Jesus said to his disciples: “You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. – Matthew 5:38-39
Rooster Cogburn never turned the other cheek.
When we watch True Grit and meet Cogburn, the cantankerous one-eye U.S. Marshal portrayed by John Wayne (1969) and Jeff Bridges (2010), it’s easy to imagine that he always lived by the “eye for an eye” directive found in the book of Exodus, chapter 21.
In Cogburn’s fictional era of the Wild West, he feels compelled to use aggressive, sometimes deadly force in order to subdue the evil men he wants to capture and bring to justice. “Shoot first and ask questions later” is a way of life for him. In many cases, he says, he is justified to use violence because he was acting in self-defense. Surely the men were trying to kill him first.
It’s this tenacity in tracking wanted fugitives that attracts 14-year-old Mattie Ross. She hires him to track down the coward Tom Chaney, the former ranch hand who killed her father, stole his horse and two California gold pieces. In the end, Cogburn delivers justice and saves Mattie’s life. She forever remembers him as a man who, in her words, had “true grit.”
In literary terms, Cogburn is known as an anti-hero: someone who breaks society’s laws in order to succeed. Even though we understand his deadly ways and heavy drinking lie outside of acceptable societal norms, we admire his aggressive methods. He does whatever is necessary to protect himself and deliver justice. Many believe his successful results justify his violent methods.
I wonder how many people read the above passage from Matthew and think, “Wow, that would be great, but I can’t be that vulnerable. I just can’t let people do whatever they want to me.”
If we think about turning the other cheek, do we secretly fear that we will be struck on that one as well?
Therein lies the problem, for those thoughts reflect a fear that one cannot survive in a “dog-eat-dog” world without preemptive strikes to grab an advantage or protect one’s self. These thoughts constantly look outward, guardedly, watching for danger and living in fear.
Jesus, however, comes at it from a different perspective.
Turning the other cheek is not a sign of weakness or vulnerability; it’s a sign of confidence and strength. It’s an acknowledgement of the Holy Spirit within us and using that spirit to guide our lives.
In Genesis, the source of our Sunday scriptures during Lent, we read that God created man by blowing the breath of life into a lump of clay. Adam’s life becomes spiritus cum deo: a “breathing with” God.
In the sacrament of Baptism, we become conspirators with God when the priest bestows the breath of Christ upon us.
After his resurrection, the culmination of this Lenten journey, Jesus breathes upon his followers and instructs them to go forth and baptize others, creating more disciples and teaching others all that he taught them.
With this same breath, we are called to reach out to others, not with fear of what they might do to us, but with love that flows from the spirit within us.
In a society where mistrust, aggression and even violence sometimes seem to be the norm, it takes a certain type of strength to live more like Christ. This strength, this grit, can be found and developed through peaceful, reflective prayer.
Especially during Lent, we need to make time when we can turn off the multi-media around us and partake in peaceful prayer:
- Take a walk in the woods
- Drive home from work without turning on the radio
- Work around the house with the TV off
- Log off from Facebook and devote more face time to family members
If we make time to open ourselves and listen, we will hear God’s word and the spirit within us. We will then be able to reflect upon it and understand how it can change our lives.
Composer and music arranger Carter Burwell wanted the film score of True Grit to reflect a biblical sense of righteousness. He closes the film with “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a song that offers much peace as we strive to rely more and more on our internal sense of God’s love in our lives.
What have I to dread, what have I to fear, leaning on the everlasting arms? I have blessed peace with my Lord so near, leaning on the everlasting arms.
Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms. Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.