17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble and in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 30 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they re thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 31 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. [Romans 12:17-21, NRSV]
On this world day of peace, humanity needs no reminder that we are living in very violent times indeed. The daily news is inundated with menacing postures by war-mongering, seemingly crazy and impetuous world leaders. At the international arena, politicians of good sense struggle to keep in check the threats of a nuclear war from flaring up between the likes of USA and North Korea. At the local level, violence of all descriptions runs amok in city streets in almost every nation state. America, of course, has its uniquely insane gun-culture that contributes to a very violent and seriously unsafe society where politicians and gun-lobbyists, for personal interests, assiduously claim and defend their so-called fundamental “American human right” on gun-ownership. Such is the power of self-interests that their conscience does not seem in the least disturbed by the endless litany of insane massacres on the streets or in public gatherings, at home or in schools. Clearly more acute in America than anywhere else, the collective temperament increasingly seems defined by a cutthroat rhetoric of political extremism, where “tribal” interests increasingly feed those who are bent on defending their narrow political turf rather than the larger common good. Living in Malaysia, we are certainly not spared from this build-up of extremism, but are ever conscious of the fragility of our own society of diverse races, politics, and religions.
For the Christians, in good times and in bad, in peaceful times and in times of war, the Bible holds the light. In the face of a degraded political and civic culture, and against a culture of violence, the Bible is a repository of wisdom to guide our hearts and our actions. It leads us away from the thoughts and actions of those who poison our politics and culture. In this regard, the narratives on the betrayal and arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane [Matthew 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-52; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:2-12] are essential reading concerning Jesus’ vision of the cross upon which he would be nailed. Faced with imminent mob-violence against him, Jesus insisted on a response that is peaceful and non-violent, thus marking a poignant lesson on how he intended his behavior towards his violent crucifixion to be the epitome of a non-violent God.
The episode of Peter cutting off the right ear of Malchus offers reflections on how Jesus intends to repurpose Peter and us for peace and non-violence. The Gospel of John describes it thus:
- 10 Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. 11 Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” [John 18:10-11]
In Luke’s narrative, when Peter struck out against Malchus, cutting off his right ear, Jesus, who wanted “no more of this” (Luke 22:51), intervened at once with a stern command to Peter: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). In Galilee, his great Sermon on the Mount has prominently featured the kingdom-message of peace.
- 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. [Matthew 5:11-12]
- 21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. [Matthew 5:21-22]
- 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. [Matthew 5:38-42]
- 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so 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. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [Matthew 5:43-48]
Often, to give peace and non-violence a chance at all, somebody must embrace a spirit of sacrifice and blaze a trail for others to follow. All civil liberty movements know this well. The movement associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., is a prominent example of such a movement in contemporary history; so is the path of peace and reconciliation set in motion by Nelson Mandela. Had they not blazed a path of peace and non-violence, their dream for a peaceful and dignified existence for their people would never have come to fruition. For, as Mahatma Gandhi put it: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
Emulating Jesus in this regard, workers for peace and reconciliation around the world know that their work is painstaking and slow, and positive results often very meager. They keep at it nonetheless, rooted as they must be in the conviction that they are “Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal” through them (2 Cor. 5:20). While mad political leaders are bent on destruction, the work of Christ’s peace-ambassadors know that their work is participatory in the divine interruption sorely needed in a world ravaged by war and violence.
The betrayal and arrest of Jesus marks a point on the road to peace that begins with the difficult struggle to become a person of peace. The urge to hit back, to meet force with force, when innocent people are being killed, is one of the most difficult temptations to resist. Humanity seems infected by this deep “original” wound which manifests itself as an urge to “respond in kind” to violence and oppression. We seem so definitively wired for retaliation instead of turning the other cheek. Perhaps this is where Jesus calls those “blessed” who appreciate that the moment we begin to do violence, the practice of love summoned by God is all but abandoned and rationality rejected. To be sure, the slaughter of the innocents in the world is always heart rending, but God chooses what is weak in the world to overcome the strong. Jesus on the cross shows us how God’s strength is perfected in weakness. In The Gospel of Life, John Paul II wrote: “Life, especially human life, belongs to God; whoever attacks human life attacks God’s very self.”
At a prayer vigil for peace on 7 September 2013, while the Americans were posturing to invade Syria, Pope Francis renounced our abilities “to sharpen our ideas to justify our actions, to perfect our weapons, and to let our conscience fall asleep”. When world leaders speak the language of violence and war – the language of death – sowing destruction, pain, and death becomes a normality in our lives. Pointing to the Cross of Christ as the ultimate refutation of violence, and as a solution to humanity’s problems, the Pope presents God’s reply:
- “Violence is not answered with violence, death is not answered with the language of death. In the silence of the Cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue, and peace is spoken.”
At the root of it all, lies the struggle to be a person of peace. This is the “deeper war” Pope Francis spoke about on the morning after the prayer vigil. It is the war against the evil within each person. It takes a strong and brave decision to renounce evil and its seductions, and to choose good, fully prepared to pay personally. That is what Jesus meant when he called his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him. We cannot fight wars, if we are not capable of resisting violence in all its forms – this war against evil deep within us.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, February 2018. All rights reserved.
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