A sermon based on Matthew 5:38-48 and Leviticus 19:1-2 and 9-18 preached on February, 23rd, 2014.
The images from it are shocking. The peaceful marches across downtown Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement were met with violence from Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Conner.
Fire fighters were ordered to point their hoses full blast on any who marched, lifting the protestors off their feet and throwing them across pavement.
It was a spring day in the South. May 3, 1963, and over 1,000 demonstrators walked the streets to protest the host of unjust laws that kept an entire race of Americans from participating fully in the ideals of a free country.
The words of the racist Bull Connor broadcast all over the country, coupled with the images of vicious dogs, tanks moving down the middle of Birmingham’s streets—all of it painted an ugly picture of racism that an entire nation saw that night on their televisions. America saw how ugly hate can be.
In the middle of that march, Martin Luther King, Jr. knelt in front of a police motorcycle, and put his hands behind his back as a Birmingham police officer cuffed him and hulled him off to jail.
Martin Luther King Jr., as well as many other Civil Rights leaders, taught a peculiar way to confront violence. They called it non-violent resistance. Black and white demonstrators walked into restaurants and sat down at whites-only counters and asked to be served. They would sit there even after being refused service. White diners yelled in their ears, called them names, spit in their faces. But those demonstrators continued sitting there, refusing to acknowledge or return the hate being spewed a them. Firehoses of racist words pointed in their direction, but still they stayed. Even through tears, they would remain silent, staring straight ahead.
These silent protestors called themselves “Freedom Riders”. They had practiced this way of non-violent resistance with one another. They took turns spitting on and yelling at each other; calling each other names until each were able to take the abuse without caving into it. How do you listen to people call you unspeakable names without shouting back?
How do you endure a slap in the face without slapping back or even wanting to slap back When someone spits in your face, how do you not want to spit right back into theirs? This was the non-violent resistance of the Civil Rights Movement. Call it refusing to undo the person who is trying to undo you. Call it the practice of actively loving those who hate you.
These words from Jesus, to offer your left cheek after your right has already been slapped, or to give your coat after having been forced to take off your shirt—well they are not hyperbole or metaphor. Jesus asks us to be a witness to an entirely different way of responding to violence.
Many people misunderstand this teaching by thinking that Jesus is telling us to be passive. This text has been used by abusers to silence their victims. Abused wives have returned home to their violent husbands because pastors read this text and told them that absorbing their husband’s violence is both God’s will and her Christian duty.
There are so many ways that these words from Jesus have been used to glorify suffering for suffering’s sake, as if through this text Jesus is saying that we should be completely passive people—that we should simply stand there and take it. But nothing could be farther from the truth.
Through these teachings on retaliation and love, Jesus is asking us to engage others in a unique way. In the face of violence we are not to be passive, but neither are we to be aggressive and return blow for blow. There is a middle way. It is called non-violent resistance, and it is very powerful.
In 1950’s Birmingham, through all the sit-ins, the marches, the violence done unto those Freedom Riders, they did not react with violence, not because they refused to stand up for themselves but because they knew a more honorable way to stand up for what they believed in. They refused to use the same weapons used against them.
Instead they retaliated with something that Jesus said was more potent a weapon than the violence of their attackers. They retaliated with love.
Far from being a passive act of letting others treat us as doormats, non-violent resistance is a refusal—an active refusal to engage others in the ways of destruction. Jesus says that we should fight fire not with fire, but with water. He asks us to extinguish the hatred inflicted upon us by returning it with love. With his teaching here, Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil but to refuse to respond to it on its own terms.
Responding to hatred with love disarms hatred. Responding to violence with love disarms violence.
Far from being passive, non-violent resistance is a way to say to our aggressor, I refuse to see the world as you see it, I will not fight with your weapons, I will not cooperate in the way that you want me to. Responding to violence with love stuns our opponents into thinking differently and it seeks to expose and undo physical aggression and hatred.
We live in a world that teaches us to retaliate, to exchange punch for punch and missile for missile. And in our collective desire to exact revenge on those who do us harm, we wage war and we lose ourselves in it.
For more than a decade now, our country has been at war, and what have we learned about ourselves in such a pursuit other than taking up arms against one another destroys both sides?
War erodes those who wage it.
Retaliating with weapons or with fists simply compromises all who fight with them. This sort of retaliation creates nothing but division and destruction. And it solves absolutely nothing. As Mohandas K. Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind.”
The Christian response to violence must be abnormal.
It’s a strange thing we do when we follow Jesus and when we are faithful enough to live our lives and make our decisions based upon his ways and not the ways of the world. With these words, Jesus teaches us to walk in the ways of love, and for Jesus, there was no caveat to love. There was no, “love your enemies until they do this to you, then you can do whatever you want to them.” Jesus is pretty clear when he says “you must not oppose those who hurt you.” And he is pretty direct when he says, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
We’re good at talking around Jesus words, trying to parse them in a way that fits our world and our own inclinations. We look for ways to be faithful to lessons like these and still act the way we want to. One of the ways we do that is by saying, “kill them with kindness”. When we say that, what we really mean is that we’re going to be so over-the-top nice to somebody who we think is out to get us that our politeness will somehow convict them or teach them a lesson about how they are acting. Even our kindness has ulterior motives sometimes. Acting out love should have no ulterior motive. Love needs to be for love’s sake or it really isn’t love.
As you may know, there were many words for love that people used back in Jesus’ time. And since we only have one word for it, we can get confused very easily by what Jesus means when he tells us to love those who oppose us. How are we supposed to love our enemies? How is that even possible?
First, off we should realize that when Jesus tasks us with loving our enemies, he’s not talking about feelings. Jesus isn’t saying we should have the warm fuzzies for people who like to make us suffer. Neither is Jesus asking us to become friends with our enemies. The kind of love Jesus wants us to have for our enemies is actually more of a verb than it is a noun. Jesus doesn’t want us to feel this love so much as he wants us to enact it.
This love is called “Agape”. We practice Agape when, despite what our opponents do to us, we refuse to see them as someone other than us—we see in them some speck of our shared humanity.
Agape love is the practice of loving others because way far down deep, we recognize in them the image of God, and there’s no way we could ever do that image any harm, even when they seek to do us harm.
Agape is a stunning kind of love. If you want to confuse the world, practice Agape. It’s a highly irregular verb.
It’s a common misconception that the Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights Movement took up the practice of non-violent resistance simply to prove to others how much they could take without fighting back.
Non-violent resistance is not based on some fake idea of acting like a loving person when you really aren’t. All of those non-violent demonstrators studied Agape love among themselves until they realized its power and were able to practice it authentically, even in the brutal reality of the Civil Rights South.
When Civil Rights protestors “Agape loved” those who persecuted them, they simply didn’t want to exact revenge—they didn’t want to trade blow for blow, racial slur for racial slur, insult for insult. Instead they were taught to rise above the violence and to practice a force so much greater than any hose, or dog, or tank, or venomous word could ever exact. In the face of violence they had the courage to love. And in so doing, they won the struggle and exposed hatred for the evil it really is.
A highly irregular result? According the world, yes. Stunning, actually.
But according to Jesus, the way of love is the only way there is.
All praises to the One who made it all and find it beautiful.