Non-complementary Behaviour and The Sermon on the Mount

It reminded me of the clichéd lessons I heard at church as a kid. Like the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5: You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

Sure, you think. Swell plan, Jesus–if we were all saints. Problem is: we’re all too human. And in the real world, turning the other cheek is about the most naive thing you can do. Right?

Only recently did I realise Jesus was advocating a quite rational principle. Modern psychologists call it non-complementary behaviour. Most of the time, as I mentioned earlier, we humans mirror each other. Someone gives you a compliment, you’re quick to return the favour. Somebody says something unpleasant, and you feel the urge to make a snide comeback. In earlier chapters we saw how powerful these positive and negative feedback loops can become in schools and companies and democracies.

When you’re treated with kindness, it’s easy to do the right thing. Easy, but not enough. To quote Jesus again, ‘If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?’

Rutger Bregman