Thursday, February 6, 2014

Odd behavior: Nonviolence, Loving Enemies and the Sermon on the Mount

The Revised Common Lectionary is visiting parts of "The Sermon on the Mount" as it guides worshippers through this year.  Here's a thought on one section of this major teaching in Matthew's gospel:

The teaching of “do not resist with violence” is a different way of living in the world, which is well versed in the “an eye for an eye” ways.  Yet Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount that cheeks should be turned, tunics should be given over and soldiers should realize you aren't going to be anything other than cheerful when bullied.  Acting non-violently is just that: eschewing violence for the sake of Christ, who also said "love your enemies".

As a person who enjoys a good laugh, I note with interest that nonviolence can be a great resource for humor, laughing at the futility of those who use violence to achieve their means.  Listen to the stories of Desmond Tutu as he recounts the struggle to dismantle apartheid.  I have yet to hear a speech or interview with Tutu where he is not inevitably given over to fits of laughter as he makes a point.  The stories of apartheid era South Africa are fraught with harrowing stories of inhumane treatment, yet as Tutu recounts how apartheid was dismantled after years of effort, mainly in increments measured in terms of little by little, his laughter reminds that dispiriting circumstances can be defeated by quiet courage and the capacity to laugh in the face of your victimizers.

It is no surprise that Jesus links the reframing of resistance as non-violent with the call to love one’s enemies.  Jesus is well remembered in religious and non-religious circles for his teaching on the love of enemies, as it goes against the grain of the human story.  Jesus asks his followers to decide how they live out their relationships with other people.  

Do not resist with violence those who do evil.  Do not withhold a basic courtesy towards those who have angered or wronged you that they are ultimately beyond the chance for reconciliation with you.  

I do note that this teaching can be used to minimize the hurt or angst received.  Forgiveness, reconciliation and accountability are difficult processes to work through, however, the civil treatment even of those who are uncivil is a difficult yet just as necessary step toward a future that does not remain mired in the pain of the present.  Nobody is beyond redemption (even though we may act to the contrary).  Loving enemies is part of that brave hope for a different sort of world, or at least within your abilities to live in such a manner.

A few years ago, a British Baptist wrote a book about the type of church he believed Baptists ought to aspire to be.  He traces some fruitful practices and beliefs from Baptist history as well as the Anabaptist roots.  When the early Baptists were developing into what would become the Baptist tradition in the early 1600s, they had some friendly relationships and influences from the Mennonites, one of the groups of the Anabaptist tradition. 

One story that the Anabaptists carry in their history is the witness of Dirk Willems, a Dutch Protestant who was persecuted for his religious views in the 1560s.  Willems escaped imprisonment during the winter of 1569.  A guard chased after him for some distance.  Willems crossed over a frozen river, however, his pursuer fell through.  While Willems had every chance to keep running, he could not leave the guard to drown in the river.  He turned back and helped the man out of the freezing waters. 

Unfortunately, this act of compassion resulted in Willems being brought back to the prison.  The guard wanted Willems released, however, another official overruled the request.  A few weeks later, after further imprisonment, Willems was charged as a heretic and then burned at the stake.

This is the word of our Lord.  Thanks be to God.

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