A funny thing happened to me in preparing for today. I consulted the lectionary and found that the reading set for today was the passage on non violence and loving your enemies. It flashed through my mind that it was a long time since this passage had come up in the lectionary, and I could not remember having heard, or preached, a sermon on it for years. A little research proved me right and solved the problem for me. If the moon and the calendar produce a late Easter, then an extra Sunday has to be inserted in the period known as Epiphany, and that this is an extremely rare occasion occurring every eleven years or so. And, you guessed it! The passage allocated to this day is that about non violence and loving one’s enemies. How important then is it to listen carefully to this passage and preach upon it when it pops up – every eleven years or so!
What was achieved in Afghanistan? What was achieved in Iraq? What is being achieved in Syria? The answer to each of these questions is “Absolutely bloody nothing!” and I use those words deliberately. How people can believe in violence after centuries of useless and barbarous killing is beyond me – and many others. And it is fascinating how many secular people are recognising the ineffectiveness of violence. Jonathon Schell in the introduction to one of his books says “The terrible violence of the twentieth century……. holds a lesson for the twenty first. It is that in a steadily and irreversibly widening sphere … violence has become dysfunctional as a political instrument.” He goes on to say that the power of non violence “can be spiritual in inspiration but doesn’t have to be”. He has a point and since the fourth century there has been a deathly silence (and I use those words deliberately) concerning the inarguable non violent stance of Jesus of Nazareth. How did this come about? How in the name of God did followers of Jesus become so identified with violence.
It is quite simple really. For the first three centuries Christians followed the directions of Jesus. To fight in an army was unthinkable, Christians were persecuted and non violence was espoused by Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen and others. Non violence really was the name of the game for the first three centuries. Then along came the Emperor Constantine who one night dreamed of painting the cross on the shields of his warriors and lo and behold they won the battle at Milvian Bridge. From then on it was a case of “onward Christian soldiers marching as to war with the cross of Jesus going on before”. This was the beginning of the resort to violence in the name of the Church and it was all downhill from then on. The Crusades, the religious wars of Europe, right down to the present day with George Bush sending off the troops to Iraq with the words “And may God bless America” – which is not that much different to the attitude of Constantine in the fourth century. The words of George Bush words are in utter and complete contradiction to the words of Jesus we read this morning. Admittedly George Bush is no intellectual giant but you don’t have to be to recognise that Jesus of Nazareth was non violent. If you are going to war please don’t associate it with the name of God and Jesus of Nazareth. As the song says “When Jesus said love your enemies, he probably meant don’t kill them. ” But don’t let us be too hard on George Bush (or John Howard for that matter) this is a passage of scripture which has been neglected for centuries.
Things, however, are changing and people like Lorraine Parkinson are again emphasising its importance. In a recent book she unequivocally says “All other teaching of Jesus is linked to this central idea – love your enemies”. Most people would see Jesus’ teaching in terms of loving God and loving ones neighbour. There is nothing new in this. The commands as we heard them in our Old Testament reading, are found in Leviticus. In no way would I underestimate their significance but Jesus goes much further. As Lorraine Parkinson says “There is a lot more at stake here than family love and devotion, love of people in one’s owns social circle or even the general idea of loving humanity” ( p118) Jesus is about loving not only one’s family and friends. He is saying that we should love our enemies! There’s a delightful little cameo in one of the gospels where Jesus is told that his family is outside and he says “Who is my family?” His family is humanity and everyone is to be the object of our love – even one’s enemies.
Of recent months I have seen two movies depicting slavery in the United States. One was “Twelve years a Slave” which was a strange film in that it concentrated on the violence of slavery to the extent that there was an element of masochism within it. I found myself wondering whether it was this that was drawing the crowds. Be that as it may, it did show in all its horror what slavery was like.
The other movie was called “The Butler” and was the story of a slave of the 1920s becoming the confidant of Presidents of the United States. It was a movie that will not receive any Oscars (although I thought the acting of Oprah Winfrey was superb) but it is a movie that I will remember because it all happened in my lifetime. I have witnessed in my lifetime one of the greatest social revolutions of all time – the movement against racial discrimination in the United States. And this for me is a sign of hope in a pretty hopeless world. I am generally pessimistic about where the human race is going, and the story of the Butler is a sign of hope.
Be that as it may, the real question is “How was this achieved?” And when this question is asked one man stands out head and shoulders above the rest, so much so that there is now a public holiday designated as the Martin Luther King Holiday. Martin Luther King was an advocate of the non violence of Jesus of Nazareth and fortunately we have a record of both of their lives. They have been immortalised, one in the New Testament, the other on tape. We read the words of Jesus in our scripture reading, and we will in a few moments listen to Martin Luther King who was without doubt a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. Both were advocates of non violence, and both of them were killed in the process – about which I will have more to say on Good Friday. You cannot understand the meaning of the cross apart from the practice of non violence. The cross is what non violence looks like in the face of hostility, injustice and violence. More of that on Good Friday.
For now, let us look briefly at what we read in the scriptures. If you want a more detailed treatment I recommend Walter Wink in his book “Engaging the Powers (P174-184) All I can do here is to give a brief outline of that which he deals with in detail. Before we do this let’s be clear on a number of things.
(1) Tactics and examples and initiatives like those suggested can rarely be repeated. The powers that be act quite quickly to cover themselves. The incidents related are but examples to spark an infinite number of ways of reacting non violently against the powers and furthering social change.
(2) The people to whom Jesus was speaking were not the strikers, they were the ones being struck. They were not the ones taking legal action. They were the ones being acted against. They were not the ones benefiting from forced labour. They were the ones subject to forced labour. Jesus was talking to people who suffered these dehumanising actions. He was describing what to them was very relevant. They are only of historical importance to us but they were very real to them – as should be the responses we make to the violence of our day.
(3) And most important of all. When Jesus says “do not resist evil” he is in no way suggesting passivity or submission. He is not suggesting we do nothing. What he is saying is that we should not react violently, that it is not a matter of fight or flight. There is a third way – the way of non violence.
With these things in mind, let’s now look at the three historically dated situations and the way of non violence.
The first example Jesus gives – the offering of the other cheek – is not about a fist fight. It specifically refers to being hit on the right cheek and the way you hit a person on the right cheek is with a backhander – an action not designed to injure but to humiliate. The classical way of insulting a person is to slap them with the back of one’s hand. The offering of the other cheek is taking the initiative and saying “You’ve got it wrong! I am every bit your equal.” The guy hit seizes the initiative and asserts his equality.
The second example of cheeky behaviour is set in the law court. The poorest of the poor used to use their outer garment as security for a loan. This guy has defaulted on his loan and the shirt is literally taken off his back. He strips off his underwear and says “Here you are! You may as well have the lot!” and the dignity of the whole legal system is ridiculed.
The third instance is about the practice of forced labour. A Roman soldier in those days had the right to compel anyone to carry his pack for a mile, but only a mile because the practice was greatly resented in conquered lands. In this case, at the end of the mile, the soldier makes to recover his pack and the guy says “No, let me carry it further”. In so doing he seizes the initiative and has the soldier thinking “ What gives with this guy? Is he trying to get me into trouble?”
In each of the examples the initiative is seized by the person being abused. The situation is changed by a creative response. There is nothing passive about these examples. Non violence is not about letting people walk over you. It is not about doing nothing. It is about responding in a non violent way. Creatively seizing the initiative is what it is about. Resisting the impulse to retaliate, taking the initiative. and responding in a positive way is the name of the game.
Such is not, unfortunately, the general case today. Today it is a case of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. As Nathan Nettleton puts it: “It is written into the foreign policy of almost every nation on earth. If you attack us, we will attack you and make sure you are sorry. A life for a life. A ship for a ship. A city for a city – and perhaps a bit more to make sure you don’t think of trying it again… What we are talking about here is an absolute renunciation of the almost universal human impulse to retaliate.” Jesus is quite clear on this. “It was said to you of old….. but I say to you, do not retaliate. Love your enemies.
Now for Martin Luther King. In the USA, King has been the central Christian voice for non violence for decades and wrote a brilliant sermon on “Loving your Enemy”. He made a number of points.
1. We must develop the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. This is what made Nelson Mandela the person he was – the power to forgive, a point which was all too fleetingly referred to in the movie. The same goes for the movie The Railway Man. The significance of the film was the forgiveness offered to his enemy but it was only briefly acknowledged at the end. Our society just doesn’t know how to deal with forgiveness. Philomena was a far better film and I to this day can visualise Philomena saying to the Nun: “I want you to know that I forgive you”. The movie Philomena is my award winner. We must develop the capacity to forgive was Martin Luther King’s first point.
2. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. We love our enemies by realizing that they are not totally bad.
3. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate. We get rid of an enemy by getting rid of the enmity. We must meet hate with love.
And then he winds up with a peroration that will go down in history as one of the great statements of all time.
“To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”
There is, however, nothing simple about non violence as the situation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer so profoundly demonstrated. Bonhoeffer was a follower of Jesus of Nazareth and believed in non violence. There is no question about that. Then came a situation where the matter was thrown into flux, where there arose what Joseph Fletcher calls “situation ethics”. Fletcher’s classic example was of a woman and her child in a concentration camp and a guard saying that if she would have sex with him he would leave the gate ajar so that she and her child could escape. What would you do if you were that woman? Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to confront Hitler non violently and came upon the situation where he was invited to join the plot to kill Hitler It went against his stance of non violence, and would make him, if you like “guilty of violence”. He considered the situation and came to the conclusion that his guilt was of little importance when thousands of people were being gassed daily and would continue to be while Hitler lived. What would you do in such a situation? I don’t know, but I have the feeling that I would have done what Bonhoeffer did. I am a believer in non violence. I am opposed to the common and arbitrary justification of violence we see in the world today and I include Iraq and street violence in that category. I am convinced that meeting violence with violence is not only stupid but is ineffective. Notwithstanding all of this I suspect that I would have made the decision that Bonhoeffer made – a kind of 99% pacifist decision if you like. The Scriptures, Martin Luther King , and Bonhoeffer! What I would like to do is to conclude with some personal comments and sharing some of my non violent experiences for what they are worth. But such is not possible. We would be here for hours. So let me be content with a single comment and one experience of seizing the initiative.
The comment is that non violent activists can no longer rely on the media to publicise non violent actions. The role and significance of the media has and is changing. Twenty years ago we would not have tolerated the censorship as far as refugees on Manus island are concerned. Today we get a silly remark of the Prime Minister that in times of war we do not disclose operational activities. The point is we are not at war! Or does this perhaps express the attitude of the government to refugees? The fact is that non violent protest is fast becoming ineffective in the light of the rubbishy “West Australian” newspaper with its tabloid front pages, and the “Australian” with its correspondence columns closely guarded to exclude letters questioning the views of the management and owner. When a number of us disrupted the 1995 Defence Spectacular at Hilarys it received lead coverage from three of the four TV stations. Today it wouldn’t even rate a mention! The kitchen and the football are what rule today! When we dug graves on the causeway prior to the Gulf War, we had a photo on the front page of the West Australian. The chance of that happening today is zero. Times have changed and so must our approach to the advocacy of non violence.
As far as the experience is concerned, I have mentioned Walter Wink’s classic treatment of this subject. He concludes it with these words “What a time to be alive …. The world and the church are waking up… What an exciting prospect! Our goal must be the training of millions of non violent activists who are ready at a moments notice to swing into action on behalf of the humanising purposes of God”.
I agree but they are words which bring more than a tinge of sadness because a couple of years ago the non violence advocates of the world blew the chance of a life time. – and I still grieve over it. Tom Fox was a member of the Christian Peacemakers Team with whom I worked alongside in Iraq. Tom was kidnapped and killed and the question facing CPT was whether or not to pull their team out of Iraq. I was back home by then and promptly emailed the top person in CPT saying that I was immediately available to replace Tom and if a similar thing happened to me or any others of the CPT I knew of three people who would immediately offer themselves as replacements, and that there were many who would be prepared to follow. It was an opportunity of huge significance and reminded me of Ron Sider’s words “To rise to this challenge in history, we Christians need to be prepared to die by the thousands.“ I believe that those thousands are now available and this was an opportunity akin to Gandhi’s followers at the gate of the salt factory.
CPT pulled out of Iraq and I didn’t even receive an acknowledgement to my email. I am not critical of CPT. It would have been a bold thing to stay there, but I do see it as a huge opportunity that was missed and one that would have reflected the significance of Jesus words to his disciples. “If any would come after me let them take up their cross and follow me.” The cross wasn’t some kind of ghastly bargain with God by which people were saved for pie in the sky when they die. It was an initiative, an act of non violent love which pointed up the futility of violence. It was an initiative of the one who said “love your enemy” and journeyed to Jerusalem in furtherance of it.
To Jesus of Nazareth be the praise and the glory, and to his followers faithfulness in the face of a world that still believes in violence.
Some months before the Bicentenary Celebrations of Australia, Charles Harris, a Uniting Church aboriginal minister had an idea. Why not organise a march along the lines of the famous Martin Luther King march and have a great gathering in Sydney on the same day as the celebrations? The banners would bear the slogan “We Have Survived”. He shared his vision with some of us. We thought it a great idea and set about organising a group to go from West Australia. My old van was painted up and bore prominently a black and a white hand grasping each other and underneath the words “The event we want to celebrate hasn’t yet occurred”. Marching to Sydney wasn’t feasible so we settled on a compromise: on the way we would march through every town in Western Australia.
Although it was twenty six years ago, I remember clearly the day we set off in that two of our number, in true aboriginal style, said it was too hot to go and “couldn’t we go tomorrow?” The power of persuasion was exercised and after a gathering at Yagan’s statue on Herrison Island we set off with the trial run of “marching” being conducted at Mundaring. Trevor, an aboriginal minister, led the procession carrying a large cross, the rest followed, and I came at the end in the van with PA system wound up to full volume. This was re-enacted through every town to the West Australian border. Most of the towns received us in shocked silence with a few vociferously engaging in gratuitous advice. We stayed in Church halls with our staple diet being muesli and meals arranged by various Church organisations. “And the rest,” as they say “is history!” The TV documentary gave a fair and accurate presentation of the events in Sydney, even to the extent of giving promo prominence to the yellow van which resulted in many friends ringing me up to make sure that I saw it.
One event, however, was not portrayed. Fourteen thousand was the estimate of the number of First Nation people who gathered in Hyde Park. We were seated on grass that sloped down to a stage from which the gathering was addressed. When I entered the park, I noticed that there were a number of buses lined up outside. I walked over to them and was somewhat shocked to find that they were filled with uniformed police. I reflected to myself “Fair enough! Emotions are high today and there may be a few hotheads”. The sheer number of police, however, continued to concern me. The speeches were half way through when some of the aforesaid police, complete with truncheons and side arms, started walking through the closely packed crowd seated on the ground. All it needed was for one of them to step on the hand of one of those seated on the ground and we would have a riot on our hands! I got up and asked one of the policemen with as much politeness as I could muster what they were doing. The answer was “We have some outstanding warrants and thought this might be a suitable occasion to enforce them”. To say that I was shocked would be the understatement of the year. It was a recipe for disaster! And it was then that I remembered the busloads of police just outside the gate. I went down to one of the organisers on the stage and informed him of the position. His brow furrowed, he uttered a few well chosen expletives, thanked me for acquainting him with the situation, and said “leave it to me.” He then got up on the stage and with microphone in hand informed the crowd along the following lines. “We have some special visitors with us this morning. Could you please make them welcome to our celebration.” The crowd picked up the cue magnificently and jumped up and shook the hands of the police with words along the lines. “Great to see you here, officer. Welcome to our gathering”. The police were completely non-plussed. They looked to their CO standing at the back and with a wave of the hand received orders to withdraw. It was the greatest example of the effectiveness of non-violence I have ever seen and tears filled my eyes with admiration.
I returned home a week later still conscious of the event and shuddering at the different outcome that could have occurred – a riot of monumental proportions. I decided that I really had a responsibility to follow it up. I knew I would get nowhere with the police so decided to lodge an official complaint with the Commonwealth Ombudsman. On paper replete with my legal qualifications, I lodged a formal complaint and was informed that an enquiry would be instituted. Six weeks later I received official notification from the Ombudsman that enquiries had ascertained that “there was no record of any police being at the gathering”. My first reaction was “What do they need? Fourteen thousand witnesses?” This soon devolved into a “Such is life!” sigh and renewed thankfulness for the astuteness of that organiser with the microphone, an astuteness evidenced by Jesus of Nazareth who summed it up with the words “Love your enemy”.