This appeared first as a weekly column in The Finger Lakes Times (NY): http://www.fltimes.com/opinion/denim-spirit-look-at-history-with-open-mind/article_329d731e-ee04-11e6-9cca-ff210b3391ba.html
Try this out and you’ll be amazed.
Facing someone while standing up (this should be a friend who trusts you, and who you trust), pretend to slap him or her with your right hand. Now, have them turn the other cheek for you to slap it. In order to slap that second cheek with your right hand, you will have to do it backhanded – as in, slap them with the back of your hand.
Why is this important? Because “turning the other cheek” was an act of non-violent resistance rather than passive despondency or forced humility.
What we need to know about this familiar but often misused proverbial teaching, is that slapping someone with the open hand (or palm side) was an act of social dominance in the first century from whence the proverbial saying comes. It was something that a person of social stature would do to one of lesser stature – a soldier for instance, to a peasant. But a backhanded slap was reserved for a social equal.
By turning the other cheek, literally, a peasant was taunting the aggressor to slap him or her as an equal.
I first learned this tidbit from Walter Wink, a twentieth century biblical scholar and theologian. With this, and many other such subversive teachings, a first century rabbi named, Jesus, armed ordinary peasants who didn’t stand a chance of succeeding with violence, to trick their oppressors into acknowledging their dignity.
I have discovered that the writings of sages and mystics – from Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism – often lose their radical flavor when presented through the sieve of institutional religion. Organized religion tends to domesticate its gods, to make them more manageable, and to avoid any risks to their institutional interests.
That is not really so different from governments either.
How often is the truly radical nature of the Bill of Rights taught in our schools? How often is the extreme inhumanity of our national heroes revealed when it comes to their behavior and attitudes around slavery, or the genocide of Native Americans? The history of our war crimes is pretty much left off the table in school as well. We domesticate our civics lessons to bolster nationalism, and to keep it from getting in the way of unadulterated patriotism.
In fact, the modern discipline of history actually began as a means of promoting nationalistic propaganda and, much to the chagrin of governments, unintentionally evolved into an academic study. It now seems to be devolving back to its roots, aided by a hard push from state governments and school boards as they edit textbooks to jibe with nationalist mythology.
We would do better to sidle up to the texts of history, whether secular or religious, with an open mind instead of seeking to reinforce our preset ideas. If we can put down our agendas, and come to the historical texts with truly open eyes, ears and hearts, they will offer us amazing insights and surprises. In fact, it will likely change our hearts and minds.
Come to think of it, that is probably why we seldom do.