Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
September 1, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Christianity isnít easy. Oh, itís easy enough to make it easy. We make it easy all the time; but the only way we can do that is to forget one or more of its central ideas. The Christian tradition, in fact, forgets or ignores a great many of those central ideas all the time. I could cite lots and lots of examples. Thereís the way the tradition forgets that Jesus was fully human in its rush to make him fully God, for example. Thereís the way that it forgets the Jesus preached a Gospel that was more about transformation in this world than it was about life in the next. We talked about that one last week. Today I want to talk about another of the hard things about Christianity that our tradition most of the time would rather forget, namely, Jesusí ethic of nonviolence.
That Jesus had an ethic of nonviolence is beyond doubt. Yes there is that incident of him overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple that appears in all four Gospels and that therefore is in all probability historically accurate. But after all, Jesusí action there wasnít all that violent. He didnít physically attack anyone. He was engaging in a prophetic action much like the Old Testament prophets did, but he didnít physically hurt anyone. He clearly preached nonviolence. His statements that we have in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you are most certainly the authentic words of the historical Jesus. Any Christian ethic that is not nonviolent in that sense is a compromise between the genuine Christian ethic of nonviolence and the demands of the world, between the demands of the faith and our human weakness. It is not my intention here to condemn those compromises or those who make them. After all, people far wiser than I have argued that there are circumstances under which it is permissible for a Christian to use violence against evil. And the equities at play in World War II make it very difficult for many of us, myself included, to be pure pacifists. It is nonetheless true that any Christian ethic that condones violence in any form is such a compromise.
Which brings us to this morningís reading from Paulís letters to the Romans. It has often been noted that Paul has very little to say about the life and teachings of Jesus. Thatís generally true, but this morningís passage is an exception. Here Paul preaches Jesusí love ethic, and for Paul that love ethic does include nonviolence and love of enemies: "Bless those who persecute you...." "Do not repay anyone evil for evil...." "Never avenge yourselves...." "If your enemies are hungry, feed them, if they are thirsty, give them something to drink...." The fact that in this last statement he is quoting Proverbs rather than quoting Jesus directly doesnít change the fact that Paul here is preaching Jesusí nonviolent ethic of love.
Now the objection most often raised against nonviolent resistance to evil is that "it doesnít work." Walter Wink (yes, Walter Wink again) vehemently disagrees with that assessment of it, saying the reason we think it doesnít work is that weíve never tried it consistently and creatively. I want to make another point, however. Jesus didnít say use nonviolence because it works. He said use nonviolence because it is right. Use it even if, in the worldís sense of the term, it doesnít work. Thatís the pure Christian ethic of nonviolence.
Yet how that question of effectiveness gnaws at us! We want to overcome evil. We want to beat the bad guys; and the quickest way to beat a bad guy is to shoot him. Thereís no doubt about that. If Christian ethics were utilitarian, which thank God they arenít, they would not be nonviolent. That question of how an advocate of nonviolence responds to the charge of ineffectiveness is as old as the ethic of nonviolence itself. We see that very clearly in Paulísí statements this morning. He says you should show love to your enemies because "by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." And that statement is older than Paul As I said a minute ago, he here is quoting Proverbs--Proverbs 25:21-22 to be exact. So this idea of getting vengeance by acting in love is a lot older than Paul.
Itís a strange idea isnít it? The reason we are to act out a love ethic is because it will cause our enemies to experience excruciating pain! Some love ethic! Yes, all the commentators say that the "burning coals," the things I have here called hunks of burniní love, are the remorse and regret the bad actor will feel when his or her evil is met with our love. Well, maybe, although there certainly are any number of people who are so in the grip of evil that they feel nothing like remorse when they meet love in action. More importantly from a purely ethical point of view, even if our intention is cause our enemy emotional pain, that isnít a pure love ethic. Jesusí pure love ethic is compromised even here, in Scripture itself. No wonder the Christian tradition has had so much trouble with it!
So, by all means, let us respond to evil with hunks of burniní love. It is our call as Christians. It isnít easy. True faith never is. All we can do is try. And we can know that Godís grace and forgiveness are always near at hand when we fall short. Thanks be to God. Amen.