When Grace Counters Revenge

Lamb with Nimbus, Baptism of Jesus window, FPCETrue Story. One day, 20+ years ago, when we lived in Wichita, Kansas, I drove to the local Sam’s Club. Wichita is no small place: at that time, the population exceeded 300,000, and the drive across town was about nine miles. I forget what I went into Sam’s to buy, but remember that when I came out, I inadvertently smashed the bumper and rear tail light on a car near mine. While I waited for the driver of that car to appear, I had time to assess the situation. The driver had parked the vehicle beyond the end of the row nearest the entrance. Not only was the car resting in what was clearly marked as a traffic lane running in front of the store, but also the car didn’t line up with the others, and was sticking out three feet into the parking lane that ran perpendicular to the traffic lane. The more I looked, the more irritated I became with the driver’s disregard of parking etiquette. When the driver reappeared, I caught her attention (sorry ladies, the driver just happened to be a woman). I apologized for damaging her car, gave her my insurance information, and wrote down some of her personal information. She was not happy with my error, but I apologized as best I could, and a few minutes later, I was on the road toward home.

Now the story takes an interesting turn. When I returned home, I phoned my insurance agent to report the accident. I gave him the name and phone number of the driver, the description of her car and license plate number. My agent worked with his father, and at some point during my description, he asked if I could hold the line.  After a minute, he came back on the phone, and said, “You’re not going to believe this. About six months ago, the woman whose car you hit was at fault in an accident that seriously damaged my dad’s car. My dad has been trying unsuccessfully to contact her. I believe that she is illegally driving an uninsured vehicle. I want you to give her my name and phone number, and tell her to call me directly to process the claim.” I did. I never heard from the young lady again. Neither did my insurer.

If you can imagine my feelings at the moment I learned of the driver’s checkered past, then you can understand the appeal of the Old Testament ethic to which Jesus refers in the fifth chapter of Matthew. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” was part of a system of retribution as old as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, as old as the Hebrew Law recorded in the 21st chapter of Exodus, the 24th chapter of Leviticus, and the 19th chapter of Deuteronomy. As brutal as such codes and laws seem to us today, scholars tell us that they were a step forward for cultures in which those codes and laws replaced lawlessness and arbitrary revenge. At some deep level, they satisfied the craving for justice. It’s a feeling something like the one I felt when I realized the young driver whose haphazard parking had caused me grief was going to face grief of her own, the feeling that my insurance agent felt when he knew that the driver who had paid no restitution for damage would receive no restitution for damage.

If we take Jesus’ teaching seriously, then we are challenged to aim higher than a primitive system of justice that satisfies our desire for revenge. Jesus says you’ve heard the law, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  Jesus says you’ve heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

If you try to picture what it’s like to consistently live by Jesus’ words, then the old quotation from G.K. Chesterton rings true. “It’s not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting,” he said, “but found hard and not tried.”[1] For years, I’ve struggled with what such an ethic means for situations as public and far-reaching as the oppression of one weak group by a more powerful one, and for situations as private and personal as how to react when someone bullies our children. The distinction I make, imperfect as it may be, is that Jesus’ words should never be used as an excuse to dodge our responsibility to stand up for the just treatment of others. I don’t believe Jesus wants the bad guys to win, or wants us to stand by passively when something evil is happening to our neighbor, friend, or family member. I think Jesus’s words point to a higher way that, when followed, must be chosen freely for ourselves. Turning the other cheek is abusive when you make someone else do it, but it can be a powerful witness when you choose that path for yourself. Giving your cloak as well as your coat is oppressive if you order someone else to do it, but can be a potentially world-transforming act of love when you freely choose that path for yourself. What difficult teachings these are to hear, and how rare it is to successfully practice them!

Part of our problem with digesting this text has to do with the fact that Jesus seems to be calling us to do the impossible. These tough teachings all build toward the final sentence: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” How is it even possible for us to be perfect?

Sometimes, talking about the Bible in its original languages is just a preacher trying to look smart. In the case of this text, a little Greek really does make a big difference.  The word translated “perfect” in the NRSV is derived from the Greek word telos, meaning “goal,” “end,” or “purpose.” The meaning of the word has less to do with being infinitely knowledgeable, or eternally correct, or some other divine attribute we could never hope to imitate. It has more to do with living out the purpose for which we are intended, actualizing the potential with which we’ve been created, as God always reflects God’s own purpose and potential.  Presbyterian minister Eugene Peterson puts it this way in his Bible translation The Message: “You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity.”[2]

This week, Joy Myers shared with me a number of new children’s books purchased for our library, and one of them caught my eye: Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change. One story about change centers on Farliz Calle, who grew up in Apartado, Columbia, a city ravaged at that time by fighting between the government and drug gangs. Many young teenagers joined guerilla armies, sometimes because they sought revenge for the death of a family member or friend, sometimes because they were kidnapped and forced into service. As a girl, Farliz witnessed the beheading of a friend.[3] Farliz dared to dream that things could be different. She helped organize an exhibit of writing and artwork to greet a United Nations representative, and thousands participated. As time went by, Farliz found herself in the center of a Children’s Peace Movement that persuaded 2.7-million young people to vote for the right to survival, peace, family, and freedom from abuse. At a peace conference, Farliz summed up the goals of the Children’s Peace Movement: We request to all the adults of all the countries in the world: Peace in the world. Peace in our countries. Peace in our homes. Peace in our hearts.[4]

 Things aren’t perfect in Columbia, but I’m told that today violence is significantly less than it was in the 1990s. There may be many reasons for that decrease. But I suspect that people like Farliz have made a difference, people who understand that there’s a better way than the old ethic, “An eye for an eye,” people who know that something powerfully transformative can happen when grace counters revenge. If a teenager in a war-torn country can make a difference, then so can we. As Jesus says, “You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity.”


[1] As noted by Andrew Greeley, http://www.agreeley.com, homily for 18 Feb. 1996, accessed 20 Feb. 2014.

[2] David Lose discusses the meaning of telos in his blog entry entitled “Perfect,” www.workpreacher.org, 13 Feb. 2011, accessed on 18 Feb. 2014.

[3] http://moralheroes.org/farlis-calle, accessed 21 February 2014.

[4] “When Small Voices Unite,” pp. 39-43 in Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change, by Garth Sundem. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing, 2010.

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~ by JohnH1962 on February 23, 2014.

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