Now for the rest of us, how many have seen the movie The American President. You know – Michael Douglas plays the widowed president and Annette Bening is the beautiful political operative he falls in love with. Now again, show of hands, how many think Michael Douglas should actually be president? Or maybe Martin Sheen, right?
There’s a scene in The American President that takes place in the situation room just after President Shepherd learns that Libya has bombed the U.S. surface to air missile defense system. He’s struggling with the decision to attack the Libyan intelligence headquarters in retaliation. “How many people work in that building?” he agonizes. “Are we going to hit anything else?” He turns to his Chief of Staff, who tells him, “It's immediate, it's decisive, it's low risk, and it's a proportional response.” “Someday,” the President answers, “Somebody's going to have to explain to me the virtue of a proportional response.”
A proportional response. Let the punishment fit the crime. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Jesus is quoting from laws given in the book of Exodus concerning crime and punishment: “…you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” I once heard an interesting sermon on the Exodus text which suggested that the whole point of “an eye for an eye,” barbaric as it sounds, was to establish boundaries for appropriate punishment; for proportional response. In the absence of what we might call “God’s fair sentencing guidelines for the ancient world,” it could be a hand for an eye…or a life for a tooth.
But then Jesus, as he so often does, has to push it. He takes things one step further.
38“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I’m telling you, if someone hits you, don’t hit back. Turn your face to accept another blow. If someone takes your coat, hand over your cloak as well. If you are forced to walk a mile, just keep walking after that mile is done.
How is justice served by such an approach? If we passively allow ourselves to be victimized, indeed, if we continue to offer ourselves up for victimization after the first blow has been delivered, aren’t we acquiescing to our own mistreatment and the mistreatment of others? As Christians, aren’t we called to resist evil? In response to this dilemma, Matthew Myer Boulton suggests, “Jesus recommends a kind of moral jujitsu…[His] instruction ‘Do not resist an evildoer’ points toward a deeper, more radical resistance: namely, noncooperation in the underlying paradigm of hate and brutality involved in evildoing.”
Certainly we are living in a time when many people feel that resistance is called for – resistance to policies that perpetuate discriminatory policies by institutions and corporations, reduce safety for workers and consumers, degrade our environment and our rights in a democratic society. But how can we resist effectively without resorting to violence, without returning evil for evil. How can we turn the other cheek and at the same time turn towards the society, the culture, the world envisioned for us by Divine Love?
At a nonviolence workshop this weekend, we got some tips from Bernard Lafayette, renowned activist, educator and organizer, who cofounded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960 and worked side by side with Martin Luther King. He shared these principles of nonviolence:
- Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. Far from being a position of “peace at any price” or weakness, nonviolence is a positive force confronting the forces of injustice that uses people’s spiritual, emotional and intellectual capabilities as a vital force for change and reconciliation.
- The Beloved Community is the framework for the future. Nonviolence is an effort to achieve a reconciled world by raising the level of relationships among people to a height where justice prevails and people achieve their full human potential. A reconciled world where justice prevails…does that sound like anything we’ve talked about here? “Imagine,” said Dr. Lafayette, “if the President of the United States tweeted, ‘the Beloved Community is the framework for the future.’”
- Attack forces of evil, not persons doing evil. This is something we’ve talked about here at New Pilgrims as well. The nonviolent approach analyzes the conditions, policies and practices of conflict rather than reacting to personalities.
- Here’s a tough one: Accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause. At the workshop we watched a film clip from the lunch counter sit-ins in Birmingham. It had been a long time since I watched those brave young adults suffer beatings, insults and humiliation without retaliation. I hope our children still watch this in high school, as I did. It sends a powerful message. Self-chosen suffering can be redemptive and can deepen the spiritual dimension of a movement.
- Avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence. This principle gets to the heart of Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount. The nonviolent resister refuses to commit violence against an opponent and also refuses to hate the opponent. In the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed must not succumb to the temptation to bitterness and hatred, which only increases the sum total of hatred in the world. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. And tend to your own spirit. According to Dr. Lafayette, “Specific activities must be designed to help maintain a high level of spirit and morale during a nonviolent campaign.” It is my prayer and hope that some of what we experience here together in community is a healing and lifting of our spirits.
- The universe is on the side of justice. If we don’t believe this, what hope is there? This is the basis for all the world’s great religious and humanist movements. Nonviolence creates a moral context in which nonviolence is both the means and the end.
I think Jesus would agree with these principles. In fact, I think he was preaching them in the Sermon on the Mount. But it seems that no matter how faithfully we love our enemies, no matter how effective we become at practicing nonviolence and undermining the foundations of evil, for Jesus that still isn’t enough. Let’s take another look at that moral prescription from the Sermon on the Mount:
- Turn the other cheek
- Give your cloak as well as your coat
- Go the extra mile
- Give to everyone who begs from you
- Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you
- Love your enemies
- Pray for those who persecute you
And – and, “Be perfect, as God is perfect.” Even those who stuck around for the entire Sermon on the Mount, who didn’t try to slip away early or distract themselves from all these admonitions to live and give more selflessly, are probably ready to bail at this point. Be perfect? Like God? You’ve got to be kidding me. Jesus has gone too far – is he setting his listeners up for failure, challenging them with an impossible task? Or, is he giving us a glimpse of the culture of God, offering the possibility that we too may love each other, and the world, with such abundant, unconditional love? Amen.