Lent: How do you turn the other cheek?

Mark Guevarra
“Today’s gospel teaches us that turning the other cheek is the key to lasting happiness for the individual, but it also has important implications for the church as a whole.”

Fired Gay Church Worker Writes on Turning the Other Cheek in a Synodal Church

Mark Guevarra

Today’s post is from guest contributor Mark Guevarra. Mark is a Ph.D. student at the Graduate Theological Union, in Berkeley, California, with an interest in synodality.

Today’s liturgical readings for 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time can be found here.

An enemy is defined as someone who is hostile, feels hatred, and causes injury to an opponent. Most of us have enemies to some degree–people who have spitefully come after us, hated us, and caused us injury. And so, Jesus’ teaching today to turn the other cheek is still something that challenges us individually as well as communally, given that throughout history the church has faced and continues to face persecution. So, how do we turn the other cheek?

Jesus is not saying that we should be a doormat inviting more injury to ourselves, but to have compassion for our enemies and not retaliate. The word for love used in this gospel reading is agape, the primary word for love in the gospels, implying that is how we Christians should love. Agape is freely giving ourselves, motivated by the belief that we are utterly loved.

Agape is the key to true happiness and freedom, and it is compassion and charity embodied. This is demonstrated on the Cross when Jesus prays for those who have put him there: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Many of us have heard that prayer through the years and wondered, “How does anyone forgive like Jesus in the face of unbearable anguish, shame, and betrayal?” And yet agape is what we are called to do.

On February 6th, I marked the fifth anniversary of being fired as pastoral associate for being gay and in a loving relationship. It was a painful experience losing my ministry and having my vocation and years of formation rejected. I felt attacked and betrayed. Immediately after the firing, I often found myself trying to wrap my mind around why the institutional church chose to terminate me and many others. In the middle of the night, I’d fiercely debate in my mind with the church officials that fired me. It was mentally draining and for months lost countless hours of sleep. Other nights, I’d sit in tears beyond words simply numbed at what had happened. The only respite I’d find in my times of fight or freeze was in drawing on faith. I found solace in the prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Turning the other cheek meant letting go and finding solace in my powerlessness. In this way, Jesus’ liberating hand frees me from my instinct to fight back, to flee to false securities, or to freeze in negative feelings.

Turning the other cheek also means being compassionate for those who have hurt me. It not only means learning about individual and communal history, contexts, systems, and the sin that pervades it all, but also the grace that works to transform it all, and the grace that calls me to be part of building up justice and peace. The gospel doesn’t end with the Cross and death, but forgiveness and a call to continue Jesus’ liberating work of restoring justice.

Having read the synodal summaries of hundreds of dioceses, and the summaries of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, it is clear that harm has and continues to be done on LGBTQ+ people by the church, abusive systems, individual members, and its teachings. And so, what does turning the other cheek look like in our synodal church?

Turning the other cheek means liberation from the cycle of harm done on LGBTQ+ people by the institutional church, which can only be achieved through agape. I have found healing in my doctoral work which focuses on restorative justice practices between LGBTQ+ people and the institutional church. The Catholic Mobilizing Network has been working for years to transform the U.S. criminal justice system to be less punitive and more restorative. This restorative justice approach can teach the church a lot as it becomes more synodal. We can turn the other cheek by uncovering truths and learning to reckon with them, by acknowledging and lamenting them, by committing to ending cycles of harm, and by making reparations.

Today’s gospel teaches us that turning the other cheek is the key to lasting happiness for the individual, but it also has important implications for the church as a whole.

Mark Guevarra, February 19, 2023

Related reading:

How a fired LGBTQ+ church worker never lost his faith

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