Earlier this year, a group of us
from church watched the motion picture Selma,
about events in the life of Rev. Dr. Martin
Luther King and the civil rights movement. I was
struck by the savage cruelty of the
segregationists and even more so by King’s
response. At times, watching the movie, I wanted
men with machine guns to mow down the oppressors
or for helicopters to rain fire down on them.
But that wasn’t King’s way. Instead, he employed
the same nonviolent resistance Mohandas Gandhi
had used three decades earlier. He and his
people refused to fight but instead allowed
themselves to be beaten. And Jesus says it isn’t
supposed to be our way either: “‘You have heard
that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth
for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not
oppose those who want to hurt you. If people
slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the
left cheek to them as well.’” (Matt. 5:38-39
Common English Bible). Jesus told people to let
those in authority take advantage of them and
hurt them, and not to resist or try to get
revenge. The old “an eye for an eye” rules were
no longer valid.
Paul wrote to the Romans, “Bless people who
harass you—bless and don’t curse them. . . .
Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions
with evil actions, but show respect for what
everyone else believes is good. . . . Instead,
If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is
thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you
will pile burning coals of fire upon his head.
Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with
good.” (Rom. 12:14, 17, 20-21 CEB). The idea
wasn’t to do good things for your enemies to
make them miserable. It was simply to do what
Christ would do in the same situation, to
forgive, and do good in love.
Dr. King had the same idea as Jesus and Paul. He
didn’t want the civil rights movement to be
connected with violence. He wanted to “defeat
evil with good.” But, to be honest, I can’t
imagine doing what he did. Whenever someone
offends me, I want to get back at him or her. I
don’t want to “turn the other cheek.” I want
revenge and I want it now. And I know I will
never experience anything near what Dr. King and
his people did.
The light of Christ can be hard to look at and
the standard of his life is difficult to bear.
But it’s there to let us know just how far we
are from being sinless. Sometimes we’re closer
to his unapproachable example than others but
mostly we’re pretty far from it. Rev. Dr. King
wasn’t perfect. He was a sinner, flawed and
broken in many ways, just like the rest of us.
But in terms of not repaying evil for evil, he
was far better than I am.
Isaiah 53:7 was thought by early Christians to
be a description of Christ: “He was oppressed
and tormented, but didn’t open his mouth. Like a
lamb being brought to slaughter, like a ewe
silent before her shearers, he didn’t open his
mouth.” (CEB). As he was led to the cross,
Christ didn’t resist. When one of the disciples
(Peter, according to John’s gospel) drew a sword
to try to prevent Jesus from being arrested,
Jesus said “‘Put the sword back into its place.
All those who use the sword will die by the
sword.’” (Matt. 26:52b CEB). Instead, Jesus let
himself be mocked, beaten and, ultimately,
I confess it’s easier for me to pick up a sword,
metaphorically speaking, than to submit to
someone who would try to hurt or take advantage
of me. I would make a very poor Gandhi, a very
poor Martin Luther King and an even worse Jesus.
But fortunately, I don’t have to be any of them.
But I do have to be a follower of Christ and so
do you. And part of being a follower of Christ
is to do as he commanded. And that means turning
away from the old human ways of living and doing
things, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and
turning toward the way of Christ, who gave his
life for us all.
“‘You have heard that it was said, An eye for an
eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you
that you must not oppose those who want to hurt
you. . . .
“‘. . . You have heard that it was said, You
must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But
I say to you, love your enemies and pray for
those who harass you so that you will be acting
as children of your Father who is in heaven.’”
(Matt. 5:38-39, 43-45a CEB.)