You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor
and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you.
– Jesus in today’s Gospel [Mt 5:43]
Today’s Gospel is almost universally misunderstood. “Loving our enemies” has, through Christian history, either been written-off as unrealistic or practiced in such a way that it allows evil to flourish. Jesus didn’t mean either of these things: He offered an alternative – Active, forceful, if necessary even coercive, but nonviolent confrontation of evil both for self-protection and for the possible conversion of the adversary.
Everyday example: Too many abused spouses are (wrongly) told that to be a “good Christian” means to put up with the abuser and forgive him/her. In other, tragic cases, we see abused spouses violently attacking, even killing the abuser. What’s the third, wiser (and more Christ-like) course? Stand up (wisely, not foolishly). Get help. Talk to others. Go to the police. Have the abuser arrested. To be a Christian is not to be a doormat: It is to resist and, when possible, roll back the amount of violence in the world.
In more common cases of everyday verbal violence, the wise and nonviolent Christian has to be imaginative so as to be effective. Humor and paradox can often help. Some examples: 1
Once in apartheid South Africa Bishop Desmond Tutu was walking down a sidewalk wide enough only for one when a white man coming the other way growled at him, “I don’t make way for gorillas!” Bishop Tutu stepped into the street, bowed, and with a sweep of his arm gestured the man by, saying, “Ah, but I do!”
When Gandhi was arrested and jailed during the civil-disobedience campaign in India, his followers kept the movement going by organizing mass-demonstrations outside the jail. But they carried signs congratulating the government (!) as a way both of mocking it and of preserving their own safety. (How does a government arrest people praising it…?!)
Among the Mbuti people of Zaire, if an adult is annoyed by a child to the point of yelling or striking, other children gather in a crowd around the adult and “play-act” among themselves shouting at and hitting one another. The offender has either to retreat in shame, or join in the laughter at his own mistake.
Again in South Africa, a black woman walking with her children passed a white man who spat in her face. She stopped and said, “Thank you; and now, for the children…” He was stunned into silence…
The point of these exchanges is to do two things: To confront the wrongdoer, and yet to preserve his/her humanity in the hope of awareness and conversion. Humor is often the proper path to that. It may not work, but at the least it preserves the dignity of the person against whom violence is being committed. Violence always attempts to dehumanize (think of the slang often used to describe enemies in war). The way of Jesus is to preserve humanity and dignity all around, while moving the violent person to awareness and conversion. This is vital for the Christian so that we don’t become what we hate.
This takes more courage and shrewdness that does either passivity or violence. When Branch Rickey called on Jackie Robinson to become the first Africa-American player in major league baseball, Rickey made Robinson promise that, no matter what sort of abuse was aimed at him in the first three years, he would not respond. Robinson asked, “Are you looking for a negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” We know how that turned out.
Today’s Gospel is a challenge to our accustomed ways of thinking about violence in our world, and our response. Our world needs something other than passivity or tit-for-tat violence; and so do we. Jesus offers a third possibility. Until next week, peace.
1 Examples are from Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, pp. 190-191.