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The Slap

By Mike Solberg (posted by Louisa Mitchell):

I have finally read a headline about “The Slap” that seems just right to me: “Will Smith’s ‘Bad Boys’ director says Oscars slap was ‘wrong,’ reminds Hollywood that Ukraine babies are dying”.

The “Bad Boys” director is Michael Bay, of all people, who has spent much of his career telling stories that support “the myth of redemptive violence” (see this link). That is, a bit simply, stories in which violence solves a lot of problems. Perhaps his comment about The Slap reveals that Michael Bay realizes things are a lot more complicated in real life than in movies. I have refused to actually read articles or listen to conversation about The Slap, because, as Bay says, there are more significant things going on in the world that could better occupy our time and attention.

Of course, as a student of the Bible, I have thought a lot about slapping. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

The word translated here as “strike” is not a punch or any other serious physical threat, but a slap. And like the slap Will Smith inflicted on Chris Rock, it was not meant to injure, but to shame. The slap proclaimed “You shamed my wife, so I am going to balance the scales of social standing by shaming you back.”

In the Bible, shame is serious business. All relationships in the Greco-Roman world were based on levels of honor and shame. Honor was based on several things, like family history, wealth (which was not itself honorable, but which enabled the throwing of large public festivals), ability to persuade others (rhetoric), military accomplishment, who you ate with publicly, and who sang your praises. Shame came from poverty, criticism by others with more honor than you, lack of patriotism toward the gods and emperor, exposure of (certain types of) moral failure, and more.

In an honor based society, a slap was an attempt to bring shame upon the “victim.” It was a claim of higher honor/social standing. It was an attempt to define the “proper,” lower, position of the one being slapped.

So when Jesus said “Turn the other cheek,” he wasn’t saying, “Allow yourself to be abused.” He was saying, Do not allow other people to define you.” Or, with more nuance, “As my follower, you have opted out of the honor/shame game played by Roman society. That game is nothing but a way for those in power to oppress others. You are part of new community/society based on the divinely given worth of all people. In our new community/society (a foretaste of the Kingdom of God) we “increase in honor” not by succeeding in social competition with others, but by revealing the honor inherent in all.” Or, as Jesus says later on: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles [i.e. the Romans] lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.”

So to “turn the other cheek” means to stand your ground, non-violently, and insist that the attempt to shame you has failed. As I might put it today, it is to say, “You can’t shame me. I am a precious child of God!”

Interestingly, Chris Rock didn’t literally “turn the other cheek,” but he did refuse to be shamed, or be “put in his place.” In the heat of the moment, Rock said, “Wow, dude. It was a ‘G.I. Jane’ joke.” He was reminding Will Smith that he, Rock, was not engaged in a battle for honor. It was comedy, and in our society (and especially at such an event as the Oscars) we largely exempt comedy from the rules of status games. Will Smith, for whatever reason (he has now entered rehab of some kind), imposed the rules of status games in a situation in which they were not supposed to apply. Chris Rock, the unlikely Christ figure here, “turned the other cheek.” It might not have been for the same reasons as Jesus teaches his followers – for he was invoking comedy, not the rejection of status games embodied in the new community/society/church/Kingdom of God – but then, I’ll take any example of opting out of status games I can find. And besides, in comedy, maybe there is something truly of the Kingdom of God.

And meanwhile, in Ukraine babies are dying.