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Pastor Nigel Kelly - Response to Tobe Nwigwe's Try Jesus

Response to Tobe Nwigwe's Try Jesus

Posted by Nigel Kelly on

Try Jesus

The Houston rapper, Tobe Nwigwe just released his new song “Try Jesus” which is stirring discussion around responding to injustice. You can find the video here:

Set to a soothing Gospel sound, the name hints at a common Gospel trope of going to Jesus during difficult times, and that’s what I was expecting, but instead uses the term in an entirely different way. “Try Jesus, but please don’t try me.” In other words, he’s going to thrash anyone who messes with him or those closest to him.

The song deliberately contrasts Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” principle and his unapologetic promise of having “no problem laying these hands.”

Artistically it is masterful. The soulful Gospel theme is soothing, invoking the peace and comfort common in the genre all while he warns with gold grill that he has no qualms knocking you out. His play on words is brilliant. “Try Jesus but please don’t try me” is evocative, and the play on “laying these hands,” which in Christian circles reminds of anointing, but here is used for physical retribution.  

The filming reminds of Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” another masterful work.

The honesty is genuine and refreshing, “He said turn the other cheek, but that’s one part of the Bible that just don’t sit right with me.”

In a time where George Floyd suffocated with a knee on his neck, Breonna Taylor was shot as cops raided the wrong house, and Ahmad Arbery could be hunted down by trucks and shotgun blasts, it is conceivable to me that this principle wouldn’t sit well with Nwigwe and others.

How does Jesus expect the African American community to turn the other cheek?

The turn the other cheek passage comes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which occurred early in Jesus’ ministry. It has a long history of both deliverance and derision.

As simple as the command is, a closer examination reveals layers of depth that are imperative to interpreting his words correctly.

My hope is that exploring this passage will help Nwigwe and others understand the passage properly, knowing what it says and what it does not say, so that the principle can be evaluated fully in context.

Many misuses have derailed into tragedy, abuse, and oppression. The true heart of the command is to offer transcendence above oppression, rather than passive submission to exploitation. My prayer is that many find this transcendence offered in Christ’s command.

A close examination of the text is in order to determine this. The high resolution look at the details may seem like splitting hairs, but by the end will drastically affect the reading of the passage. Readings that seem obvious will turn out to be impossible and what may seem like lunacy might just look like the way forward for the African American community.

Turn The Other Cheek

Some of the many ways Matthew 5:38-42 has been misused and misinterpreted include:

  1. Telling victims of sexual or domestic abuse to stay silent, not seek justice against their attackers
  2. Telling oppressed groups to shut up and not seek justice.
  3. Telling witnesses of injustice to stay on the sidelines and not get involved.
  4. Telling people who are attacked that they cannot defend themselves or loved ones ever under any circumstances.

If I thought that’s what Jesus meant, I would be siding with Nwigwe and warning people not to try me. But Jesus did not intend any of these misapplications and I will demonstrate why.

As always, the context is king.

Any interpretation must match important keys in the context. Here are five boundaries that limit how to interpret the meaning of turn the other cheek.

5 Boundaries On Interpretation

First off, it must harmonize with the rest of the Old Testament. The context of this section of the Sermon on the Mount begins with Jesus claiming in 5:17-19 that He did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. Thus, it must cohere with the Law.

Second, it must fit the tenor and character of Jesus in the rest of the Gospels.

Already the above misapplications, among others, falter because the Old Testament does not, for instance, tell witnesses of injustice to remain silent and withhold aid to the oppressed. The same is true for Jesus’ character. Showing these as incompatible interpretations is easy enough but demonstrating the true meaning in his teaching requires further digging.

Third, it must fit the overall intent of the section. Jesus doesn’t merely want people to be good, He wants them to transcend the morality of their day. The section starts with 5:20 saying their righteousness needs to surpass that of the Pharisees. They also will receive no reward if they are just like the tax collectors and sinners in 5:46-47 which is the other end of the section. So, turn the other cheek is sandwiched by the bracketed ends of saying they need to be higher than the others of their day. Instead of being like them, they need “to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (5:48)

Fourth, it must fit the pattern of the other statements. The pattern throughout the section that is repeated six times is, “you have heard _____, but I say to you_____.” What they have heard is either from the Law directly (i.e. “You shall not commit murder”) or from the tradition (i.e. “whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court”). Then what Jesus says is to take it much deeper than just the Law or tradition requires it (i.e. Not only should you not murder, don’t hate either. Don’t just avoid adultery, don’t even lust).

Now, one note is vital to make that will become relevant for our discussion about the content of the first part of the formula in these six patterns. That which they heard was not necessarily wrong. “You shall not murder.” Jesus wasn’t reversing this declaration all of a sudden saying murdering was now acceptable. Neither with adultery, nor breaking oaths. His point in each case is that the interpretation of the Law was incomplete, not necessarily wrong from the start. The problem wasn’t the prohibition against murder, it was the satisfaction stopping there, as if everything was fine if you were insulting your brother so long as you didn’t murder him, or everything was kosher as you lusted after women in your heart so long as you didn’t actually sleep with them. Jesus’ point is not a disintegration of the first principle, but a fleshing out, a fulfilling, and a completion of the concept. We will see shortly why this is so pertinent.

Fifth, any proper application must match the context of the verses themselves. The guiding principle is “do not resist an evil person,” (5:39) but that must be viewed in light of the scenarios, which are: 1) whoever slaps you on your right cheek,” 2) If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt,” 3) “whoever forces you to go one mile,” and then there is the related yet different 4) asking from you and wanting to borrow from you. The first three are clear injustices done to you, whereas the fourth includes just and unjust requests for assistance.

Turn the Other Cheek Is For Individuals

What do these all share?

He is talking of an individual, “you,” receiving the abuse or request for aid. In each case, the person has the ability to respond. They are able to strike back, they could resist the taking of their shirt but instead give their coat, and they are forced to go a mile but are able to go another.

Right away this limits the application. Victims of abuse, by which I mean the higher extremes of abuse, such as sexual abuse of children, domestic abuse, etc. do not fit the context. They are not able to respond the way the hypothetical “you” can respond in Jesus’ directives. Jesus Himself famously took the abuse of the cross, but a careful reading shows He forced their hand and assured He was killed. It was His will in accordance with the Father’s will to go to the cross. Additionally, when it wasn’t His time, Jesus did resist abuse. For example, when the Jews picked up stones to stone Him in John 10, Jesus pushes back, asking why they want to stone Him, rather than being silent and “taking” the abuse.

It also means that governments and groups are not central to what Jesus has in mind.

Turn the Other Cheek Is For When You Are Struck

Furthermore, there are further limits on what He is referring to. Notice that it does not say, “If someone hits your wife, your daughter, your brother, your neighbor, turn YOUR cheek.” Nor does it say “If someone takes your African American brother’s shirt you give them YOUR coat.”

This is about offenses perpetrated against you where you have the ability to respond.

Therefore, this is not saying that you should not resist someone oppressing someone else. This would fly in the face of the demands of the rest of Scripture where we are commanded to seek justice for the oppressed. So lay those hands Nwigwe whenever you see your brothers and sisters oppressed!

Turn the Other Cheek, Give Your Coat, Walk the Extra Mile, Give To Him Who Asks

Now that we have seen the context of who Jesus is talking about, what about the offenses? There is a slap, a suing for a shirt, forcing to go an extra mile, and asking for help.

The slap is on your right cheek, meaning it’s either from the left hand or was a backhanded slap with the right hand. The latter is more likely. Thus, this is an insult or a way of ostracizing more than an attempt at physical assault. In other words, the blow is far more social than it is physical.

The taking of the shirt isn’t merely stealing, it involves the courts. “If anyone wants to SUE you and take your shirt.” This is an unjust use of the legal system to take from you.

Walking the extra mile isn’t intended as a slogan for companies to “go the extra mile” for their customers. The context was that Roman soldiers by law were allowed to conscript Jews to carry their weapons and equipment up to but no further than a mile. Thus, a soldier could select you to pick up his things and haul them for him, which would have been a tremendous insult coming from the occupying nation against the subservient people.

The fourth is less clear that it is an abuse, but it is certainly possible to conceive of situations where someone asking for something could be inappropriate or even oppressive.

All of this then gets tied into “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” in 5:44.

So, the immediate context expresses oppression, insult, people misusing power or opportunity to harm you. It is less about physical defense, and more the use of the physical to belittle, humiliate, or demean you. The backhanded slap, the suing in court, and the tyrannical demand of your body to move the weapons of your subjugation are all assertions of dominance over you.

It should be clear by this point that what Nwigwe is addressing is very much in focus in Jesus’ statement. They have faced and continue to face oppression. The physical violence of lynchings have decreased, although the police brutality situations show they have not vanished, but the social oppression still looms large. How should African Americans respond to the injustices they face personally and see in their community?

Before answering that question, let’s look at one final cluster of points about the passage.

What Exactly Is Jesus Saying Is Wrong?

Is Jesus saying an eye for an eye is wrong? Is He saying the Law is wrong? No, it can’t be that because that would break our first requirement of the interpretation needing to harmonize with the Law.

Jesus wasn’t saying that murdering was allowed. “You weren’t supposed to murder before, but it’s fair game now!” “Feel free to cheat on your wives!” That wasn’t what He said with the others and it’s not what He is saying here. Under the Law there was not anything wrong with seeking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth- that is, within certain boundaries.

How does Jesus use His “you have heard it said” statements? He wants to complete and round out the disciple’s understanding of them. For instance, yes, the Law required a certificate of divorce, but that did not mean that God approved of divorce as we see Jesus explain in Matthew 19:3-9. There is a core that the culture of each statement that is accurate and doesn’t need to be altered, but understood more fully.

So, let’s remember that an eye for an eye was part of the Law. The problem was not an eye for an eye, although how Jesus addresses the issue puts bounds on seeking an eye for an eye.

Three boundaries stand out. First, the eye for an eye was supposed to go through a legal procedure. For instance, in Deuteronomy 19 “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc.” is mentioned alongside judges deciding the case. An eye for an eye was meant to be handled by the authorities, not by individuals seeking retribution.

Likewise, another boundary was equal punishment given the severity of the crime. It was a “tooth for tooth” not “I take your life for you knocking out my tooth.”

The third boundary has to do with the heart. It is one thing to seek justice through the proper legal channels, but a few verses later Jesus calls us to “love our enemies.” We shouldn’t seek an eye for an eye out of a heart of hatred.

So, the boundaries around this command are: 1) pursue “an eye for an eye” through the proper legal channels rather than individually seeking vengeance, 2) have matching punishment given the crime, and 3) don’t hate in your heart.

This was all well and fine when Israel ruled themselves, however, at this time the Romans ruled over them and they were limited in how their legal system could enforce this principle. Would they be wrong for slapping the person back? Suing them for the return of their shirt? It was complicated but there would be nothing wrong with seeking an eye for an eye within those bounds mentioned earlier, just like there would be nothing wrong with not cheating on your spouse.

I repeat, THERE WOULD BE NOTHING WRONG WITH HIS JEWISH HEARERS SEEKING AN EYE FOR AN EYE OR A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH, given that they stay within the bounds outlined, just as there would be nothing wrong with them not murdering or not committing adultery against their spouse.

And yet, Jesus pushes further and He does so with a purpose.

What Is Higher Than An Eye For An Eye?

Recall that the context is to transform His disciples into more than what even the greatest of their time (whether perceived or actual), the Pharisees, were. Jesus pushed them past not merely avoiding adultery but lust as well, not merely loving your neighbor but even their enemies.

Why this radical call? Because He wanted His disciples to live for the Kingdom and to have God’s transcendent character.

Jesus was dissatisfied with the world and its fruit. God’s people had not, nor were they capable of restoring the blessing that was there in Eden. Justice was unfulfilled and the same methods we have always used and the same strength we have always had would never achieve that justice.

But we are not without hope. What Jesus does in this passage is to set up the higher way. The true follower of the Law transcends the way of the world, and takes on the way of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Here’s how this looks with turning the cheek and the others. The strike from the evil person is meant to show superiority. A backhanded slap, suing in court, a soldier conscripting your person are all power moves to display dominance. What are each of the actions Jesus calls His disciples to do? They are power plays in return, although done with kindness and love, yet not accepting, appeasing, or submitting to the evil. Turning the other cheek takes self-control. Taking your oppressors weapons without complaint is hard enough. Walking another mile voluntarily, which means you have to walk back two miles after that trek, takes a will of steel.

The person who turns the other cheek is in control, strong, composed, unshackled. They are not acting from emotion or circumstance, but from conviction and principle. They can withstand the insult and give kindness back because they are operating on a higher plane.

In the Dark Knight there’s a scene where Batman is putting a beating on Joker all over the interrogation room and the Joker says “you have nothing, nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength.” Batman’s strategy and success had come from intimidation and inflicting severe pain. But that was exactly what the Joker wanted him to do. He wanted Batman to let rage consume him, thus corrupting him and his principles. Batman had nothing on him in that moment.

The same is true of the one who turns the other cheek. What does the abuser have over you if you offer to go the extra mile, or give your coat as well? The disciple of Jesus following these commands isn’t concerned about such offenses because they care not about the kingdom of this world but only the Kingdom of Heaven. Yes, there is an offer of love and kindness to the abuser, which matches the character of God who “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (5:45). But there’s also a defiance blazing like the sun and scoffing at the attempt to control, manipulate, and belittle you.

Now, all of this means nothing if there is no ultimate justice and there is no life after this age. In such a case there is only now and the only fight is for power. But if there is a world to come and Christ did rise from the dead and He has offered protection and provision over all this world can dispense against you including death itself, then to turn the other cheek, to offer your coat as well, to walk the extra mile, to give when asked of you is the highest mockery of oppression possible as it entirely disregards and dismisses the offense.

Before we get too far afield, let us remember our boundaries. This is for those who are in a situation where such a defiant, controlled response is possible. This is not talking about abusive situations where such a response is impossible because of the dynamics. A woman beaten by her husband and returning and offering for him to beat her again does not achieve the same defiance that is there in turning the other cheek or walking the extra mile.

It is also not talking about OTHER people being oppressed. There is no overcoming and transcending the offense if it is done to someone else and you offer your cheek. No, the response there is righteous indignation, mama bear protection, and fidelity to justice.

What Does Try Jesus Get Right?

Now that we have a clearer picture of the passage let’s return to “Try Jesus.”

What does it get right about what Jesus means by turn the other cheek and what is off?

He promises “we gon have to scrap” if anyone touches one of his. I think that meshes seamlessly with Scriptures mandate to protect others and in no way disagrees with turning the other cheek. In fact, I encourage it. Maybe not always with fists, but certainly protect yours and pursue justice zealously. But if the occasion requires it, lay them hands young man!

I also have no problem with questions, doubts, or concerns with Scripture. It’s alright if something doesn’t sit well with you, especially if the confusion stems from a lack of understanding.

In the sower of the seed parable, it is the ones who understand the word that become fruitful. My prayer for you Nwigwe and others is that you would understand turn the other cheek properly. You may still reject it in the end, but I think what Jesus promotes is compelling and the way forward for the African American community.

As for understanding, another thing that I think the song misses is that it’s safe to try Jesus. Granted, it is unclear whether he means that you can “try Jesus as a solution to your problems” or you can “try Jesus and you won’t get hurt because He will turn His other cheek” or both when he says “Try Jesus.” It very well be the former, but if he means the latter I think he’s mistaken.

Is the insinuation that you can harm Jesus and get away with it? Does that work out well? Does Nwigwe or do you believe that Jesus won’t get retribution? If he or anyone thinks this way I think that’s a grave mistake. Reading Revelation I get a VERY different picture of Jesus. Even the picture in the rest of Matthew does not give the impression that Jesus is merely a passive recipient of abuse.

Certainly He endures the persecution and the cross, but that is an act of war. That battle wins Him the keys to death and Hades, and allows Him to bind the strongman, the devil, and plunder his house by taking the souls of the saints with Him.

Point being, no Jesus didn’t throw fists because 1) He had bigger fish to fry, and 2) He won’t need His fists when the sword from His mouth will slay all His enemies. Judgment is coming and it is coming through Jesus. So, Nwigwe’s right to imply that Jesus will not throw fists, but if he thinks it’s safer to “try Jesus” than it is to “try me” then he is vastly mistaken by an infinite order of magnitude.

Later in Matthew He says that every careless word spoken will be accounted for. Imagine the accounting for those who slapped Jesus and the ones who nailed His hands and feet.

So, yes, protect your own. Yes, it’s okay to have concerns about the passage. No, you better not try Jesus’ patience.

Should Nwigwe Turn The Other Cheek?

But what about, and I think this gets at the heart of the song and the current conundrum facing the African American community right now, what if someone backhanded slapped him? Should he lay those hands?

Justice is an eye for an eye. I cannot say he would be wrong to do so. Should he retaliate with excessive punishment? I wouldn’t recommend that. Should he do so with hatred and malice? No, I do not believe so. Should he lay hands? He can, but I think Christ offers more for you Nwigwe.

The offer is not power to confront the threat but transcendence beyond and above the abuse.

Jesus’ directive comes with the backing of justice and life everlasting. It comes with the Kingdom of Heaven reigning over heaven and earth with no more oppression. If He has given that to you, and you have accepted it, then you are above any master here on earth. Slaps may be thrown, shackles may be locked, stakes may be set ablaze but you are above it.

For generations the black church in America overcame the oppression heaped upon them. They rose above the hate and the rage and they found God and love and the higher way. When the opportunity arose and they were capable they turned the other cheek in defiance and mockery of their captors. There were other times when the evil was beyond turning the other cheek. Justice will roll like rivers on that day for their suffering. But I beg, don’t lose sight of the glory that was there in the resistant church, refusing to bow their souls to their captors.

Do you want to meet the hate head on, or do you want to transcend above it.

But this didn’t change our plight you might say. My response to that would be, “is that an indictment upon their efforts and turning the other cheek, or upon the white community?” The fact that things did not change despite the holy cries for justice from the Black community as they transcended above their tormentors is a judgment against the white community. I believe that cost will be cataclysmic as black saints stand during the judgment and accuse the slave holders, the KKK, and the others and those that were silent when the time came to protect their brothers and sisters in the faith.

But maybe that’s not enough for you. Maybe you want change and want it now. Maybe the kingdom of Heaven means little to you when the Kingdom of earth is burning for your people. Maybe you don’t believe transcendent opposition is powerful enough to change our country and the hard hearts of men. I cannot blame you. Faith in such an unseen force is brutally challenging. But if you abandon that path as impossible, all you are left with is the conflicts of power v. power, and more of the same.

I believe there is glory for those who can turn the other cheek when receiving the backhanded slap and lay hands when the slap bruises another. I believe that transcendence above and beyond injustice is not only possible it’s assured because of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father. And I believe that such might of will and soul is transformative. Rome fell and the church stood in its place because of this transcendence. May you, Nwigwe, and your people stand above this world through the power of Christ, whether America does or not, and whether my people join you in your cause or not.

Thank you for reading

If you would like to learn more, click here for Pastor Nigel's blog or here for our sermons


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