I think we can safely file our gospel reading this morning under Mark Twain’s famous quote. “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me; it is the parts that I do understand.”
Jesus’ exacting demand is all too easy to understand.
“Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
All this is summed up in the command, “Love your enemies.”
There is no “nuance” in what Jesus says here. There is no room for just war theory, or what about Hitler, or what are you supposed to do when someone threatens someone you love, or you shouldn’t give money to beggars because they will use it for alcohol and anyway it reinforces dependence. And what about justice? Don’t we need to do everything we can to stop oppression and evil?
Before we get all “up in arms” to use a deliberate martial phrase, I’m not saying that all these issues aren’t normal or valid concerns. And this is not a sermon about pacifism or the right role of military intervention. I hope this is a sermon that tries to take Jesus’ words seriously and at face value. And more than that, how can “love your enemies” be a word of hope for us in our everyday lives?
The 17th century Anglican dissenter George Fox seemed to take Jesus’ words at face value. Though he himself was beaten and imprisoned for his preaching, he said:
“Ye are called to peace, therefore follow it; that peace is in Christ, not in Adam in the fall. All that pretend to fight for Christ are deceived; for his kingdom is not of this world, therefore his servants do not fight. Fighters are not of Christ’s kingdom, but are without Christ’s kingdom: for his kingdom stands in peace and righteousness, but who came to save men’s lives. All that talk of fighting for Sion are in darkness: Sion needs no such helpers.”
And yet, just about anyone’s normal and natural reaction is to do the opposite of what Jesus says this morning. If Fox is right, we may all be without Christ’s kingdom, in thought if not in deed. We resist an evildoer, often in the name of Christ and his kingdom. And if someone hits us in the face, literally or metaphorically we either hit back or want to hit back. Most of us certainly aren’t praying in that moment for our enemies.
The strike back and defend yourself instinct seems to be written into our DNA. In the Old South, what Jesus expressly condemns was called “defending one’s honor.” A book called Rot, Riot and Rebellion describes the early years of UVA. As you might gather from the title, things did not start off well. Mr. Jefferson had hoped that the young scholars would not need any outside discipline, that the love of learning and the goodness of their hearts would make for a peaceful, academical community, with professors and students living and learning together on the Lawn.
Unfortunately, Mr. Jefferson’s hopes for UVA, while noble, were also naïve. He died shortly after the University’s beginning, but not before many incidents of violence and what his enemies called “vicious irregularities.” Drunkenness, gun duels, knife fights, whoring and gambling were par for the course on the Grounds, or as UVA’s initial enemies described its location, a “poor, old turned out field.” Bricks were thrown through professors’ windows, and their families terrorized. It was even reported that in November 1832 “a gang of drunken students interrupted divine services at a Charlottesville church (that would be us!) by standing outside of it and singing corn songs.” !! (Corn songs are bawdy songs about sex!)
One raucous riot brought the ailing Jefferson down from Monticello to address the students. He was so overcome with grief at their behavior that he just broke down in tears. He was finally moved to deliver an angry harangue when he discovered that one of the chief perpetrators of the riot was his own grandson!
In an attempt to create order, Mr. Jefferson appealed to the young gentlemen’s sense of honor. But their sense of honor was really the root cause of much of the mayhem. If one was slighted in any way, shape or form, then one had to retaliate in order to retain one’s honor. If you were “dissed,” as we might have said a few years ago, then you had to fight back to protect your honor. Turning the other cheek, as Jesus suggests in the gospel, was clearly not an option.
Mr. Jefferson was onto something good when appealing to some kind of inside motivation to affect change. The Board, when faced with the students’ desultory display, imposed draconian restrictions. Mandatory wake up call was 5am. Students must be in uniform. Local taverns were fined if they served students. And yet, none of these laws helped – they only made things worse. We’ll see in a moment that it would take something very different to save the University.
But think about your life for a moment. How has your honor been offended and you feel like fighting back? Or you have already fought back, which causes your enemy to fight back again and keeps the whole cycle going. Where does it end? I was thinking, we all know that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, but I guess that also means that a tooth for a tooth means nobody will be able to chew their steak or eat an apple. As a man with some tooth problems, the second part of the saying worries me!
On the one hand it sounds like Jesus is being as impractical as you could possibly be when he says to turn the other cheek. And yet, isn’t what he says the most practical response possible? Here’s a sound bite takeaway from the sermon in the same vein as the gospel reading – never defend yourself. If you want to stop an argument, then just don’t defend yourself. Period. Not a mumblin’ word.
I heard of one minister whose response when criticized or attacked was, “if they only knew what terrible things were really in my heart, then they would say much worse.” Never defend yourself. And you sure don’t need to defend God, because – what does the Fox say? – Sion needs no such helpers. Walt Whitman thought so too. He said, “George Fox stands for the deepest, most eternal thought latent in the human soul. This is the thought of God, merged in the thoughts of moral right and the immortality of identity. Great, great is this thought—aye, greater than all else.”
Passive, non-reaction is the only thing that will really break a cycle of violence and destruction. Except when it doesn’t, because sometimes non-resistance may lead to death. Jesus gave no guarantees about that, other than saying, “do not fear the one who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”
Sometimes it does take a death to really change things. That is exactly what happened at the University on November 12, 1840. Around 9pm, Law Professor John Davis, (a member of our Christ Church Vestry) stepped out of his pavilion to try to quiet the latest riot. He saw a masked student hiding behind one of his pillars. “Davis jumped for him and reached to unmask the small bothersome student. The student fled but turned after a few steps, pointed his pistol, and without uttering a word, fired at Davis’ gut.”
Davis died 2 days later. Students were horrified and ashamed. Davis death didn’t completely end the rot, riot and rebellion, but it marked a major turning point in the atmosphere of the University. As a result of his death, the honor system as we know it emerged. Not defending your honor against insult with violence, but pledging honorable academic behavior – the same honor system in place today.
Sometimes it does take a death to really change things. Well, you know where we’re going and where we’ll end. The One who said these words, lived these words and died these words. He didn’t defend Himself. He didn’t say a mumblin’ word. He told Peter to put down his sword when Peter raised it in defense, because those who take up the sword will perish by the sword.
And He was put to death, without anyone to defend him, without anyone to help him. He died to bring you and me from outside His kingdom into His Kingdom. The Bible calls us “enemies,” yet He loved His enemies.
And yet, His death changed everything. Because, on the third day He was raised, with nobody’s help. Nobody but God, that is. Because, Sion needs no such helpers.
- Matthew 5:38 - 48