by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

March, 2015

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 The old “an eye for an eye” rules were no longer valid.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, crucified.

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.)

Copyright © 2015 by David Phelps