Every Sunday, as a child, I sat on a hard pew listening to a long sermon – a tradition, I naively assumed, that stretched all the way back to Jesus himself. It took me years to realise that I’d got it very wrong. Jesus was a not primarily a preacher. He came not to preach as much as to do things; provocative, prophetic, controversial, challenging and thought-provoking things that got him into trouble. Jesus was not an orator who occasionally did things to back up his fine words, but rather a social and spiritual activist who sometimes said things to explain his actions.
Spring Harvest’s theme this year was ‘One People’. As the one people of Christ we should be primarily known for what we do; provocative, prophetic, controversial, challenging and thought-provoking things, rather than what we have to say. Our words, though important, like those of Jesus, should simply be the commentary on our actions. Commenting on the words of St John, “The word became flesh,” Bishop of Durham Tom Wright said, “and the church has turned flesh back into words.” But, in a world drowning in the noise of wall-to-wall words which spew, 24 hours a day, from radio stations, websites, newspapers, magazines, TV channels and sales pitches, it has never been more important that our actions will speak louder than our words.
Choosing how to live?Jesus’ words ‘Love your enemies’ probably amount to, at one and the same time, the most admired and least practised piece of teaching in history. But, for Jesus, this sound-bite was once again simply a commentary on the way he chose to live each day of his life; the servant king or, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Philippian church, the one who ‘humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!’
The first Christmas after 11 September, I interviewed a well-known American pastor and theologian for a breakfast television show in the UK. It was Christmas Day, so I invited him to come into the studio to talk about the Christian message and how we can apply it to the world in which we live. I opened by asking him what Christmas was about for him. “Christmas is about peace and goodwill to all,” he replied. “Jesus is the Prince of Peace. If we close ourselves off from this message then it can’t make a difference.” “So if Jesus is the Prince of Peace and one of his key messages was love your enemies, what does that mean on a world scale?” I asked. “How should it affect American foreign policy? What is your message to world leaders this Christmas?” “I think it’s easier to understand Jesus’ message on a person-to-person level – it doesn’t necessarily apply to nation/state relationships,” was his short reply.
After the show I asked one of the studio crew what he thought our Reverend guest had said. His reply was simple, “Love your enemy, but kill them first!”
The charge that ‘religion breeds violence’ is one of the most common and popular complaints of all. However, Jesus’ lifestyle and message was unambiguous. Reciprocal violence is a vicious circle – a downward spiral. Vengeance always leads to reprisal. Hatred and suspicion breed hatred and suspicion and once installed within a community they become self-perpetuating. The politicians, the general public and even Church leaders have all been sold the ‘might is right’ lie. From personal squabbles to international conflict, we live in a world where people put their faith in their firepower. Muscle, punching-power and military strength create stability, we are told. But, we have been deluded into believing a myth that is destroying us. As Bono sings in U2’s song ‘Peace on Earth’, “Who said that if you go in hard you won’t get hurt?”
When Jesus first made his announcement about loving enemies he could not have made a more controversial statement (Matthew 5:44). Not only was Israel under Roman rule and its occupying forces universally hated, but added to that, groups such as the Zealots, with their talk of bloody revolution, had caught the imagination of countless Jewish people. Violent overthrow seemed the most obvious solution to rid the land of an enemy, which was itself built on military strength. But Jesus was determined to confront what the American theologian, Walter Wink has described as the ‘myth of redemptive violence’ – the belief that liberation, strength, protection and sustained freedom can only come from the power that violence gives to a person or a nation. But this was no liberal, inactive, cowardly, weak-kneed, lay-down-and-die pacifism. Instead it sprang from the deep understanding that Jesus’ teaching called for a different way of actively engaging the enemy.
The ultimate weakness of violence, is that whenever it is employed, at whatever level – personal, community, national or global – it is a descending spiral; creating the very thing it seeks to destroy. Violence can never stop violence, simply because every ‘successful’ violent act deepens our faith in it and this very success leads others to imitate it. So, like a contagious disease it has come to blight our lives, our communities and our world. “Whoever opts for revenge,” says the Chinese proverb, “should dig two graves.” Or as Jesus put it, “For all who draw the sword will die by the sword,” (Matthew 26:52).?
But, Jesus’ approach was no ‘weakkneed’ passivity. Even the briefest reading of the Gospels quickly confirms this fact. And in line with everything else he stood for, far from urging his followers to act like apathetic doormats, his teaching about loving enemies counselled active, creative and strong responses to aggression, but without resorting to violence. It’s clear that he viewed violence as not only in opposition to God’s character, but ultimately impractical and impotent for solving dispute. As part of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus chose to address the issue of how to deal with injustice by presenting three vivid pictures. “When someone slaps you on the right cheek,” he began, “turn and let that person slap you on the other cheek,” (Matthew 5:39). If we are honest, this piece of advice seems absolutely ridiculous to most of us. Why should we let someone openly abuse us in this way without fighting back? However, Jesus’ words would have sounded very different to the oppressed and downtrodden audience whom he first addressed.
Whether they were for or against him, none could have failed to appreciate just how radical, active and downright confrontational this teaching was. In Jesus’ illustration, the initial blow suffered by the victim would have been backhanded; designed not so much to injure as to offer insult, to humiliate and degrade. This kind of blow was only administered to ‘inferiors’ – so a master would backhand his slaves; husbands their wives; and Romans, Jews.
But by teaching his lowly hearers to turn the other cheek, Jesus wasn’t suggesting they take this insult lying down. In fact, the reverse is true. By following Jesus’ advice a servant would make it impossible for his master to hit him again with the back of the hand. The left cheek may now have offered a perfect target to strike another blow, but strong cultural taboos meant that the person hitting out could not use their left hand, which was kept for ‘unclean’ tasks. In practice this meant that the aggressor only had one option if they wanted to continue to hit out. Because they could only use their right hand they would have to slap or punch their victim – but only equals fought this way, which is precisely the point being made. Turning the other cheek wasn’t passive; it was proactive. The ‘inferior’ was saying, “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. If you want to hit me again you will have to acknowledge that.” Jesus isn’t teaching ‘just take it’, but exactly the reverse – “Stand up for yourself, take control, but don’t answer your oppressor on their terms.” ??Non-cooperation with humiliation?Such defiance was obviously no way to avoid trouble. Meek acquiescence was what every master was looking for and impertinent behaviour of this nature may well call down a severe flogging! But still the point would have been made. Once again Gandhi, commenting on Jesus’ revolutionary teaching claimed, “The first principle of non-violent action is that of non co-operation with everything humiliating.” Jesus’ way was neither cowardly submission nor violent reprisal. It was nonviolence, but definitely not non-resistance. It involved bold, energetic and even highly costly confrontation. Although Jesus’ advice about non-violence is viewed as impractical idealism, extraordinarily, no such charge is ever made against violence, in spite of the fact that history has proved, time and again, that war and hostility solves nothing in the long run.
One of the traps we fall into is to think of Jesus’ illustration – along with the other two he gave at the same time about walking an extra mile and surrendering your coat – as an exhaustive list. Instead, they were just sketches, mere examples of the hundreds of imaginative and effective ways that people could take on injustice without resorting to violence. Jesus knew that such tactics could seldom be repeated – not least because the law was constantly being changed to counter them. His point, however, was to keep one step ahead – to be creative and constantly find new ideas for rejecting passivity and resisting evil, but doing so non-violently.
The birth of a movement
?On 1 December 1955 Rosa Parks boarded a crowded bus in the small town of Montgomery, Alabama, in the United States. She was tired at the end of a long hard day, little knowing that the next few minutes would start a chain of events that would alter the lives of millions of black Americans. As more passengers boarded at each stop the blacks moved to the rear, where they stood, while the whites occupied the seats at the front. By the third stop the bus was nearly full and a white man was left standing. The bus driver peered in his mirror at Rosa Parks and the other three black people who had remained seated. “All right you folks, I want those two seats,“ he shouted. Montgomery’s laws of segregation demanded that all four black women would have to stand in order to let the man sit down as no black person was allowed to sit parallel with a white. At first no-one moved. The bus driver yelled out again, “You’d better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.” Three of them stood and walked to the back of the bus. Rosa Parks merely shuffled up towards the window. “Look woman,” the bus driver blurted out, “are you going to move?” The tired but firm voice of Rosa Parks spoke for the first time. “No.” She was neither frightened nor angry but she was tired – tired of working long hours and tired of being treated like a second-class citizen. And so there she sat until the police arrived to arrest her.
Within days the black citizens of Montgomery had approached one of the local Baptist ministers, Rev Martin Luther King, to help organise and co-ordinate a bus-boycott. Three quarters of the passengers who used the buses were black. The system may have been based on prejudice but it was also about economics. With the majority of farepaying passengers finding alternative means to get to work it wouldn’t be long before Montgomery’s black citizens made their point. In the spirit of Jesus’ teaching that a person wronged by injustice should give up all their clothes to shame their oppressor the black people of Montgomery turned around and said to the bus companies – “You want one seat? Well you can have them all!”
Reconciliation and redemption
After nearly a year of continuous boycotts, Martin Luther King addressed a public meeting. He knew that the bus companies were about to cave in and change the rules. But King didn’t want a revolution where one dominant group simply took over and oppressed their oppressors. “The real goal is not to defeat the white man,” he declared, “but awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority. The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community where all men would treat each other as brothers and equals. The time has come to move from protest to reconciliation.” ??At 5.45 am on 21 December 1956, Martin Luther King boarded a Montgomery bus. He chose a seat at the front. Next to him sat the Rev Glenn Smiley, a white minister who had long worked with King for racial justice. After 382 days of peaceful, assertive but nonviolent protest in the form of bus boycotts, street demonstrations and legal challenges the black people of Montgomery had achieved their goal. So what do Jesus’ words mean for life today – at home, at work, nationally and internationally?
What do they mean for the way we conduct our family life? What do they mean for relationships in our church and local community? What do they mean for our increasingly violent and gun-loving culture? What do they mean for the way we wage our ‘war’ on terrorism? Should we abandon Jesus’ teaching as idealistic and irrelevant to life in the 21st Century? Or is now the moment to take him more seriously than ever? It is time that the church embraced the teaching and example of Jesus – actions speak louder than words.