The people of God were living under a wicked regime. The Roman Empire ruled from afar, using fear and violence to control those it had beaten. Rumors spread and the populace was always in fear of the next crackdown, always in fear that they might be accused. Violence reigned in the streets, with the powerful and connected feeling quite at liberty to physically harm those who opposed them. The people were looking for someone – anyone – to do something about it, to change things, to show them how to resist. People were all pinning their hopes on a man named Jesus, he was teaching people subversive ideas in houses of faith and doing extraordinary things people couldn’t explain. People hoped that he would show them what to do about the wicked regime.
And so it was that one day an enormous crowd gathered around Jesus. There were thousands of people, women and men and children, Jews and people from other nations, it was an ocean of humanity, more than the eye could take in or the mind comprehend, so many that Jesus had to climb up to a high place so that he could be seen and heard. The Sermon on the Mount. It was the beginning of Jesus’ reputation as a seditionist and agitator; it put him on a collision course with those who ruled by violence and fear. It was a manifesto of what it meant to be one of his followers. It was a handbook for non-violent resistance to evil. It was a playbook for how to prevail against even the most vicious opponent. Jesus teaches what people of faith must do to prevail against evil. First, we must utterly forgo vengeance and violence as strategies to resist evil. Second, we must be fearless and creative in publicly exposing evil for what it is. Third, we must always believe that our enemies are capable of transformation. One important note—Jesus is teaching here about public life, not our conduct in our individual lives. These are not rules about how to behave when being mugged. Jesus is not telling battered women they must meekly submit to domestic violence. Jesus is teaching his followers about public life, about how they must behave if they are to resist evil and win.
First, we must forgo vengeance and violence. Jesus lived in a time when politically motivated violence was used as a way of controlling people. Violence and the threat of violence were used to keep people in line, to keep them from speaking up or standing up to those who felt themselves better than other people. Jesus said: you have heard it 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 cheek also. Turn the other cheek, that is, even if someone should strike you in the face, do not strike back at them in anger, do not return violence for violence. Instead be courageous, stand peaceably. If someone has struck you across the cheek, show them your other cheek too, present it for another blow to show them that you will not stoop to violence but neither will you allow violence to silence you. In the face of violence and the threat of violence, to turn the other cheek is to reclaim power, to turn the other cheek is to declare that evil is impotent to achieve its true aim—which is to control others. The logic of violence is alluring. It seems like wisdom to say that a willingness to harm or kill another can act as a deterrent. But violence spawns violence. That is all it is capable of. It is like a virus, and it is foolishness to expect a virus to create anything other than more of itself. If we wish to resist evil and win we must forgo violence, Jesus says.
Second, be fearless and creative in publicly exposing evil for what it is. Jesus lived in a time when the powerful and wealthy felt they could act with total impunity, exploiting people all around without any means of public accountability. Jesus said—if someone wants to sue you and take your coat, give them your cloak as well. God’s law forbids the practice of collecting on debts by taking even the clothes off of someone’s back. Even a destitute person is afforded the dignity of clothing, in God’s law. So if someone is trying to sue you to take the clothes off your back, they are committing a grave evil, placing money over human dignity. Jesus says that you are to publicly shame people for such evil, by publicly handing over not only your coat but your cloak as well. In those days, people only wore two garments, a coat and cloak, so Jesus is saying: Strip down to your skin and demand to know if their greed is finally satisfied. The evil that is being done in service of greed is exposed and their naked wickedness revealed for all to see. Jesus is not just talking about debt here, he is saying when someone commits evil, don’t allow it to go on unnoticed, create a public spectacle. Evil acts must be challenged, publicly, even when it strains the bonds of manners and decorum.
Third, we must believe that our enemies are capable of transformation. Jesus said—love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you. Love your enemies? Why should we? We love our enemies because we hope it will transform them, make them change their ways. Why should we believe that loving an evildoer will do any good? We believe in the power of love to transform people’s live because we have seen it. As followers of Jesus we have seen the power of love bring people from death to life. God’s love has transformed us, God’s love has transformed me. There are people in this room who can tell you it’s true. Kara, does love have the power to give a person life? Testify! We love our enemies because love is the fiercest power there is, love is strong as death, its passion fierce as the grave, its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Jesus tells us we are to love our enemies because if we give up on loving them, we have given up the most powerful tool there is for transforming the world.
And make no mistake, beloved of God, we are called in this time today, in this country, in this city, in this church. Christ is calling us as from mountain top heights. Christ calls us to resist evil. There is jingoistic racism tearing apart families of immigrants. Islamophobia has wrapped itself in the flag and said I’m here to keep you safe. Discrimination against women and LGBT people is being written into the law and being blessed under the name of God. The value of a dollar is through the roof and the value of health and human life or people of all abilities is dropping like a rock. White supremacy—once enshrined in the constitution—has reared its ugly head and is looking to regain its former glory.
Now make no mistake. None of this was inaugurated on January 20th. These are old struggles. Struggles that our elders remember having fought. Struggles that we must prepare our children to take up, too. But we have what we need to take up that struggle today. Christ has given us the playbook that we need for non-violent resistance to evil. And by the time we are done with it, that playbook will be dog-eared from use and coffee stained from late nights. Christ has told us what to do to stand up to evil and win.
We must forgo violence and vengeance because they are like viruses—their elegant machinery designed only to replicate themselves. We will not commit violence or seek vengeance. But neither will we be cowed by fear into accommodating evil. What evil desires most is silence, to be given peace and quiet while tearing people’s lives apart like tissue paper. We will not be silent in the face of evil. We will be fearless and creative in revealing evil for what it is and calling it by its name. And last, and most importantly, we will remember that we deplore evil, but we do not hate people. We will love those who do wrong and we will behave as if we believe that God can transform their lives, turn them from enemy to ally. And we will have the audacity to believe, that by standing up to those who commit evil, we might be nothing less than the very living body of Christ, calling them to new life, to a new world.