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.
One of the descriptions of these terrible days of the pandemic is that we are “at war.” The reference, of course, seeks to mobilize all of our resources to defeat an enemy, similar in respect to World War II, where everything in our society was focused on defeating the Axis powers. While there is much wisdom in the mobilization idea, a problem comes in identifying the enemy. The coronavirus is invisible for the eye to see. Thus, what is happening in some quarters is to blame the place from which the virus came, almost creating a tangible character, an unseen invader into our lives. Consequently, there has been marked prejudice toward Asian-Americans. Not only are abusive words hurled, but people have sought to punish these good people by avoiding them, even ostracizing them. This bigotry reveals the human tendency to want to retaliate for things that happen to us.
Jesus’ words for us today begin with his quoting one of the oldest laws of humankind, the law known as “Lex Talionis” — “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Various theories attempt to trace the origin of this law, but it seems to go back to the very beginnings of written history. It is found in the Hebrew Scriptures at least three times, but it goes even further back in history to the Code of Hammurabi, compiled in 2200 B.C.E. For unknown ages it has served as society’s fallback protocol against any offense, thus becoming the rationale for wars, feuds and vendettas. Jesus’ words are not just the antidote to stop the cycle of violence caused by retribution; they are descriptive of how we are to perceive the Kingdom of Heaven.
Just a few years ago the world, and especially our country, had a Baptist Christian who lived out these particular words of Jesus. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who practiced what he preached. And what he preached was a non-violent resistance to what he decried as the “principalities of evil” found in the racial issues in our country. His emphasis on practicing the words of Jesus saved our country from a terrible bloodbath. It was difficult enough for King standing up against the racist mindset of the Klan and other groups who were constantly threatening him, but he was also being criticized by some in the African-American community who espoused a violent response.
While I lived through those days of racial upheaval, I don’t think I fully appreciated the unbelievable commitment it took for Dr. King and others to truly overcome hatred with non-violent resistance. Just a few years ago Lisa and I visited The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. It is an amazing and somewhat troubling place. I say “troubling” because its exhibits illustrate racism’s inherent inhumanity in such graphic ways. For instance, I had read about the 1960 Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins and even heard the legendary preacher, Otis Moss, Jr., describe his first-hand experience there. But an exhibit at the Center invites visitors to actually sit at an old Woolworth café counter wearing a headset transmitting continual screamed insults. If you close your eyes and try to visualize the actual scene, it can’t help but incense your anger. After hearing it myself, I was humbled by the devotion and discipline those young people displayed in taking the abuse without striking back. I was reminded of the words of Yale scholar, Roland Bainton, “If in order to defeat the beast, we become a beast, then bestiality reigns.”
Gerald Mann, a most iconoclastic Baptist preacher, once saw Jesus’ words in action at, of all things, a Little League baseball game. Mann was ten years old at the time and was best friends with Rudy Castillo, his team’s third baseman. They were playing for the championship of the North Zone of the Houston League. The game had come down to the classic situation – last inning, score tied, bases loaded, three balls and two strikes, with Rudy at the bat. He singled home the winning run, and everyone went crazy. The fans flooded the field; the place was bedlam. Then the big first-baseman from the opposing team – an Anglo boy – strode over to Rudy and through clenched teeth called him a hate-filled, derogatory racial slur. Rudy promptly felled him with a left hook. The first baseman rolled in the dirt, crying and spitting blood. Everyone associated with either team squared off to do battle. Rudy’s father, a gentle hardworking immigrant from Mexico, spun his son around and stared at him with a mixture of hurt and sadness. “Son,” he said, “You just proved that you are exactly what this boy called you.” Then Rudy’s father picked up the first baseman, wiped his face, and hugged him. The fight was over and an important lesson was learned by a lot of people, including a little ten-year-old who grew up to be a Baptist preacher.
Jesus’ words today call us from the perspective of retribution, of ‘getting-even,’ to the perspective of the Kingdom, of those who, in all circumstances, seek that which is right.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- Take time to examine your heart and your personal experience. Is there anything or anyone who makes you automatically grit your teeth or clinch your fists? Consider why that emotion rises up in you and what God would want you to do about it.
- Think about places and people today who need an awareness of the love of God. How can you be an instrument of grace in these times?
- Pray for all those who struggle with physical and/or emotional anguish, that they may find comfort and strength in God’s Spirit.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things”
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.