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Situational Ethics: Matthew 5 and Self-Awareness

9 March 2009

qb has discovered, belatedly, that all ethics are situational.  A corollary, surely, is this:  anyone who protests that a non-situational ethics is even possible is kidding himself.  And it does not follow that a situational ethics is inherently untethered to revealed truth.  Today we briefly consider a prominent feature of Jesus’ ethics in the Sermon on the Mount:  the nonviolent response to having one’s face slapped.


One of the most common protests to Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” teaching is the case of a wife-beater or a child abuser.  The logic is so clear:  if my husband is beating me, then if I simply turn the other cheek, he will hit me again.  And if you counsel me to turn the other cheek, you are contributing to the injury.  If you love me, you will not contribute to my injury.  Therefore, you must not counsel me to turn the other cheek to my abusive husband.

Let’s leave aside the question as to whether or not Matthew 5’s slap on the face is a truly physical assault or just a physically harmless, culturally contingent means of insulting someone in ancient Jewish society.  That’s an interesting question, but it’s not in my field of view today.


Here’s what I wonder:  does Jesus presuppose that the assailant is self-aware, or is his teaching intended to apply to every assailant without regard to his degree of self-awareness?

Over at Tony Jones’ blog, I found a post in which Tony recounted the story of the one time in his life that he has turned the other cheek…literally.  He did it as a high-school student, and the assailant simply turned and walked away.  And it got me to thinking:  what kind of person turns and walks away from his victim when that victim has turned the other cheek?  It’s another way of asking:  assuming Jesus’ ethical structure is intended as a component of a redeemed, wisdom-infused life that yields abundance (John 10:10, etc.), how can I tell whether or not my assailant is likely to be disarmed if I turn the other cheek?  And does Jesus assume that we will apply this teaching with discretion and wisdom rather than willy-nilly, every time, and every circumstance?


A buddy of mine, whom I meet for breakfast on Saturday mornings, and I have a sort of running conversation going about the pervasive lack of self-awareness in our culture.  Maybe it has always been thus, but some people just seem so lost in their own little worlds that it never occurs to them to reflect on what they are doing and who they are becoming.  From the silliest examples of Kenny Tarmac to the most egregiously violent drivers and spouses, it just seems as though some people have no idea what they are doing, where they are going, how they are perceived, or what their effect is on others.  It reaches astounding proportions.


The reason I wonder is this:  “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”  Tony Jones’ assailant turned and walked away, validating the words of Jesus.  It seems probable to me that Jones’ assailant was self-aware enough to know that his head had been loaded up with fiery coals in the form of Jones’ action.  He knew what was going on.

Is assessing the assailant’s self-awareness a part of the discretion we are to exercise in following Jesus, or are we, like him, to turn the other cheek whether our assailants are in their right (self-aware) minds or not?


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