On Turning the Other Cheek: Bob Dylan et al

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Today, many Christian churches following the most common Lectionary would have featured a particular segment of the Sermon on the Mount as the Gospel reading: namely Matthew 5:38-48. This is the part which includes Jesus’ admonition to his followers to “turn the other cheek” in response to being slapped in the face, which is one of those sayings of Jesus which has entered the lingo of believers, unbelievers and … just about everyone else too.

Interestingly, it seems that it is a relatively rare occurrence for this reading to be so featured. It appears this year because of the nature of the liturgical calendar: the season of Epiphany is unusually long this year, and so today was the seventh Sunday after Epiphany, and the Lectionary for Year A is in effect (versus B or C). As a result many preachers may have found themselves addressing this famous text in depth from the pulpit for the first time.

Of-course there were ways to sidestep that too. Some preachers could have chosen to speak to one or other of the first two readings of the day, from chapter 19 of Leviticus or chapter 3 of First Corinthians. And then some of the faithful out there might have the bad luck — in my view — to attend a church where the preacher speaks mostly of things other than Holy Scripture; politics, for instance. And in some other places, including a few that reside in my memory, a cutesy story and a rundown of upcoming parish events generally suffices as a homily.

No doubt you can find some sermons given today online which address the difficult “turn the other cheek” instruction fairly head-on. One such indeed is this sermon on Matthew 5:38-48 (pdf).

In exploring the subject, the preacher in that text compares Martin Luther’s rather fiercely pragmatic take on Jesus’ words with the more literal angle of the early church figure St. John Chrysostom. Chrysostom is quoted explaining why he believes we really should turn the other cheek when struck by an enemy:

“What then?” it is said, “ought we not to resist the evil one?” Indeed we ought, but not in this way, but as He hath commanded, by giving one’s self up to suffer wrongfully; for thus shalt thou prevail over him. For one fire is not quenched by another, but fire by water.

Now — I’m conscious of some sad irony in proceeding from mentioning Martin Luther and St. John Chrysostom to then invoking Bob Dylan (as I’m about to) because the legacies of both of those aforementioned men are marred by anti-Jewish sermons or writings to one extent or another. That’s beyond just a shame, but nevertheless their stature in Christian history rests on the positive aspects of their preaching rather than those things which they got so terribly wrong.

The fact is, Chrysostom’s angle on turning the other cheek to an enemy (“for thus shalt thou prevail over him”) happened to remind me of a remark Bob Dylan made in an interview (with Bill Flanagan in 1985) when he commented on that same instruction. In context:

Q: “Masters of War” is a very harsh song: “I’ll stand o’er your grave ’til I’m sure that you’re dead.” “Neighborhood Bully” is equally hard, yet a lot of critics expressed surprise at its militancy. I don’t understand why so many people assume you’re a pacifist. The critic Mark Rowland said you were always more concerned with justice than politics.

DYLAN: (Laughs.) Yeah. I don’t know why people choose to think whatever they think. Is pacifism a philosophy? I’m not really sure what it is.

Q: If someone strikes you, you turn the other cheek.

DYLAN: That’s not pacifism, though. Turning the other cheek is an aggressive move, actually. There is some strategy where if someone pushes on you, you can go with their push and make their strength work against them.

So Dylan dismisses pacifism while at the same time suggesting that turning the other cheek to an enemy can be a way of somehow vanquishing him.

As a practical matter, I think that we could all conceive of scenarios where that could be true, where an aggressor could be disconcerted or shamed by such a response, even to the point of defeat. It has happened. In some context, I don’t doubt that it happens every day. I think the trouble is that we can also conceive of enemies who are incapable of shame and would simply be glad of the chance to take advantage of such acquiescence on the part of their intended victims. This especially applies to those who believe their targets to be sub-human, and therefore undeserving of sympathy in any event; e.g. the Nazis of the past and the Islamic jihadists of the present — not to mention the individual sociopath one might encounter about town. For Christians, Jesus’ words must be believed and grappled with but for most of us they also must surely remain something of a mystery and even a quandary. The final part of that passage from Matthew is this sentence from Jesus: You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. On its face, this jaw-dropping instruction flies in the face of so much else in Scripture and in theology; humans are not perfect and are not God. Yet, the instruction is there in black and white, and Jesus is believed by Christians to be the one man who lived up to it. (You might say He practiced what He preached …)

Getting back to Dylan, an interesting fact is that he also addressed this “turn the other cheek” instruction in a song, and in a similar sense to the way in which he addressed it in the interview. But the song is not from his “gospel era,” but rather from 1965 (his amphetamine era?). It’s a verse from Queen Jane Approximately.

Now when all the bandits that you turned your other cheek to
All lay down their bandanas and complain
And you want somebody you don’t have to speak to
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?

So, the singer imagines the bandits who are attacking Queen Jane reaching a point of frustration, because she keeps turning the other cheek. They take off their bandannas and complain to her. Please — can’t you just act like a proper victim? In the context of the song it’s essentially a joke, at least to this listener, but it’s a resonant and insightful one nonetheless. It comically envisages how turning the other cheek can flummox or defang an adversary. Even aged 24, Bob innately knew what turning the other cheek could mean, or could achieve, as distinct from mere submission. I think that’s noteworthy.

I can’t finish without mentioning that Dylan also references the same phrase from Jesus in his 1981 song Angelina.

Do I need your permission to turn the other cheek?
If you can read my mind, why must I speak?

Aside from observing that that particular couplet has the quality of a prayer, I’m not going to try to interpret it. I love listening to the song, but Angelina is such a swirling maelstrom of images and emotions that I’d be afraid of getting irretrievably lost in trying to figure it out.

I guess there are some songs to which you just have to turn the other cheek.