Jesus is rarely who we want him to be. We want him to be comfortable, reassuring, and safe, but he is none of these things. Jesus’ teaching is hard. If we really hear it, no matter where we are situated in terms of economics, society, or politics, it will make us uncomfortable, unsettled, and feel decidedly unsafe. Jesus was and is a radical — not in the sense being on the extreme ends of the political spectrum, but in the literal sense of ‘down to the roots.’ His vision for humanity, for the Church, for us, is not about stopgap solutions and uneasy ceasefires, but about a deep and thoroughgoing transformation of our beliefs, ideals, and actions.
There are few places in the Gospels where this is more evident than in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (Luke’s version of Matthew’s more famous Sermon on the Mount), which our Sunday lectionary started last week and continues today, with these challenging words:
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.
This ethic runs pretty much opposite to every human instinct. We recite the Golden Rule — Do unto others as you would have them do unto you — often enough, but here in context it seems all the more difficult, because what it’s really saying is “Do unto others not as they have done and are doing unto you.” Ouch. When Jesus says “Love your enemies,” he’s not talking about abstract figures, but the literal people who hurt us. This is love completely devoid of sentimentality.
But is this kind of love even possible? And if it is, is it good? Doesn’t it just reinforce the sinful power dynamics already at work in the world? The twentieth century was a golden age for nonviolent resistance. And a lot of that was driven by Christians who saw in Jesus’ teaching not a way of reinforcing power structures, but of a means of empowering the oppressed by revealing those power structures as being evil. Howard Thurman, a theologian whose writings inspired many of the leading figures of the American Civil Rights Movement, wrote powerfully about this: “Love of enemy means that a fundamental attack must first be made on the enemy status” (Jesus and the Disinherited, 87). Hatred, he says, only reinforces hatred and harms the hated and hater alike. The way of love is not a sentimental retreat or a submission in the face of injustice, but a way for the oppressed to take ownership of their lives by taking the initiative over their oppressors. As Richard Rohr has written, “Just don’t get into the tit-for-tat game… Create your own loving set of rules, which will blow the system apart. You take the initiative and change the rules, the expectations and the outcome” (Jesus’ Plan for a New World).
Ideally this will force oppressors into a recognition of their own violence, and from this, into genuine repentance. As Thurman puts it, “A man faced with nonviolence[t acts] is forced to deal with himself, finally; every way of escape is ultimately cut off. …Their purpose is not merely to change an odious situation, but, further, to make it urgent for a man to face himself in his action” (Disciplines of the Spirit, 115f). Walter Wink, a White pastor and theologian who participated in the famous Civil Rights marches, relates a moment from the march in Selma that speaks to this intent well: Rev. James Bevel took the microphone and said, “It’s not enough to defeat [Sheriff ] Jim Clark — do you hear me, Jim? — we want you converted. We cannot win by hating our oppressors. We have to love them into changing” (Just Jesus).
But, even if it fails to change the systems it reveals to be sinful — for the human capacity of denial and projection is strong — Jesus’ ethic remains good and true. For it “inspires wholeness and integration within” (Disciplines of the Spirit, 114). By refusing to deny the humanity of the oppressor, it simultaneously short-circuits the cycles of violence and confirms and celebrates the true humanity of the oppressed. This is why Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “It is no longer a choice … between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.” Either we affirm existence in ourselves and others through nonviolence, or we deny existence by engaging in violence.
In teaching in this way, Jesus takes away the idea of reciprocity and retribution. We don’t do good because others do good to us; neither do we do bad because others do bad to us. We do good because it’s good. Full stop. But what’s interesting is that, right at the end of the passage, Jesus gives us back reciprocity in a transfigured way:
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.
Here the mirror for our actions is not our neighbour, but God. God, in whose image and likeness we were made, is the one whose image our lives are to reflect. And so, we are called to mercy, to withhold judgement and condemnation, to forgive, and to be generous. And, inasmuch as we do this, we will receive these as well, even if in ‘the next life’ or in a ‘spiritual way’ in this life. This remains a difficult teaching. Our sense of justice demands that things balance out in this world; sadly, the reality of sin makes that unlikely, if not impossible. The most we can hope for in this world is consolation to go along with the difficulty, and to build the best, most whole and healed relationships we can, and exercise our true, spiritual human freedom — the freedom to set aside our natural urges for retribution and to love even our enemies.
May God strengthen us to live out this hard — but good — teaching of the Kingdom.