44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
What would the world be like if Christianity as a whole really took this seriously?
While these words certainly sound nice, and few disagree in Sunday School, it seems to me that very few actually live these words. Our nation was touched and somewhat perplexed at the compassion of the Amish a couple of years ago after a gunman killed 5 small Amish girls before killing himself. The entire community forgave him, turned up in droves to his funeral, offered his widow condolences and the Nation generally approved. I wonder if there was any controversy within the Amish community themselves. Five years earlier, a cowardly civilian attack performed by hijacking airplanes and flying them into skyscrapers launched a cry of retribution leading to two wars with millions of casualties, the relaxing of civil rights and Geneva convention protocols, and lifting the torture ban regarding prisoners.
When other countries asked not to jump into war, to slow down, we derided them. When Singers spoke out against the idea of war they quickly became Pariahs and were decried as unpatriotic, complete with burning of albums and death threats. In short, most of America acted the way the natural man does, we returned violence and intolerance for violence and intolerance, loving our neighbor and hating our enemy. At my own peril, I am going to take a journey down into politics and war, a subject fraught with contentious traps, and explore the possibilities of nonviolence and loving our enemies.
Pacifism is considered by many to be a dirty or hypocritical word. It is very easy to take the cynical route and ascribe the idea to motives of self preservation, or to believe that refusing to defend yourselves is the road to annihilation as a victim of aggression. These are complex issues and to some extent or in some cases this may be a valid point of view. However, I have found that for myself some of the most monumental achievements in history have come from exactly those who would take Jesus at his word.
Christ himself did more that talk the talk. He gave himself for all of us. He asked God to forgive his executioners as they performed his execution. The power of this story has profoundly changed millions of lives the world over. Christ demonstrates the power of love and self sacrifice as no one else could. We who all make mistakes, often big ones, have the power to be reconciled to God through Christ. His love can transform us from an enemy to a child of God.
In the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr lived a life that showed understanding of this. As he fought those who hated him, called him a rabble rouser, trouble maker, Communist, and many things worse, he dreamed of the day, “when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
We honor him as a hero for this. We celebrate the movement he led, and his desire to stop injustice in a national holiday. The revolutionary and key part to his movement was that he enacted change without violence. I was not yet born in the sixties, but from what I have learned, they were a very, very tense time. The fear that all that civil and unrest would flare into full scale rioting and civil war was real and palpable. Had it not been for leaders with the courage to Love their enemies, the perpetrators of the injustices they decried this violence could well have been. This is only magnified by the fact that his cause also caused him his life in the end.
Decades before, Mahatma Ghandi took a similar path, enacting change without violence by demonstrating love for his enemies. Again, he gave his life for his cause. His nonviolent movement for the Independence of India took decades, involved massacres, and tried the patience of may of his fellowmen. He observed, ” When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall – think of it, always.”
He was able to keep going because he saw the long view. Truth and love always win, always. He also saw where violence led as he observerved, “An eye for and eye will make the whole world blind.”
In fact, Martin Luther King, Jr. cited Ghandi as a major influence in his own movement, stating, “Christ gave us the goals and Ghandi gave us the tactics.” Ghandi’s path began in South Africa, which practiced apartheid against both Africans and East Indians. His influence was powerful enough that decades later, Apartheid itself ended in a movement led by his followers, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.
Mandela is an interesting case. He began in an armed group of the African National Congress, labelled as a terrorist and communist. He spent 27 years in prison for sabotage and other crimes. During this time he had opportunity to reflect upon the nature of oppression and violence. He writes,
It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.
He knew this firsthand, as he had lived the life of violence before. He knew what violence could do to a man. He chose to forgive. It would have been easy for independence in South Africa to take the same route many other African nations had, with violent overthrow leading to dictatorship, leading to more violent overthrow and more dictatorship as has been seen far, far to often throughout the continent since the decline of colonialization. He did not choose that route. He chose truth and reconciliation.
Rather than convict and condemn the perpetrators of the most horrific crimes under apartheid, he established a commission that gave amnesty for perpetrators who admitted publicly all their crimes and allowed victims to hear the stories of what perpetrators had done. What resulted was simply amazing. Krista Tippett at Speaking of Faith Chronicled the story in an amazing and profoundly moving podcast. Author Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela recounts the tears shed by the family of victims of one of the most brutal prolific killers behind Apartheid, Eugene de Cock, as he told his story. These family members cried not only for their loved ones, the cried for de Cock. They saw the soul distorting effect such violence had upon him and the mourned with him. It is simply stunning.
Prior to Ghandi, civil rights and truth and reconciliation, the Book of Mormon tells a powerful story about the people of Ammon. These were a group of converts belonging to the Lamanites, sworn enemies of the Nephites (the civilization from which the book is derived). This group of Lamanites were converted to God through missionary efforts and grieved for the murders committed by their hands. They made an covenant with God as they became his people, never to use their weapons again and buried them deep in the Earth. Other Lamanites became very angry at this conversion, and attacked them. They refused to defend themselves, and many were hewn down, praising God in the very act. This action so moved their attackers that they threw down their weapons and more joined them than had died that day. I have to believe that love is more powerful than the sword. It is love that changes people. We can label others terrorists all we want. Only by following Christ’s words will we ever be able change terrorists into something better. We attack back, we become terrorists ourselves. We love them, they just may regain humanity, and beome the children of God they are.