“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
So tonight is Oscars night, and many of us are probably thinking about thinking about movies – which ones are up for the major awards; which ones we’ve seen and which ones we haven’t. When I read this week’s gospel text, I thought of a movie too, but not any movie up for an award this year by a long shot. I thought of the classic film, “A Christmas Story” – you know, the one about Ralphie and his family and the Leg Lamp and the Red Ryder BB gun. I thought about the scene in that movie were Ralphie had blurted out a profanity, and as punishment, Ralphie’s mother cleaned his mouth out with a bar of soap.
While Ralphie sat there with the soap in his mouth, he took comfort in the whole humiliating experience by plotting the revenge he’d get on his parents. After leaving home, he’d come back to visit, and they’d find out he’d gone blind – and he’d revel in the grief it would cause them when he let them know that he’d gone blind as a result of…. soap poisoning. Yeah, they’d be really sorry then…
We can’t deny that we seem to be internally wired to retaliate, to seek revenge, when we’ve been wronged, and to get it in a decisive way. Maybe when we think about getting our revenge, we imagine it along the lines of something we’ve seen in a movie. Maybe something dramatic, like Mandy Patinkin in “The Princess Bride”: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
Or maybe something even more hardcore, like Sean Connery in “The Untouchables,” “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”
Or maybe you picture it being less intense, but with far more finesse and style, more poetic justice, like in the movie “The Help,” when Minnie baked her pie.
In our heads, we know that not forgiving, getting revenge, getting even, is supposed to be wrong. In our heads, we know that it’s really self-destructive. Most of us are familiar with that famous Anne LaMott quote that not forgiving is like swallowing rat poison and then expecting the rat to die – but we know that even if it’s poison, at least in its one brief moment, it can taste sweeter than honey.
But we also know these words from Jesus. Don’t get revenge – love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Don’t condemn. We know this is what he’s taught us. But… but… does Jesus mean that we’re all supposed to just be a bunch of pathetic doormats, letting people dump all over us, and we’re supposed to just let them?
Well, Christian thinkers far more intelligent than I am have considered that question, and they’ve come up with a split decision. The history of our faith is full of entire traditions, and many individuals in other traditions, who have come to believe that the only faithful understanding of being a follower of Jesus is to be a pacifist. And you’ve got others who come down on the other side, who believe in one form or another of the theory of “just war” – whether we’re talking about actual war, or just more personal, individual injustices like having a bar of Lifebuoy stuck in our mouths. Over the course of the past several months, we’ve gotten a taste of some of these people and their different takes on this question – from Dorothy Day to Tom Dooley to Reinhold Niebuhr to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
I have to admit that I’ve never personally come up with a perfectly consistent, acceptable way to answer this question for myself, again, whether we’re considering it on a personal or geopolitical level. Some days, I think I hold to some version of “just war” theory; that there is a place in some circumstances for forceful, sometimes even violent, retribution. But there are other days that I think that I’m just rationalizing the question, and that whether I like the answer or not, the pacifists are right. I think about the Civil Rights movement – realizing, as you could see in some scenes in the movie “Selma,” that the civil rights protestors were taught, trained, coached, drilled, to not give in to their natural instincts and fight back, retaliate, when they were attacked with dogs and clubs, and beaten, and sometimes even killed.
I realize that it was because of their non-violent response, when millions of people saw them on television, absorbing merciless beatings, that hearts changed, minds changed, far more quickly and effectively than if the protestors had actually fought back.
So how does this all pull back together for us? What might we take away from all of this to help us when we’ve been wronged and hurt by someone?
In today’s gospel text, Jesus was teaching the same message expressed by those non-violent civil rights protestors: that more good is accomplished, for them and for ourselves, by always extending love and forgiveness to others – and this is even more true when we extend that love and forgiveness to our enemies. As hard, as impossible as it is to accomplish without God’s help, more good is accomplished when we stop cycles of hurt or violence by refusing to reflect it back outward after it’s hit us. Jesus isn’t trying to burden us with a task that we can’t pull off; he’s trying to keep us from imprisoning ourselves, harming ourselves, which is what always happens when we refuse to forgive and when we retaliate when we’ve been wronged. Jesus is telling us that it’s in forgiveness, and not returning evil for evil, that we not only see a glimpse of the forgiveness that God has extended to us, but we also find real strength. We aren’t being doormats; we’re feeling the power and strength of God working through us, healing us, and healing others as well. Nelson Mandela was a man who knew a lot about forgiveness, and not retaliating. He’s quoted in one scene in the move “Invictus” as saying, “Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.”
That’s precisely what Jesus is trying to get us to understand in this passage, too. With God’s help, we can not only find forgiveness for what we’ve done wrong, but we can also find the strength to forgive others, which will free and liberate us as well.
We all have to wrestle with the question of pacifism versus some kind of concrete response within our own lives, within our own interactions with other people. When we do, we have to be honest and admit that Jesus comes down very strongly – more strongly than we’d often like to admit – in favor of pacifism – in favor of turning a second cheek over taking a tooth for a tooth. On the other hand, I guess we also recognize that Jesus talked about when being forced to walk a mile, to walk a second mile, but he didn’t say anything about a third. So maybe there are limits.
Wherever you might come down on this question as you try to faithfully follow Jesus’ teaching, at very least I think this much is without question: even if we feel that some kind of physical response is called for, it would always have to be in order to stop further harm, and with the intent of correcting the problem. But it can’t – it *can’t* – come from a spirit of seeking revenge. It can’t come out of a desire to feel good watching another person suffer or squirm. We might differ on some points, but on this point, Jesus gives us no wiggle room whatsoever. If we do something out of a spirit of revenge, we are completely off the ranch as far as Jesus is concerned. Seeking revenge is a guaranteed losing proposition, one that God tells us will always backfire in our own faces. When we want to play that dangerous game, we can almost hear Jesus saying “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”
Thanks be to God.