33 Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.
34 Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.
I wanted to punch this person in the face the other day.
(You don’t often hear pastors begin with those words; I apologize if this offends you.)
I was driving on the highway during rush hour just outside of Charlotte; well, I was sitting in traffic actually trying to exit so that I could get on yet another highway to make my way back home. All of a sudden a car FLEW in front of me from what seemed like three lanes over, coming to a screeching stop in the six feet of space that was in front of my car. I had to slam down my brakes and swerve just to avoid hitting this car that was now practically perpendicular to me, now in front of me, in this exit lane.
I was FURIOUS. I sat on my horn glaring at the driver as he tried to not notice me, nor acknowledge what he had just done. My heart was pounding, my body temperature was feverish. It was all I could do to keep my foot on the brake pedal, and not to ram my car into this driver’s car. I followed this car as close behind as I could. My mind raced, imagining all of the ways that I could take out my fury on this person. I imagined using bats, tire irons, fists, and projectiles. I saw RED.
After about five minutes of sitting in traffic with this other driver, he sped off through traffic, much like how he first arrived. Little by little, my breathing began to relax, my hands loosened on the steering wheel, and my thoughts regained focus on the world around me. ROAD RAGE.
That moment on the highway was not the first time I was enraged, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. As I kept on driving throughout the day, I found myself thinking about that experience, and thanking God that I didn’t act on my impulses. Yes, perhaps an act of aggression on my part would have had temporary relief from what I was feeling, but would it help resolve the situation in the long run? What would be the consequences of such actions on my part? Would I be helping the situation, or adding to the danger that was already present at that moment and possibly to follow? Would I want others who knew me (like you) to see me throwing things, hurling insults, or gesturing inappropriately? Why was I actually angry in the first place?
Have any of us been there before? Have any of us been so angry that we lost our composure and thought such violent thoughts? Or maybe there have been times when we even skipped the thoughts all together, and simply acted out in anger and violence?
Maybe it wasn’t on the road. Maybe it was at home with a family member or your partner? Maybe it was in school? Maybe at work, or in sports? No matter who we are, there are moments where we simply find ourselves enraged and desperately challenged to act as ‘a good Christian ought’. But how is a good Christian supposed to respond when there is injustice?
Rage and anger can take many forms in today’s world. There is the very personal and physical rage of wanting to physically harm someone. There is a larger, public rage being voiced by many in response to the political actions of the current administration. People are raging in places like Syria, Israel & Palestine, Thailand, and North Korea where violence and oppression is experienced in a very tangible way every day. We experience rage on television and social media. We listen to songs, watch videos, and read articles filled with rage. It is safe to say that we live in a world with a lot of anger today.
To make this all even a bit more complicated, we are brought up with conflicting values and teachings on how to process and respond to such rage. Our parents and grandparents responded in their own way. We see on television and in movies that certain people are responding in other ways. And here we are…how are we to respond? Do we respond with physical aggression? Do we respond by avoiding people, or disappearing from conflict all together? Do we respond with lawsuits or public demonstrations in the face of injustice?
And if we are not confused enough, when is physical violence warranted? What about when your physical well-being is at stake? What about when your family threatened? Is violence in warfare okay? Is there a ‘just war’ theory self-defense that we can support?
Who are we to look to as guides in such matters? If we look to our political leaders, we may learn one thing. If we look to the military, it might be another. If we look to our friends and neighbors, yet another. And then there is this guy Jesus; what does he have to say about rage and violence in today’s world? Let’s look at today’s scripture and see what we can glean.
There was rage and violence back then in biblical Israel as well. Jesus knew a thing or two about living with rage. He lived in a world with plenty of anger, violence, and injustice. Jesus lived in a land that was occupied by another power; in this case the Roman Empire. He lived in a time where there was political and religious corruption, including his own religion. He lived in a time when people were living in poverty and social persecution, just for their religious or ethnic identities, or their physical abnormalities or their diseases, or their sex or gender. Every day Jesus walked the streets where people were victims of injustice and violence. He had every right to be enraged.
To be Jewish at the time meant to have believed that you were living with progressive ethics by many accounts. The Jewish laws and sense of justice were pretty modern for the time, including a whole series of laws believed to have been handed down by Moses. So it was very surprising on that day when Jesus was teaching, and began to talk about some of these laws and the reality of what some were experiencing, in a different way. He shared with many what the Jewish teaching and Roman law said, and then he went even further…
Matthew, chapter 5:
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Many followers of Christ would later use these very teachings as inspiration for what we now call non-violent resistance. In a radical way, Jesus was teaching the moral and ethical views of Jewish tradition, yet he was also sharing with the people opportunities for alternative subversive action that would simply go beyond legalistic response, and would ultimately lead towards something far greater.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Many at this time in the scriptures may have been thinking just like I was in the car this past week, ‘How does such violence and aggression affect me personally?’ But Jesus was teaching not just about individual responses, but about bringing about God’s Kingdom in an enraged and violent world.
46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
I don’t wish for us this morning to simply rest at the moral teaching of not acting out violently; what is known as the latter half of the ‘fight or flight’ response. What Jesus was getting at was not simply what we now understand as passive resistance (no action at all) or negative peace (lack of violence). Jesus calls us to help realize the Kingdom by proactively seeking reconciliation and relationship especially with those whom you may consider your enemy. It is easy to gather together with those who think, speak, and act like you, but we are called to be and act as so much more. Christ, in his cunning way, is offering us an alternative response to anger and violence in the world today—the way of radical love.
Many Christians would use Jesus’ teachings about responding to violence and injustice as they shared the Gospel with the world throughout the past 2000 years; we call many of these people who ended up giving their lives in the name of such teaching martyrs.
In the Twentieth Century an Indian man named Mohandas Gandhi would be so inspired by these words of Jesus that he would use them to shape his own teachings of non-violent resistance called satyagraha, or ‘truth force’.
And in the latter half of the Twentieth Century a young man named Martin Luther King Jr. would study the words of both Jesus and Gandhi, and help organize his own response to the world’s rage and violence through non-violent resistance within the civil rights movement. Both Gandhi and Dr. King are now understood as two of the most influential people the world has ever known.
Walter Wink, who was a leader in contemporary non-violence teaching, wrote this about Jesus and these teachings found in Matthew:
Out of the heart of the prophetic tradition, Jesus engaged the Domination System in both its outer and spiritual manifestations. His teaching on nonviolence forms the charter for a way of being in the world that breaks the spiral of violence. Jesus here reveals a way to fight evil with all our power without being transformed into the very evil we fight.
Our actions mean something. Our actions have consequences. Yes, we have a right to be angry, and upset, and enraged. But as the song goes, ‘They will know we are Christians by our love.’ The song does not go that they will know we are Christians by our military might, or our anger, or our hatred, but by our love.
The Good News is challenging today. Today God is calling us to use such rage in the wake of injustice as fuel for helping to realize God’s Kingdom here today.
We are called to reconcile with our enemies.
We are called to encounter the other.
We are called to sit and listen to the person we hate.
We are called to forgive and to speak out of love.
And when we understand that our enemy is just as much created in the image of God as we are, then we are to seek justice together.
Is this easy? Nope. Are there moments when you may want to punch someone in the face? Probably. Are there still some really tough questions and decisions that may arise because of such teachings? Yes.
But every day God reminds us of this challenging call in our lives, and inspires us to creatively respond to such a call. Seek out God’s image in your enemy, and together seek justice. Call it non-violent resistance, or satyagraha; call it following Christ in radical love. As many before us can attest, living such a life is extremely challenging. Many have become victims of violence, themselves, in the seeking of such justice. Jesus said that this life would not be easy. He would ultimately be crucified for such teachings. We are called nonetheless.
Today we are called to accept the incredible challenge of loving our enemies as ourselves. Today we are charged not to use our physical strength, power, and intellect for power, revenge, and leverage, but to use it for reconciliation, love, and justice.
May we be so inspired.
May we be up for the challenge.
May we maintain our gaze upon the risen Christ as we seek to realize God’s Kingdom here on earth today. Amen.