“In the final analysis, the only available options are either to reject the cross and with it the core of the Christian faith or to take up one’s cross, follow the Crucified—and be scandalized ever anew by the challenge.” – Miroslav Volf
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” – Jesus of Nazareth
A few weeks ago I preached a sermon called Loves Target on Jesus’ commandment to love one’s enemies from “the sermon on the plain” recorded in Luke 6:20-49. Concerned to do justice to the original context, I repeatedly emphasized that Jesus’ words concerned Christian nonviolent resistance against injustice, specifically religious persecution. I wanted to make sure not to relativize this stunning passage by cheapening it with applications to marital squabbles or a having mean boss. But after making a point about Christian love having no strings, conditions, loopholes, or reservations, I felt the burden to clarify something. I said that if you are in an abusive situation of any kind and are wondering what to do, please come and speak with me.
Well, after conversations with victims of abuse, I am left wishing that I had addressed that situation more directly from the pulpit. And to tell you the truth, I had no idea at the time what I would say if someone actually came and spoke with me. But after some prayer, conversation, reflection, and study, I am convinced that Jesus’ words and actions do suggest a rather clear pattern of response to abuse in general and not just persecution. What is needed is an eye to the cross, courage, and a little imagination.
In the second chapter of his explosive, controversial, and honestly fun little book called Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Walter Wink has a brilliant analysis of the parallel account in Matthew’s Gospel arguing that Jesus was advocating for a third way between violence and passivity, between the options of “fight or flight” that we are biologically conditioned to. It is not a mushy middle-ground that Wink is promoting, but an entirely new ethic opened up by the cross that transcends brutality and apathy. In summary, “turning the other cheek” was a dangerous refusal to be dehumanized that challenged the corrupt caste system. “Letting him have your cloak also” referred to a poor debtor literally getting naked in court to unmask (disrobe?) the systemic economic injustice in Israel. Third, “going the extra mile” was a creative way for oppressed Jews to kindly put their occupying Roman soldiers in hot water (it carried a heavy penalty to force an occupied people to carry your gear for more than a mile). In refusing to either coerce or enable their enemies, these surprising responses offered a new possibility to the oppressor: repentance. Jesus did not intend for His listeners to woodenly interpret these commands as inflexible laws, but for each generation of disciples to apply the spirit of His commandment in their war against the “principalities and powers” at work in their culture (Ephesians 6:12). In other words, Jesus was simply giving immediately practical examples of “carrying your cross” in a cruel and divided world.
Jesus Himself walked into the blood-soaked arena of the world’s powers armed only with truth and love. Yet Jesus was anything but passive. His words and actions were a threat to the powers that be, and so they did their worst: they crucified Him. And yet in His courageous and obedient acceptance of death, the powers found themselves disarmed (Colossians 2:15). The breathless Accuser for once had nothing left to say, and Death had no strength left to keep Jesus in the grave. And crucially, some of Jesus’ own abusers who looked upon the shamelessly shameful site of the cross found themselves with new life as they heard the dying man pray for them: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24).
The cross was a stroke of brilliance, God’s creative attempt at reconciling an impossible situation. And the cross is both the power and the model for our own obedience to God. Yes, there is a logic to it: since God pursued His enemies (us) with costly forgiveness, should we not do the same? But it is also more than logic when God’s Spirit is involved: we want to see our enemies reconciled; we actually do love our enemies (well, at least part of us does). And the cross makes agonizingly clear what such love involves: not only are we to pursue justice for the oppressed and dehumanized, Christians must pursue the costly forgiveness and transformation of the oppressors and dehumanizers, especially their own. As Miroslav Volf puts it eloquently in his groundbreaking book Exclusion & Embrace: “Assured of God’s justice and undergirded by God’s presence, [Christians] are to break the cycle of violence by refusing to be caught in the automatism of revenge.”
How? With an eye to the cross, courage, and a little imagination. For a multitude of historical examples of “militant nonviolence,” I encourage you to pick up Wink’s book (though, pastor’s warning label, read critically…in fact just always read critically). But what about in the situation of the woman who suffers spousal abuse? How many times have husbands in the past hissed serpentine words to their spouse about their duty to be submissive? (That word just sounds like parseltongue, doesn’t it?) But here is precisely where the danger of a legalistic disregard for context really sets in. In the world in which Peter and Paul wrote (and still in many places in the world today), a woman’s third option between passivity and violence was “suffering with joy.” That was a whole new thing created by the gospel, whereby a suffering person’s shame could now be transformed into the honor of sharing in the suffering of Jesus. These brave women could still hope to break cycles of violence and “win their husbands without a word,” assured by the resurrection of God’s justice prevailing in the end (1 Peter 3:1). They could, like their Lord, “[entrust themselves] to Him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
However, let us thank God that this is no longer the context in a great deal of cities and cultures around the world. Could it be that sometimes the most creative and courageous thing that a wife (or husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, son, daughter, whatever) could do would be to have her abuser arrested, refusing to allow him to continue being a slave to his own need to dominate and control? Could the church’s responsibility be to surround this woman with care, prayer, meals, and an extra level of security in such a case…and visit her husband in prison or wherever he is? Judging from what comes next in the sermon on the plain, it certainly doesn’t look like the church should rush to any sort of legalistic judgment of the woman, but I’m afraid this might be exactly what too often happens.
The stakes are high, and Jesus’ words are never outdated, never Pharisaical, and never easy. As we’ve learned through this sermon series, the “vital ethic” of Jesus’ teaching is love, and that means that the right thing will usually be the hardest and riskiest thing because love always seeks the good of the other over one’s own (Philippians 2:3). Jesus didn’t just lay down and die in order to prove a point, He courageously loved His enemies to death in order to give them new life. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it in a sermon on this passage, “Love is the most creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.” Indeed. This is why Wink encourages us to ask when encountering injustice: “What is the most creative, transformative response to this situation” (p.36)? When we fail to ask that question or lack the courage to apply the answer, fight or flight remain our only options, and the victim either stays a victim or, worse, becomes the oppressor and the cycle continues.
True love is a learned skill. Like writing in cursive, playing guitar, or holding a tennis racket, it feels awkward at first and doesn’t come naturally. But discipleship is all about getting better at love. So let’s learn from Jesus; let’s hear His teaching and look to His cross. He was (and is) pretty darn good at it. We should know, He first loved us.
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