“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 anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
You may write me down in history
With your bitter twisted lies
She stands there, in her sundress. Quiet. Calm. Upright. Stately. The men who surround her are in full riot gear, arms lifted to lay hands on her, remove her.
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
They sit at a lunch counter, hands folded in laps. They are silent, in the face of furious people screaming hateful names, pouring food into their hair, pushing them off of their chairs.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Three men stand on platforms. The white man stands and looks straight ahead. The two black men have raised black-gloved fists into the air. They are still. They are there. They are not going away.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Each of these iconic images contains someone who is asserting their humanity. They take up space. They eat. They have lunch breaks. They tire and sit. They drink water. They use bathrooms. They work. They play sports and win medals. They are fully, gloriously, relatably, human.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Yet in their all their beautiful and valuable and worthy humanity, they are not equal. Not allowed to sit, to eat, to pee, to protest. They should know better. They’re asking for too much. They’re out of line. “Wait a little,” others suggest. “Be patient. It will come.”
“If any man slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the left also.”
We’ve been taught to believe that there are two options when one is feeling threatened: fight or flight. The people on the mountain with Jesus were certainly familiar with these options. They would have walked past the people who fought against the Romans—enslaved to their conquerors, or nailed to crosses along the roads that all lead back to Rome. Jews would have watched as the Romans took every advantage—generally backed up with the threat of violence.
They would know that one’s place in society was enforced by your superior’s right to backhand you—whether it be Roman hitting Jew; master, slave; husband, wife; or parent, child. These were not uncommon occurrences in public or domestic spheres. Jesus’ listeners were all too familiar with a backhanded slap to the right cheek, meant to demean, rather than the close-fisted blow to the left. That kind of blow was reserved for an equal.
If I turn my left cheek to my oppressor, inviting a closed fist blow from his right hand, I force him to recognize me as his equal. This is not an invitation for incessant pummeling, but rather, a strong statement for my own equality. In order to hit me again, he will do it on my terms, and using behavior reserved for his equal. Which begs the question: why are you hitting me at all?
So I have been hit across the face, the blow reminding me to stay in my place. Acquiesce. Behave. Accept my lot in life. But I’m not letting my oppressor off the hook like that. I make eye contact. I resist. No, I assert as I turn my head. I am a person. I am a child of God. I deserve better than this. And if you insist on striking me, let it be with your recognition of my value. My right to dignity. I will not be dehumanized.
When the woman stands, as she walks, she forces these men to come to her, their armor exposed as ridiculous against her lowered arms.
When they sit, these diners force those serving food to recognize that they, too, eat.
When they quietly raise their arms into the air while on the victor’s platform, these athletes force their viewers to recognize their pain, their cause. Their humanity. The people who pour food on to diners’ heads and punch men who do nothing but sit in their chairs and ask for food do not gain our approval for their brutish behavior. Oppressors are not just, nor are they justified.
These protesters, I think, turned the other cheek in the spirit of Jesus. They insisted on their humanity.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise . . .
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
—Jorie (with excerpts from Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise”)