Tuesday, February 22, 2011

And Then, I Turned the Other Cheek

This past Sunday, our pastor preached on Matthew 5:38-48.

He spoke specifically about the 1st century culture of "turning the other cheek," "giving both your cloak and your tunic," and "walking another mile." It really was an excellent sermon, and I quite enjoyed it. As Ministry Intern at the church, I was asked to assist in the demonstrative portion of the sermon.

The demonstration came when the pastor explained how one would strike an equal, with an open hand or fist, to the left cheek with the intent to cause physical harm. If one was striking a subordinate, one would strike with the back of the hand, connecting with the right cheek instead, with the intent to "put one in his/her place." As the pastor explained it, "turning the other cheek," would, culturally, draw attention the evil of the superiors actions, equating their use of physical violence as a means of social control with the use of physical violence as a means of injury.

Now, when the pastor asked me before the service if I would be willing to assist in the sermon, I was more than willing. It was not until after I had consented, that he told me what he intended. I began to have reservations.

My concerns were not that my pastor would actually strike me. He is, perhaps, the gentlest man I know. He's kind and considerate, and incredibly jocular. I truly enjoy talking with him, working with him, learning from him.

Assisting in the worship service, participating in the worship service, being in the worship service prior to the sermon, however, I was distracted. I wondered about the theological implications of my pastor slapping and backhanding me, even if he stopped short of actually striking me. I wondered what the effect of witnessing such a demonstration might have on 1) those in the audience who had experienced domestic violence and 2) children in the audience who were going to see their pastor "strike" me.

I was actually quite troubled by the whole notion. By time the sermon came, and I stood before my congregation, I was really uncomfortable. My discomfort grew as the pastor spoke about the cultural significance as it related to male/female and superior/subordinate relationships. Here I was, a female intern, being "struck" by her male supervisor. Though my pastor's hand never made contact with my face, it was difficult. At one point, I remember thinking to myself, "Just keep it together. It'll be over soon."

Now, the whole "keeping it together" is a thought I have every time I'm called up in front of the church by my pastor. He likes to give them updates on my ordination journey--reintroducing me to the church when I applied for In Care status, telling them I'd be received by the deacons and would be applying next to the Association, that I was accepted by the Association and was now a "Member in Discernment" since they had changed the language two months ago.... All things better said in a newsletter, or better yet, the Annual Report, which hardly anyone, it seems bothers to read. I'm just not comfortable standing in front of a crowd while someone else talks about me. I feel like a stage prop. It's weird. But, I digress.

This time, however, I was trying to "keep it together" for other reasons. I thought about my mother. I thought about my sister. I thought about both of my brothers. All of whom have been victims of domestic violence or child abuse. I wasn't frightened or upset. I was mindful of the reality of my family of origin, and what it means to me, personally, to willingly participate in a demonstration of the abuses of power.

Now, certainly, this was a demonstration that spoke against the abuses of power. But it was an extremely uncomfortable demonstration for me, nonetheless.

As I returned to my seat, I wondered about a lot of things--were their people in the congregation, other than my family, who had been subjected to or perpetrators of domestic violence? How were they coping with the sermon demonstration? Did it register for them at all, or were they so divorced from their experience, as is common with trauma survivors, that they were wholly unaffected by what was unfolding before them on stage? What was my role in all of this? Do I, as an intern, have a right or a responsibility to share with my supervisor the realities of PTSD and the potential for such a demonstration to elicit a trauma response in those watching, even if they knew no violence was actually being perpetrated?

And how could this have been done differently? What would it have been like if my pastor had asked me, a female subordinate, to demonstrate on him, a male superior, the differences in between the two methods of striking? What were the theological implications of turning things upside down in that way? Or if the pastor had asked a male deacon to assist? How would that have been read, socially and theologically? And, hey, what about male-on-male violence in the U.S.?

I understand what my pastor's intent was, but somehow, I think it would have been better, much better, to use really descriptive language, to paint a mental picture, rather than use a live prop. Maybe we need to get the church to invest in a couple of mannequins.

At the end of it all, with the exception of really itchy skin, I walked away unscathed. But with much to ponder.

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