The Sermon on the Mount is so baffling, we either have to ignore it or pretend we never heard it. Those tactics failing, we turn it inside out. The first time I came across such a strategy was after a lecture I gave on “Capital Punishment and Disarmament in the Light of the Gospels.” My assigned task was apparently not very successfully accomplished. From the back of the room came a courageous dissenting voice. “How can you be against war and capital punishment? Even Christ said, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’”
What can one do? Why even say that the very next sentence of Jesus in Matthew continues: “But what I say to you is: offer no resistance to injury. When a person strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other”?
We’ve had these words since the beginning of our church, and by and large we still act as if Jesus said, “an eye for an eye.” Even if we finally acknowledge that Jesus did solemnly tell us to turn the other cheek, in our more candid moments we admit that we think it’s outrageous.
Sometimes I feel everything in my being recoils from the words of Jesus. I want even more than an eye for an eye. And who has a right to ask me for an extra shirt, much less a coat? I reluctantly give up a minute of service, much less a mile. Go two miles? Love enemies? It’s hard enough to love those close at hand.
When I see my own resistance to the gospels, how can I be surprised that our church seems to ignore what he said? How can I be upset if a nation would think it sheer idiocy? Try forgiving the creep doWn the street, much less Saddam Hussein.
Our resistance to the gospel is all of a piece. To hold myself not accountable is to hold my nation or church not accountable. To exempt my nation or church from the truth is to exempt myself.
In The Old Testament without Illusion, biblical scholar John L. McKenzie notes that Christians have felt compelled to create and honor a political ethic where Christ is useless. But such a maneuver invites tragedy, because the political is always in some way personal, and the personal, political. When we make decisions as a nation or a church as if the Incarnation has not happened and Jesus has not died, personal imitation sooner or later follows suit.
It is not easy. The demons of the world and of our hearts seduce us into thinking that the ways of God cannot be followed in this time-bound journey. Even the commands that the Lord gave to Moses seemed so impractical. “Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” They were to have no hatred for brother or sister, to take no revenge, to cherish no grudge against fellow citizens, to love their neighbors as themselves. So the Israelites, like all nations, all peoples, weighed the shrewdness of the world, of self-defense, of retaliation, on a balance with the wisdom of God.For myself, what got me to speak less confidently about capital punishment and forgiveness of enemies was the terrible murder of a young girl, the daughter of a friend of mine. He was a fellow professor at the university and a deacon in a local parish. I found myself avoiding him, especially after the murderers were caught and put on trial. I knew full well that he was aware of my facile arguments against capital punishment, and I was almost ashamed to have him look at me.
Finally one day we were suddenly on the same elevator; I could not escape. I murmured how difficult it must be to go through the trial, reliving his great loss once again. “Yes,” he said, “but the hardest thing is trying to convince the prosecutors that we want life imprisonment without parole and not the death penalty. He doesn’t understand that we follow Christ in all of this.”
Here was someone, profoundly injured by an unjust aggressor, who really believed and wanted to practice the words of Jesus. He really believed in a God who gives sun and rain to the unjust as well as the just. He really aspired to a love made perfect in the Crucified who asked forgiveness for enemies. He had entered the mystery of which Paul spoke. He knew that all things were his, and he was Christ’s, and Christ was God’s.