justice and wrath.

Practically speaking, this means that if we are victimized, we shouldn’t take justice into our own hands but avail ourselves of His ordained institution of justice. Do we forgive those who have hurt us? Yes, but we also seek justice. If we fail to seek justice against a rapist, we fail to love our community, which is left with a rapist on the loose. We would also bring disrepute to Christ. Instead, we are to show off His surpassing wisdom by making proper use of the institutions He has put in place to deal with injustice.

Paul gave us another important interpretive clue. He stated that the ethics, which he was illuminating, should be “right in the eyes of everybody” (Romans 12:17). It should have the ring of wisdom and virtue. If our interpretation makes us look ridiculous, enabling others to trample upon us and our community, perhaps we have failed to understand the Biblical teaching properly.

Do I punish students who misbehave? Of course, but this enables me to also show them love and forgiveness. One Christian mistakenly didn’t want to press charges against her assaulter, thinking that she would be unfaithful to her Lord if she did. However, forgiveness and justice aren’t in opposition. Instead, they are complimentary. When we pursue justice, we also love, not only society, but also the assaulter. He needs to see the consequences of his behavior. Failing to seek justice might just be another form of enablement for him to continue in crime.

Doormat theology prevents us from protecting ourselves and our families and also makes us look ridiculous. It suggests that when we forgive, we must also restore the relationship with our rapist. However, the forgiveness that brings restoration must be accompanied by a genuine repentance:

• If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, “I repent,” forgive him. (Luke 17:3-4)

Jesus taught that the forgiveness that entails restoration of relationship requires repentance. This might mean that the abused wife should not accept her abuser husband back until he has repented and perhaps also has shown concrete signs of a true repentance. Nevertheless, she must forgive him in her heart and in her prayers. Similarly, Jesus died for all and wanted all to be restored, but restoration (reconciliation) would not become a reality until the sinner came in faith and repentance.

Doormat theology represents a gross distortion of Jesus’ teaching and prevents us from walking in the light and living a balanced and wise Christianity.

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