Scene from the 2001 film “To End All Wars”
[Jesus said,] “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:38-48 (NRSV)
There’s a movie that came out a number of years ago called “To End All Wars.” It was based on a book written by a man named Ernest Gordon, which told about his experience as a prisoner of war for three years during World War II. Gordon was a young Scottish schoolteacher who enlisted in the army. He was captured during the fall of Singapore in 1942, when more than 80,000 British soldiers were taken prisoner by the Japanese army. He was interred in a prisoner of war camp, where he was part of the slave labor that carved a railway out of the jungles of what at the time was called Burma. The movie is a gripping, discomforting look at the brutality that human beings can subject others to; and more importantly, our response to being subjected to it. It tells the story of some of the prisoners opting for violence and revenge against their captors at any opportunity they could find, while others, including Gordon, drew on the teachings of their faith and opted for a course of non-violence and forgiveness – even when it seemed all but impossible, and even when it earned them the scorn of the other prisoners, who considered them weaklings, cowards, even traitors. “To End All Wars” is a very realistic film. It doesn’t pull any punches about the gut-wrenching depth of the brutality that the prisoners endured. And it doesn’t sugar coat the real human struggle, the moral dilemma, endured by the prisoners who tried against all their human instincts to live according to their Christian faith and not return evil for evil, while living in the midst of great evil. It doesn’t make the prisoners’ choices simplistic to make for an easier resolution to the story, even while it does ultimately offer the message of the correctness and the redemptive nature of the path of nonviolence and forgiveness.
I’d actually love to have a screening of the movie here some evening; I think it would lead to great, thoughtful conversation. And we Presbyterians can take a little bit of ownership in the story too, because Ernest Gordon, like most Scots, was a good Presbyterian. In fact, after the war he went to seminary and became an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland, and spent a large part of his postwar life serving as the dean of the chapel at Princeton University.
“To End All Wars” is one of the best movies that you’ve probably never heard of, and not just because it didn’t feature an all-star cast. It’s more likely that you never heard of it because it had the misfortune of being initially released on September 2, 2001 – just days before 9/11, which ushered in a time when even more than usual, not many people were interested in the film’s message of forgiveness of one’s enemies, turning the other cheek, and not returning violence for violence.
I think of that movie a lot whenever I read this part of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount that we heard today. There are some times when we might not be exactly sure what Jesus means when he says something. This isn’t one of those times. This is one of those times where his meaning is crystal clear. Don’t return violence for violence. Don’t just forgive, but love, your enemies.
And that’s the hard part for us, because it just goes against every fiber in our bodies. This just doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem *just.* I mean sure, God wants us to be peaceful, but we aren’t supposed to just become a bunch of doormats, are we? On Sunday after Sunday, we come together, and we pray that we would hear God’s Word, and that God’s Spirit would work within us to make us more Christlike. But if we’re totally honest with ourselves – and I certainly include myself in this – we don’t necessarily even *want* to become more like what we hear in Jesus’ teaching today.
Thanks be to God, though, for the great truth for all of us that God’s love, and God’s grace extended to us, is so great, so abundant, that it covers over us even when we don’t want to be obedient to the ways of the Kingdom of God. To be honest, it’s this reality of God’s grace – this completely unearned, undeserved love and acceptance of us even in our imperfection – that we give thanks to God for every week. We don’t give thanks to God for loving us because we deserve it, but precisely because we don’t.
Well, while Jesus’ words were perfectly clear, the question of how we’re supposed to apply them can sometimes be up for grabs. Christians have been debating how to do that from the very beginning; probably within five minutes of the words having left Jesus’ mouth. Are these words absolute? Do they apply in every situation, or are there thresholds beyond which they’re more of a general principle, but don’t literally apply? Does the perceived greater good of preventing some injustice by resisting violence with violence sometimes justify it? The whole Christian doctrine of “Just War,” as opposed to pacifism, hinges on that very question. We also know that at the same time that Ernest Gordon was wrestling with this question in the jungles of Asia, on the other side of the globe the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others, who planning to assassinate Hitler as a matter of faith, wrestled with this same question and reached a very different answer.
I can’t tell you categorically what the one, true Christian answer to this question is. I can’t even tell you if there is just one categorical Christian answer to begin with. But I can tell you that we all have to seriously consider this question as we try to come to terms with what it truly means to mold our lives in Christ’s example. How do we live out Jesus’ commands to turn the other cheek; go the extra mile, to forgive when we’re treated unjustly?
I think I can safely say that no matter how you hear Jesus’ words, and no matter how, or where, or even if, you set any boundaries or thresholds with regard to how to apply them, probably all of us would admit that we could do better at living up to even our own standards with regard to these teachings. We could do better. We all probably know that even by our own standards, let alone Jesus’, we aren’t perfect.
But we also probably know that out of gratitude for God’s loving acceptance of us in our imperfection, we should work to become at least closer to that perfection. If we can’t be perfect, we can all at least work to become more perfectish.
I thought that today, as we think about Jesus’ words here, and how we might move even in some small ways to living them out more fully, we could take a few moments to think about those things, thoughts, and attitudes within us that hold us back from doing that. No doubt, it’s something different for each of us. Maybe it’s a sense of pride, or ego. Maybe it’s an attitude that we don’t want to be seen by others, or ourselves, as a weak, or a doormat, or a loser. Or maybe it’s some unresolved anger or resentment from a past wrong that we’ve suffered, and we’re still looking for some kind of revenge or redress. Whatever it might be, let’s engage in a little exercise now. It might sound a little corny, and maybe it is, but I think its symbolism is important. Take that little slip of paper that we handed out to all of you, and just write a word or simple phrase that identifies what you think is holding you back from living out Jesus’ words here more fully. Then take the paper, fold it in half, and fold it in half again And then, [when you come forward to receive Communion (early service)/after the sermon (late service)], bring it up front, and [just before you get to the Communion servers (early service)], put your paper in the water in the baptismal font. And don’t just flip it in; push it in, hold it down deep below the surface of the water, until it’s good and wet, a soggy, waterlogged, unreadable mess. As you do that, remember your baptism and the promise that’s part of it: that in it, these kinds of obstacles and shortcomings were made dead to you, and to God. They were submerged under that water and left behind. And that you can indeed let those things go because you really are now a new creature, a new child of God, living a new kind of life on this side of the water. And letting go of those things, letting go of your feeling that they can control you, really will make it easier for you to at least become more perfectish.
In an era that’s still very much an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a tweet for a tweet, letting go of those things and moving toward a life more perfectish might not make a good plot for a blockbuster movie here – but I’m pretty sure it would be a big hit at the multiplex in the Kingdom of God.
Thanks be to God.