February 11, 2008

The Other Cheek
by Pastor George Van Alstine

Maybe Bob Lee is the only Messenger reader who will completely get this, because he and I are the only ones I know who closely follow the UCLA men’s basketball team and all its players. This past weekend UCLA played their most frustrating game of the season. It was against Washington, the next-to-last team in the league. Nothing was going right, and they were in the process of losing.

Alfred Aboya, a hard-working athletic junior player, from the Cameroon in Africa, was playing very aggressive defense against a Washington player who was trying to pass the ball from out-of-bounds to one of his team mates. He had five seconds to get the ball in-bounds to another player. No one was open, and the referee had already counted off four seconds. So the Washington player threw the ball full force into Aboya’s face. It bounced off out-of-bounds, and that gave Washington another five seconds to get the ball in.

Aboya was stunned. He lurched backward and began to compose himself. It was like getting hit with a sucker punch. Though the referee ruled it a legal play, it seemed obvious to me that the player threw the ball in a way that was designed to embarrass Aboya, maybe even to hurt him. Earlier in the year Aboya had suffered a fractured orbital bone under his eye, so this was actually a dangerous play for him.

My competitive juices were flowing, and I felt my right hand come up into a fist. I fantasized the natural reaction I would have if I were Aboya, and I was ready to clobber the Washington guy. But Aboya just went back to playing basketball. Maybe that’s why he’s a successful athlete and I never have been.

In reflecting on this, I remembered the famous words of Jesus:
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one also.â€? (Matthew 5:39)
Swallowing an injustice is one thing, but Jesus actually encourages us to invite more injustice—“Here, hit this one too.â€? In theory, that’s very hard to do. In practice—as I saw in my identification with Alfred Aboya and the reaction I thought he would have—it’s even harder!

Some news articles about the game have commented on Aboya’s restraint and have also noted that the whole team showed a lot of self-control in not responding with anger and a need for retaliation. Sports commentators have remarked that this shows the influence of a good coach, UCLA’s Ben Howland.

If I as a follower of Jesus am able to control my impulse to strike back, this demonstrates to people around me that I have submitted myself to the Best Coach:
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of you Father in heaven.â€? (Matthew 5:44-45)