I have had reason recently to reflect on my own assertiveness and how this fits with Jesus’ injunctions to turn the other cheek, go a second mile, and donate your jumper as well as your coat.
The situation arose because I have a new nextdoor neighbour, and this neighbour has completely changed the front and back gardens. He has ripped up all the grass, laid paving stones, and put in 6ft-high black horizontally-slatted fences. Ironically, he’s left standing the dead ash tree in what is now a front yard because the quote to have it removed was ‘too much’. On the plus side, that and the cherry tree (albeit mostly hidden in three huge leylandii) are the only source of value for wildlife left in his front yard, so as long as no branches fall on any person there is some value in leaving it standing.
My neighbour spoke to me about his fencing plans. He has broken English that is strongly accented, and what I heard was that if he had any leftover black paint after doing his fences he would donate it to me and I could paint my existing three-foot lapped fencing in that colour. I made what I thought was a non-committal answer. I don’t think very fast in these situations. I have Postural Tachycardia, which brings brainfog as well as my general fatigue from hEDS and fibromyalgia, so unless I’m prepared in advance and in a situation where my adrenaline is running (which I’ll massively pay for in the subsequent weeks), I’m a slow thinker. Frankly, I can’t physically afford to go through life expecting to have to be on the edge of my toes ready to think fast how to respond to a proposition.
Lap fencing isn’t very thick, and possibly if my neighbour painted his side then the stain (if it was stain rather than paint, and I think it was) would come through to my side. This would look very ugly. It would potentially be better to paint/stain my side in black than to have the natural colour of the wood partially stained in black. This is something I only thought of after discussion with my dad about my not wanting a black fence as I thought it would be obtrusive and ugly, notwithstanding that – according to my neighbour – it is currently the ‘in’ colour. Later, I looked into changing the colour of a stained or painted fence, and it seemed that it should be possible to paint over a dark stain (but possibly not to restain into a lighter, natural-wood colour).
So, I thought I hadn’t committed to staining my side of the fence black. I had decided that I didn’t want it unless the black stain on his side affected mine, and therefore that when my neighbour had finished his work I would decline the offer of stain. Or, if I did take it (my neighbour seemed keen to strongly press it on me), I wouldn’t have used it.
In another conversation with my neighbour, I thought he was discussing the high fences he had installed in his back garden (now a yard, but at least with a living ash tree). He had installed these within the boundary of his yard, set back maybe two or three feet from the existing fence separating our two properties. This fence is also six feet high, but again is neutral on my side. He stained his side black, and in places the labourer made a mess and got stain onto my side. But it’s little enough that I can ignore it. These are thick wooden slats, so stain doesn’t soak through from one side to the other.
I then saw that my neighbour was taking out the 3-foot lap fencing panels on the far side of his yard from me, and was replacing those with 6-foot slat panels stained in black. At this point I breathed a sigh of relief, because I was worried that he’d offer to do my side, and I didn’t want him to. Nor did I want the awkwardness of turning him down, leaving him with one side in an entire front-and-back set-up that didn’t match. And nor did I want to have to have repeated conversations trying to explain that something he thought was smart and an improvement for me was something I found ugly and intrusive.
In the UK, there is no strict rule about who is responsible for which fence, but there is a general assumption that when standing on the road looking at one’s house, one is responsible for the fence to the left. So when my new neighbour replaced the fence to his left, I thought ‘hooray, he knows about this rule, so that’s the side he's touching and he won’t touch mine.’ At the very least, if he didn’t know about the rule, it would be self-evident that a person doesn’t change or take responsibility for both fences.
Then I spent a couple of days away at my sister’s. I came back late one evening. And I saw that my 3ft lap fence panels had been taken down, and in their place were 6-ft black slat panels. I nearly cried (I was very tired). Not only that, but they’d been attached on my side of the concrete pillars that previously held the lap fencing in place. They were therefore legally in my garden, and the labourer had come into my garden to attach them. He’d also broken one of the larger branches off one of my roses, and crushed one of my primrose plants and one of my daffodils.
My initial instinct in a situation like this is to ‘turn the other cheek’. Say nothing, do nothing. But the fence is intrusively high; intrusively coloured; taking up my garden space; and preventing my gate from opening fully and accessing the ‘lock open’ position. I also at this point didn’t know what my neighbour was thinking. Was he thinking that he was being nice, giving me the ‘nice’ side of the fence to look at (the vertical posts being on his side, behind the horizontal slats)? Or was he being selfish, taking advantage of my absence to put up a fence that took up my garden space rather than his? Was it actually a mistake, and his labourer had put the fence up on the wrong side? If so, was my neighbour hoping I wouldn’t object (to save him money), or was it that the neighbour didn’t know yet and was going to apologise profusely for the illegal intrusion onto and damage of my property (leaving aside the broken plants, all of my concrete posts now have holes in). Was he a nice neighbour, or someone who might take further advantage of me?
I didn’t feel happy about leaving the situation as it was. Whilst I wanted to ‘turn the other cheek’, something niggled at me that said maybe this wasn’t – yet – a situation for such turning. Following conversation with my family, we agreed on a form of words to request that the fence be taken down from my side (carefully – please don’t damage my flowers further!) and reinstated on his own land. Then I waited. Did I have a nice or a nasty neighbour?
According to my neighbour, he thought that in the conversations we’d had I had agreed to have my fence panels removed and replaced with the tall black ones. He thought he was doing me a good thing, by replacing cheap lap fencing (albeit only a year or two old) with solid slats that would last many more years. Also, clearly his taste is for tall and black, so he thought that I would like that too, especially as I hadn’t firmly said that I didn’t like black. Apparently black is the in-thing, though apparently also it’s not ‘black’, it’s ‘ebony’. I’m not really into the ‘in-thing’, not least because in-things change quite regularly, and this particular in-thing is unmatched anywhere else on the street and local surroundings.
My neighbour’s labourer/builder had, I was told, returned to his home country and was therefore unavailable for removing and reinstalling the fence on the correct side. I therefore suggested that my dad – who is good at DIY – could at least remove the fence (thus giving me confidence that my plants would be protected, and allowing me to get on with the measures I wanted to take to hide the black). This is what ended up happening, and once my dad had got started my neighbour was able to find two friends/labourers to come and help with putting the fence back up on the correct side.
I am pleased that I did message my neighbour to ask for the fence to be put on his own side. Try as I would to ‘turn the other cheek’, I would have resented it and it would have taken an immense effort of will even to ask God to transform my heart to not be bothered by the big black fence in my garden. By speaking up, I clarified the communication with my neighbour. With my dad doing the bulk of the labour, it didn’t even cost my neighbour any money to have the fence reinstated in a better condition and smarter appearance on his side of the boundary. Meanwhile I have a 5-6 inches of space back in my garden, which means my gate can now be opened and kept locked open, and the blackness is even further away. At the same time, I am putting my fence panels back in, which will hide half of the black; and I’ve bought some planters so that I can grow dogrose (as the support) and honeysuckle in a free-standing manner in front of the fence, so I can’t see as much of the blackness.
The situation has made me reflect more on what ‘turning the other cheek’ is meant to mean. It is easy to think that it means being a doormat and letting people walk all over you, doing whatever they like regardless of your feelings let alone needs. But it does not seem to me that the long-term relationship between me and my neighbour would have benefited from that approach. On the other hand, perhaps it seems that way to me because I benefited from exploring the issue more deeply. My neighbour would have been quite happy to have left the fence in my garden. Going back to the other hand, the fact that the work ultimately ended up being done mostly by my dad means that my neighbour didn’t lose out financially after all.
So maybe that is what turning the other cheek looks like. It does not mean that a conversation cannot be pursued to obtain greater clarity about what both sides intend and want. In fact, a conversation can improve the relationship and get a better result for both sides: in this case, the fence ended up on the correct side at no cost to my neighbour. In a situation where there is likely to be a long-term relationship (this is my next-door neighbour), seeking clarity in conversation is helpful rather than harmful. Perhaps in the situation of a one-off thief, or the centurion commanding someone to carry his pack, then there is little to be gained from getting into a conversation about the rights and wrongs of the situation at that moment in time. But over the long-term, seeking to right injustice is good.
We must also remember that God himself is not a push-over. When Adam and Eve ate from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God did not respond by letting them continue to access the tree of life. Instead, he did the opposite: he separated them not only from the tree, but from Eden; he cast them forth into a broken, thorny, frustrated world of trials and tribulations. God did not respond to Adam and Eve taking the fruit of one tree by giving them the fruit of the other.
When David sinned against God and Bathsheba, their son died. David spent a week in grief and mourning for his sin and for his son, but his son still died. Not only that, but the whole kingdom of Israel suffered and split into two separate kingdoms, with David’s line keeping only two of the twelve tribes. David’s theft of Bathsheba did not result in him getting a second gift: sure, Jesus came from David’s line, but a lot of suffering occurred before that for many people (and Jesus is the descendant of a great many other people). Sin is serious, and God’s command to his people to ‘turn the other cheek’ does not mean that sin has no consequences, or that we are not required to seek justice and restitution.
I also discussed this with an older couple who act as my Christian mentors. They pointed out that the command to not resist an evil person assumes that one is confronting an evil person, and my neighbour is not evil! We discussed how ‘going the extra mile’ relates to a Roman soldier carrying a heavy load over many miles, and getting assistance from a series of local people for a small distance each makes sense. It allows the soldier to travel further and faster than he could if he carried the pack himself the whole distance. This doesn’t make the system right, but it makes it understandable, and it explains the love shown by helping the Roman soldier further than was required. Similarly, a person who steals your cloak (coat) is probably poor and needy. Giving that person your tunic (jumper, shirt) as well is about considering the need of that person and how to help them out of their poverty. Turning the other cheek seems to be about not returning an insult, rather than being a generic doormat.
So these examples are strictly about what is loving to the other person. The soldier who has walked many miles carrying a heavy burden is loved by someone else carrying that burden for them. The person in poverty who has stolen clothing out of desperation is loved by having their needs met. The person who is rude and insulting is loved by not having vengeance taken on them. Clearer and more thorough communication about what both sides want and why is not a failure to love. Instead, it is often a way to love better, to allow both sides to take action that the other side genuinely finds loving and to prevent either side becoming resentful or being imposed upon.