The living legacy of Christian nonviolent action

(You can watch video of this sermon here.)

With the recent passing into glory of John Lewis, the great Christian civil rights leader, I want to honor the living legacy of nonviolent action, which Rep. Lewis embodied and inspired.

John Lewis was one of the great elders, and we still have a few with us, who can teach us what it takes to have a life-long commitment to creative and courageous nonviolent resistance to violence, injustice, and oppression.

Let’s hear some of his words: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something about it.” “You must be bold, brave, and courageous and find a way… to get in the way … Get into good trouble.” “You never become bitter, you never become hostile, you never demean your opposition.” “Never give up. Never give in. But never become hostile… Hate is too big a burden to bear.” “Before we went on any protest, whether it was sit-ins or the freedom rides or any march, we prepared ourselves, and we were disciplined. We were committed to the way of peace – the way of non-violence – the way of love – the way of life as the way of living.”

This commitment was for Lewis, and can be for us, a deeply Christian commitment.

Part of our Baptism vows are “Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?”

We need models and teachers and heroes in how to live out those promises, especially in times of turmoil and trouble.

Now, I’ll remind us that it’s not how well we live out those baptism promises that proves our worthiness or unworthiness before God. We are saved by grace. Period. So when we commit to trying to follow the way of Jesus, we do that not out guilt or fear, but out of our sincere response to the truth and reality of the living God, as it speaks to us amidst the urgencies of our time. The way of Jesus guides us into a fuller and deeper realization of divine truth. That does not at all mean it’s easy – grace is free but it isn’t cheap – we are challenged to die to our small selves, and its fear and pettiness, and mature into who God would shape us to be, for each other and for this time.

Here’s John Lewis again, “First of all, you have to grow. It’s just not something that is natural. You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence.” It’s a religious discipline guided by religious insight. Here’s Lewis again, “In the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being. We, from time to time, would discuss if you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person, you know, years ago that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? Something go wrong? Did the environment, did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.”

This is straight out of the Gospel, right?

Jesus, the Apostles all taught this and lived this, as did the saints through the ages, whom John Lewis now joins, who form a cloud of witnesses.

Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do not return evil for evil… This prevents us from becoming like the evil that we oppose. Violence and hate and falsehood are contagious. The contagion of evil is something the sowers of discord use to their benefit – you’ve been seeing that play out lately? – and something Christians should be inoculated against. You could say the blood of Christ should inoculate us from becoming hosts for the contagion of violence.

Now, the gospel challenge to love our enemies should not be an excuse for cowardice. Jesus was assuming we’d have enemies – the challenge was to love those enemies. The point is not to avoid conflict or prevent people from being mad at us. The point is not to let our enemies get their way. Jesus obviously was not a passive person. He flipped over a few tables in his time, and got into a whole lot of what John Lewis called “good trouble.”

The other big misunderstanding to clear up is that the teachings of Jesus do not mean we should just put up with abuse. Too often they’ve been used that way, for sure. There’s definitely a double standard in who gets told “blessed are the meek, turn the other cheek” and who gets blessed for battle. Those of us who have some privilege in society need to be very careful about this. Do we require some people to be nonviolent while we ourselves enjoy the fruits of violence done in our name?

“Turn the other cheek” is one of the most misunderstood teachings of Jesus.

This is from the sermon on the mount, Matthew chapter 5 (38-39) ‘As you know, we were once told, “An eye for an eye,” and “A tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you: Don’t react violently to the one who is evil. When someone hits you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.’

First, it’s usually translated, “Resist not the evildoer.” But the Greek word here usually means in particular violent resistance.

“Don’t react violently to one who is evil.” Okay, Jesus, but what should you do instead? Turning the other cheek is not non-resistance. It’s in fact a startling form of resistance.

Do you notice just how specific Jesus is? “When someone hits you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.” Why the right cheek? Jesus here isn’t going out of his way to council people about how to box against a southpaw. And, anyway, in that culture, people don’t do touch other people with their left hand, it’s unclean. Jesus is talking about a situation where someone is being slapped, backhanded. Jesus is talking to people like women, people like slaves or servants, who know very well what it’s like for their right cheek to sting as they cower in fear and humiliation. And in that situation, what does it mean to stand up and turn their left cheek? What’s that say? It’s saying “No, you don’t slap me. You punch me like an equal.” And where would that leave the abusive husband or slavemaster? This is about asserting one’s dignity in a way that throws the rug out from under the person who wields the violent power. It’s sitting down at a segregated lunch counter and saying, “You serve me like an equal. And if you think that’s illegal, then you go ahead and arrest me, and I’ll be back again tomorrow.” This is about creative and courageous intervention that unmasks the lies that underlie the unjust situation.

Walter Wink, who was part of the civil rights movement and later became a biblical scholar, talks about Jesus’ Third Way: Between violence on the one hand and victimhood on the other, there is a third way, “in which evil can be opposed without being mirrored.” This is the way of Jesus

Here’s how Wink sums up this Third Way: “Seize the moral imperative Find a creative alternative to violence Meet force with ridicule or humor Break the cycle of humiliation Refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position Expose the injustice of the system Take control of the power dynamic Shame the oppressor into repentance Stand your ground Force the Powers to make decisions for which they are not prepared Recognize your own power Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate Cause the oppressor to see you in a new light Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective Be willing to undergo the penalty for breaking unjust laws Die to fear of the old order and its rules.” -Jesus & Nonviolence: A Third Way, pgs. 27-28

There is great power and potential to this Third Way of Jesus. The masterminds of organized nonviolent social change have used this in effective and strategic ways. And it is rooted in deep spiritual truths about God and humanity.

I pray that we do our part to keep this legacy effective and alive. Thanks be to God.

(Delivered Sunday, August 2, 2020, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg, for First Congregational United Church of Christ of Walla Walla

#WalterWink #JohnLewis #Christianity #PrinciplesofNonviolence #CivilDisobedience #TheWayofJesus

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