Ted Grimsrud—April 22, 2021
Back in the 1980s, when I was pastoring in Oregon, our neighbor asked me to perform a wedding ceremony for his sister who would be visiting from the East Coast. I really liked our neighbor, so I reluctantly agreed. I’ve never enjoyed weddings that much. (Kathleen and I made sure our own wedding was short and sweet—we took 17 minutes from the beginning of the processional to the end of the recessional.)
The wedding of our neighbor’s sister and her partner ended up being fine—good fun for the 15 of us on a beautiful spring day among the rhododendrons. It was an interesting experience. Our neighbors were not religious, nor was the wedding couple. But the mother of the bride was Jewish. She was skeptical about having a Christian minister do the service. She was so happy her daughter was finally getting married, though, that she was willing to accept the terms. I was told beforehand, though, that she was very worried I would talk too much about Jesus, even pray to Jesus.
Given the religious sensibilities of the couple, I used as my main text a song from Bruce Springsteen. That seemed to go over pretty well. Still, I was struck by the fear of the mother about having Jesus pushed on them. It was understandable. Over the past 1700 years, all too many people, especially Jews, have had a lot to fear from Jesus being “pushed on them”—often accompanied by a sword or other tool of coercion.
This problem, of Jesus being used as a basis for coercion must always be on the table for Christians when we try to understand what really matters in life and in our faith. Can we confess Jesus as the center of faith in a way that will not be scary to vulnerable people? Can we live life anchored in a message about Jesus that truly blesses all the families of the earth? What does matter most in our lives and in our faith?
What matters most?
What matters most? We can look at biblical texts that speak to this. I’d like to look at a few. When we notice them together, we may get a fairly coherent perspective.
The Lord spoke: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make idols for yourselves. You shall not bow down to them or worship them. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Honor your father and your mother. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. Exodus 20:1-17
With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I bring burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? God has told you, O mortal what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:6-8
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Romans 13:8-10
Jesus began to teach: “Blessed are you who are poor; yours is God’s kingdom. Blessed are you who are hungry now; you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now; you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, exclude, revile, and defame you on my account. Rejoice, leap for joy; your reward is great; that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich; you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now; you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now; you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you; that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” Luke 6:20-26
My proposal for what matters most—and what links together Moses, Micah, Paul and Jesus—is how we see the world we live in. Like a Bruce Cockburn lyric: “Little round planet in a big universe; sometimes it looks blessed, sometimes it looks cursed; depends on what you look at obviously, but even more it depends on the way that you see.” None of these Bible texts on what’s most important focus, actually, on what we do nor on our doctrines. Certainly, none focus on our ethnicity or membership in a particular religion. They focus on how we see the world we live in.
What kind of world is this?
As Exodus presents it, is this a world of idols, without Sabbath rest? Or is it a world defined by a God who brings life to slaves? As Micah presents it, is the world based on pay back, on a requirement of blood sacrifice for wrongdoing? Or is it a world of kindness and mercy? As Paul presents it, is this a world where neighbors are competitors, people to be avoided or exploited? Or is it a world where neighbors—all neighbors—are meant to be friends, a world where our human obligations are boiled down to this one: to love? As Jesus presents it, is the world a place where the winners are those who seek and find wealth and power? Or is it a world where ultimate meaning, wholeness, and blessedness are found with the vulnerable and suffering?
Remember Mary’s song in Luke one. She is informed of her special vocation, to bring the Messiah into the world. What comes out of her heart at this news: “God has shown strength with God’s arm, scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful from their thrones—and lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things” (1:51-52). Notice this, Mary’s gut response comes straight out of her tradition—“God has helped God’s servant Israel according to God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants” (1:55). God will fulfill God’s promises. This will mean an upside-down world, the vulnerable raised up and the dominators cast down.
Then there is Jesus’ encounter with Satan in the wilderness. Jesus faced the temptation to exercise his power as God’s Son by dominating others, by bringing in God’s kingdom through physical might. Satan tempted Jesus to be a rightside-up king, just like the other great ones of the world. To this, Jesus said no—this is not God’s way.
Jesus then returns to his hometown and sets out the agenda for his ministry. As with his mother’s song, here too Jesus presents the heart of the message in Old Testament terms. He quotes Isaiah: My work, he says, is to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed (4:18).
And then, Jesus gets to work. He shows what he means by healing and making clean a paralyzed man—and many more, lepers, demon-possessed people, people who were, by definition, vulnerable, outcasts, poor, oppressed. Here he is, the great one, the one who shows the world the true God. And what does he do? He brings blessing to the lowly and rebuke to the wealthy and powerful.
Jesus’s core teaching
When Jesus gives his extended teaching in Luke six, he reasserts what his life has been about so far. If you want blessing, learn this: God is a God of the vulnerable, a God of the oppressed, a God of those who stand against the domination system. Those who seem cursed in this world are blessed of God; those who seem fat and happy in this world are missing this blessing altogether.
What kind of crazy idea could be next? Well, Jesus gets in even deeper. “But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (6:27-28). “Love your enemies.” Clearly, this saying is not simply an optional counsel for a few radical disciples. This is not an add on to some other core message of salvation. God’s kingdom is about seeing things in a revolutionary way, down to the core of everything. He does not say your enemies are God’s enemies, and God will avenge all the evil they have done to you.
“Love your enemies.” Here we get to the essence of this new world Jesus stands for. He underlines this point over and over. To the one who attacks you, don’t fight back but show your dignity and inner strength by turning the other cheek. Treat others with the respect and compassion you would like to be treated with. Don’t reduce your relationships to pat me on the back and I’ll pat you on the back—and step on my toe and I’ll step on your toe. These dynamics lead to indebtedness, cycles of revenge, and powerful people’s exploitation of the weak.
Jesus repeats the point: Be merciful, even to those who don’t deserve it. Love even those who offend you. Show kindness and patience even toward those who are arrogant and unfeeling. Why do we practice mercy and not payback? Here’s the big question. Jesus answers this question twice. Why love your enemies? This is how you become children of the Most High. Why be merciful? This is how you will be like God. And he wasn’t simply talking about personal ethics for individuals; he was talking about all of human life.
A profoundly radical statement
I simply can’t imagine a more radical, a more all-encompassing, a deeper or more profound statement. The creator of the world, the very heart of reality, the fundamental character of the universe: Love enemies, be merciful. That is where you will find your being. That is how you will discover your essence. We human beings still imagine that love and mercy are optional. I think of a great quote from Leo Tolstoy’s final novel, Resurrection: “People think there are circumstances where one may deal with human beings without love, but no such circumstances ever exist. Human beings cannot be handled without love. It cannot be otherwise, because mutual love is the fundamental law of human life.”
However, we hear that loving our enemies is not realistic. When terrible criminals murder, we must kill them. When bullies attack, we must unleash overwhelming firepower to stop them. In our society, we are taught from cradle to grave to think that this cycle of violence is the fundamental law of human life, not Jesus’ message of mercy.
I remember a talk I had with a friend when I was writing a book that challenged the message our society has absorbed from World War II. We have believed that that event vindicated war as a morally appropriate method of dealing with enemies; it keeps us thinking that war works. As we talked, my friend revealed himself to be humane and peace-loving. He agreed that much of the war’s legacy is problematic—the creation of institutions such as the Pentagon and the CIA, nuclear weaponry that can in the blink of an eye utterly destroy life on earth, and the on-going expansion of the American military machine. But still, he insisted, we had to fight. No matter how bad its outcome, no matter the truly unbelievable amount of destruction it caused—that is the only way to stop the bully. This is being “realistic.”
Well, is it? What is realistic about heightening the world’s spiral of violence? What is realistic about adding to injustice and oppression that leads to brokenness that leads to more injustice and oppression? What is realistic about always seeking to kill our enemies? Is Jesus’s message, is the way of seeing that he proclaims and embodies and calls us to—the way of mercy—is this hopelessly unrealistic? Or is the way of mercy the direction toward which the arc of the universe actually turns?
Well, obviously how we answer this question is a statement of faith—a way of looking at the world, not provable facts about how the world objectively is.
What is realistic?
For years in the Nonviolence class I taught, we struggled with this question: what is realistic? We looked at the legacy of Christian pacifism, the early church, Anabaptists, Quakers. We studied Gandhi. We were impressed. Gandhi shows that nonviolence isn’t only a great idea, but also a practical strategy shown to be effective. Love of enemies can go with effective resistance to oppression. But we’d ask: Could Gandhi’s ideas ever work here in America. People in our society are too comfortable, too individualistic, the commitment to violence, including pro-violence Christianity, is just too strong.
Well, I’ve learned more about how indeed a Christian version of Gandhi’s philosophy has already been practiced in the United States, with amazing success in the face of terrible oppression and violence—and that this happened in my own lifetime (admittedly now not so brief a lifetime).
A bit over sixty years ago, in Nashville, Tennessee, an explicitly Christian pacifist campaign of social change turned that city upside-down, and over the next few years, empowered the American Civil Rights Movement to undreamed of victories. This campaign in almost every way illustrated the truth of Jesus’s message in Luke six.
The catalyst for this campaign was a Methodist minister, James Lawson, who entered the movement extraordinarily well prepared. At the end of his college years, he had come to clarity about his pacifist convictions. He refused to cooperate with the draft and spent 18 months in prison. This experience solidified his sense of identity as a follower of Jesus committed to the path of love of enemies and social transformation, and it made him realize he could handle suffering. He then spent several years in India, learning practical nonviolence from Gandhians. He returned to the States intending to finish his ministry training and then engage in the Civil Rights Movement. In his first year of seminary, he met Martin Luther King. King knew the movement was stalled and needed some new initiatives. He told Lawson not to wait; he could serve immediately.
So, Lawson went to Nashville and began teaching classes on nonviolent activism. Interestingly, it was three men from the most impoverished of Nashville’s three black colleges who became core activists: teen-agers John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette, and Navy veteran turned pacifist James Bevel.
The class began a sit-in campaign to integrate the downtown lunch counters. It was brilliantly executed and ended in victory. And, as Bernard Lafayette said years later, these young people had undergone a West Point-like training program as warriors of nonviolence. Lewis, Lafayette, Bevel, and their friend Diane Nash, became key contributors to the larger Civil Rights movement. At almost every one of the crucial moments over the next five years when the movement moved forward, one of these Nashville activists played a central role. For each of them, their Jesus-based pacifist convictions and their training in Gandhian methods were central.
The legacy of the Civil Rights movement of course is one of mixed success, and after 1965, the centrality of nonviolence was lost in the face of the sustained violence of the segregationist South, the shockingly racist North, in the expansion of the war in Vietnam, in the growing anger and violent responses of the black power faction of the Civil Rights Movement—and finally and decisively, in the murder of Martin Luther King.
However, at the heart of the significant success that the Movement did find, and in defiance of the deep-seated and stop-at-nothing violence of the racist Southern society, we find a vindication of the message of Jesus. The commitment to self-suffering rather than causing the enemy to suffer. The commitment to finding the humanity of the enemy. The commitment to steadfast resistance to the oppressive forces of domination. The centrality of God’s presence with the vulnerable. All these went together in an extraordinary witness to authentic realism—true change happens when the cycle of repaying evil with evil is broken.
So, what matters most? This is how Jesus concludes his sermon: “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words and acts on them. Like a person building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it. But the one who hears and does not act is like one who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house” (6:47-49). Amen.