There are many parts of Scripture that people would rather ignore or declare not relevant for our so-called “superior”, modern life. Jesus taught many things which can easily be perceived as “inconvenient” for the demands of our current way of living. Yet, if we water down what Jesus taught us, we are only fooling ourselves, sliding ever so quickly towards even deeper trouble and greater spiritual entanglement. In today’s contentious, “hate your enemy” atmosphere, which is pervading our country, causing some people to imagine an impending civil war, we need to ask ourselves an important question. Have we simply forgotten what our Lord said and drifted further from core Christian beliefs than we know? The First Century followers of Jesus turned the world upside down by diligently adhering to whatever their Lord taught them, even if it meant loving their worst and most dreaded enemies. Is it time we listen to those original teachings again with fresh ears and open hearts? I think so!
When Jesus went up, sat on a mount, and began to teach, he once said, “You have heard the law that says punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it for two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.” (Matthew 5:38-42)
So many people today say, “Turn the other cheek, are you kidding me? What fool would do that?” So-called smart people today are taking to the internet and defaming or making false accusations about their enemies in their effort to retaliate against whatever they perceived their former friends did to hurt them. In this kind of mindset, being accurate with facts or the truth no longer seems to matter to these agitated people. It is a win or lose game with nothing desirable to obtain in between. Getting into an argument on social media has become a sport to many who enjoy hiding in the comforts of their home and would never think of saying face-to-face what they are writing. Dragging people to court with lawsuits, engaging in road rage, stealing another person’s car at whim, or using a gun instead of honest reason to settle a dispute are dangerously becoming new norms in our society. But it does not have to be this way if we choose to listen to the words of Jesus again with fresh ears and an open heart, and a willingness to obey, no matter how contrary if may feel to our so-called modern life.
Recently, I spoke at a mission conference near Pittsburgh, PA which each year attracts people and Christian leaders from around the world. I was honored to be one of the speakers. During the conference, I was introduced to a woman named, Naomi, from Pakistan. She and I arranged to have coffee so that she could tell me her story of how she became a follower of Jesus. She was born into a Muslim family and later became an evangelist for the Muslim faith. One time when she was trying to convert a Christian man in her village, she discovered through conversations with him, that she began to accumulate more questions about her own faith than about the Christian faith. Through a series of peaceful dialogues with this man, she felt even greater attraction to Christianity and eventually decided to give her life to Christ. In turn, she shared her faith with her entire family who also became followers of Jesus. Sadly, though, over time, she barely escaped with her life, as Muslim fundamentalists from her village murdered her father and threatened the rest of the family. Later, she fled to Afghanistan and began a daring ministry there with her new husband but was eventually driven from the country by threats from the Taliban. Naomi and her family now live in Columbus, OH where they have begun a ministry to Muslims in that area.
In many parts of the Muslim world today, there are still blasphemy laws in force which give local governments the authority to jail or kill anyone who says anything negative about Islam or the prophet Muhammad. In these areas, religious freedom is the furthest thing from these local leaders’ minds. Unfortunately, these laws are often abused by villagers who are either seeking revenge or wanting to eliminate people they dislike from their lives. They can easily begin rumors about their enemies which are based in neither truth nor reality. In such environments, life could not be more contrary to what Jesus taught the world. He once said, “But, I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.”(Matthew 5:44, 45a) It was this peacemaking, grace-filled frame of mind which attracted Naomi to the teachings of Jesus and the beginnings of her new life in Christ.
Just this past week in July, great news has come to our world. Leaders from the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim association in Indonesia, have signed an accord in Washington DC named, “The Nation’s Mosque Statement”, which recognizes and legitimizes the fact that both Christians and Muslims have the God-given right to evangelize and share their faith with anyone regardless of their traditional or religious background. Fewer accords in history have ever allowed for this kind of religious freedom in a majority Muslim country. The Muslim leaders of Indonesia are bravely confronting spirits of hatred and fear which are pervading so many other Muslim majority countries in our world today. This is a significant step in the right direction for more moderate Muslim leadership as they increasingly gain greater momentum in confronting more fundamentalist and militant forms of Islam in their spheres of influence. It should be noted, too, that this agreement would never have been reached if it had not been for the Christian leaders of WEA who took the time to engage in meaningful and peaceful dialogue with the Muslim leaders of NU. They took the risk and made the leap in their obedience to our Lord to love instead of fear and hate their enemies.
Christians are asked to break the cycles of violence and hatred wherever they are planted in our world today – employing honest and constructive dialogue with people they might otherwise fear and hate the most. When my church began what now has become a 14-year relationship with a local mosque in our Chicago area, the Imam and I sat down and agreed on guidelines for respectful and peaceful dialogue between our two faith communities. We committed ourselves to a discipline of listening to each other’s faith stories stories without falling into the temptation of argumentation, debate, or persuasive talk. As my friend Imam Senad said to me, “I have full confidence that the Spirit of God will sort out what is true between our two great religions, and what is false.” I remember being so excited when he said these words knowing that the Holy Spirit would be the one guiding us through our conversations together. After all, it is only through the work of the Holy Spirit that anyone comes to faith in Jesus Christ. In the end, faith is not the result of human intelligence or logical conclusion. As Christians, we are called to love, witness, and pray with non-believers, and allow God do the final work of convicting and enabling people to experience the miracle of faith for themselves. The Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians said it best when he wrote, “…no one can say Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit.”(1 Corinthians 12:3b)
We are New Covenant people governed by mercy, grace, and peace. It is no longer an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth as under the Old Covenant. We are not to seek revenge. Our God is a just God who always does and will sort out everything in the end according to his uncompromising scales of justice. We must have faith in his sovereignty and work with Him toward establishing his loving kingdom on earth. He empowers his children with his Holy Spirit to love and serve others beyond their own earthly inclinations or abilities. Great Christian leaders throughout the last two thousand years have demonstrated to us the power of Christian living; they have loved and challenged their enemies in ways that have moved the dial of humanity towards heaven’s call. For instance, at the height of racial tensions in the United States late last century, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said these words to National Press Club in 1962, “The method of nonviolent resistance is effective in that it has a way of disarming the opponent, it exposes his moral defenses, it weakens his morale, and at the same time it works on his conscience.” The only weapon Dr. King ever used was the weapon of Christ’s love.
We should not be the ones to strike back. The kingdom of God will strike back for us, hopefully softening the hardened hearts of our opponents. The more patience we exercise, the more faithful we will be as followers of Christ. It takes little faith to attack someone who has attacked you. It requires much greater faith to be self-controlled, prayerful, and allow God to do the attacking for us. Too many people in our world today are calling themselves Christians with very little understanding of what our Lord actually taught in his Gospel messages. Too many people today are trying to destroy their enemies, rather than dialogue with them in a spirit of respect, learning, loving witness, and pursuing an honest truth. Unless we change our ways soon, even darker days will be in front of us; and, we will have only ourselves and our shallow understanding of Christianity to blame.
The Apostle Paul summarized much of what Jesus taught during his Sermon on the Mount, when he wrote the following to the people of Rome:
“Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them…Live in harmony with each other…Never pay back evil with more evil…never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God…’If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.’ Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.”(Romans 12:14,16a,17a,19a,20, 21)
Do not let the ways of the world overcome your commitment to Christ. Instead, may your commitment to Christ be used by God Almighty to overcome the ways of the world.