Some men asked Jesus, "teacher, what should we do if a man hits us across the cheek?"
They asked because this is something people are afraid of. Afraid, not of being hit the first time; that's already happened. They're afraid, for whatever reason, their attacker will hit them a second time or a third time or keep on hitting them until they just can't take it any more--or worse encourage others to hit them as well.
We have two natural responses to this situation. We can retreat and hide so that our attacker can't find us to hit us a second time, or we can go on the offensive and beat our attacker to the point where they either cannot hit us a second time, or are afraid to try. Scientists call this "fight or flight".
Jesus offers a pretty remarkable third option. "Turn and offer your other cheek". At first it sounds crazy. Nobody wants to get hit a second time, but Jesus recognizes there's something else at work here. Being afraid is worse than getting hit. If we turn the other cheek, then we take from our attacker his ability to make us live in fear and that makes us much stronger than he.
Turning the other cheek, we will get hit again, and perhaps a third or even a fourth time. Taking the hits, but not moving, our attacker soon sees he is powerless against us and has no choice but to withdraw.
Everyone has heard this story and knows this lesson but it is incredibly difficult to practice in our lives.
Seven years ago, terrorists hit us brutally in New York city. For fear that it might happen again, we attacked both Afghanistan and Iraq. Although highly criticized now, people forget the enormously high approval rating George Bush had at the time. Without question, this was the path most Americans wanted.
Suppose we had taken another path. Suppose we had turned the other cheek. What if the president had gone and TV and said "We cannot respond to this violent act with violence without bringing more suffering for the innocent" and chosen not to attack our attacker.
Following 9/11 people were afraid to leave their homes or engage the world in any way. They would have hated George Bush for choosing nonviolence and he probably would have lost his bid for re-election, if not outright impeachment. But, would he have been right?
Our attackers wanted to make us afraid. A military response was a pretty good indicator that we were indeed afraid, perhaps more so than if we had responded by hiding or retreating.
To turn the other cheek, we would have had to stand our ground firmly, without attacking offensively. It would have been difficult and required remarkable bravery on the part of millions of ordinary citizens and I'm not at all sure we would have been up to the task, but what if we were?
Without fear, terrorism is impotent. Our enemies would have lost the only weapon they had against us. They would have created a great deal of pain and suffering, but accomplished nothing and we would have been immediately triumphant.
Imagine how powerful a nation would be if it could take a hit like 9/11 and not responded, not changed our path in any way. Our enemies would have been astounded and pitiful for their lack of any weapon to use against us.
In 2001 we weren't strong enough to do this. We responded in fear as humans always have. We can learn though. Knowing that our counterattacks didn't accomplish what we'd hoped they might and taking the lessons from Jesus and Ghandi, we can respond differently next time. It will hurt, deeply hurt, to stand and turn the other cheek, but imagine the possibilities if we do.