Sunday, 23 February 2014

Revenge and Perfection





Mahatma Gandhi is said to have read from the Sermon on the Mount regularly. Much of what he did seems to have been inspired by the words of Jesus- such as his commitment to non-violent resistance. Gandhi is often quoted as saying, “I know of no one who has done more for humanity than Jesus. In fact, there is nothing wrong with Christianity ... The trouble is with you Christians. You do not begin to live up to your own teachings.” I have found out that we don’t actually know if Gandhi said this, but the power of those words still sting regardless of who said them. Gandhi could have said them due to his experience with British colonialism in India and in South Africa.  But, those words could have been spoken by a variety of people from a variety of different times.
It’s not difficult to come up with a list of historical events where Christians have not acted very Christ-like. The Crusades, the treatment of aboriginal peoples under the colonizing influences of nations that considered themselves Christians, Christians who supported Nazism. But, it’s not just historical examples that make these words sting. If it was just what those “bad Christians” did way back then, we could rest comfortably. Those words sting because we know what it is like to live our lives and then hear Jesus’ words,
“Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.  Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. … Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”
We quickly become aware of the distance between our lives and the words of Jesus. The quote attributed to Gandhi about how Christians don’t seem to follow the teachings of Christ stings because it’s true of each one of our lives.
The author G.K. Chesterton said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”  And C.S. Lewis said, “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive”.  There is a distance between the beauty and truth we see in Jesus’ words and our willingness to follow his teaching. We are afraid of getting taken advantage of. Or, we are worried someone who has wronged us will get away with their actions. So we feel the need to take revenge, either by spitting poisonous hurtful words, or maybe even physically attacking someone we think has wronged us. Or, maybe we are more subtle, we might find quieter subtler ways to sabotage them. Maybe it is so subtle that it just becomes a quiet anger we refuse to let go of and an unwillingness to do anything that might help them. We find Jesus’ words to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek to be impractical. Even if we find them beautiful, we still find them unrealistic. We would rather get revenge on those who harm us; fight against the wrong that is done to us; do only what is required of us; and give only to our family and friends.
            The Law “An eye for an eye” was a way of taming vengeance. If someone gouged out your eye, it would be tempting to gouge out both of the other person’s, or even to kill them. The law of an “eye for an eye” meant that there had to be a level of equality to vengeance. One eye for one eye. While the old law desired to lessen the effects of sin, Jesus desires to transform the heart and remove vengeance entirely, not just tame it. So instead he urges us to “turn the other cheek” when struck. Everything in us resists this teaching. We feel this teaching is just too hard to follow. Part of us thinks this teaching will create a world ruled by bullies. But, we also have to consider what kind of a world is created by hating our enemies. What kind of a world do we create when we stand in front of each other and trade blows back and forth? I think we see a hint of that kind of a world when we look at the relationship between Israel and Palestine. If that is how it goes for those who hate their enemies and return violence with violence, then perhaps Jesus is showing us a better way.  When we strike back the attacker is likely to feel justified in striking more blows. But, if we refuse to return violence the attacker may be forced to consider their actions and what kind of a person they are. That is no guarantee, but the possibility for transformation is there in a way it is not when revenge is the reaction to harm.  So he teaches that the person who lives with a heart ruled by God’s love will remain vulnerable and would rather be personally injured than injure another.
Like the rest of the Sermon on the Mount it is important to remember that Jesus is after the transformation of our hearts, he is not setting down laws to follow. He is describing the character of a person who is enfolded in the Kingdom of God.  That kind of person will remain vulnerable in their relationships, even if it means personal harm. That kind of a person will try to help, even if it means personal loss. That kind of a person is willing to help in ways that go beyond what was asked and required of them, if possible. That kind of a person is willing to give even to those who aren’t friends or family. As people of the Kingdom these kinds of actions won’t be hard. They will flow from us naturally and easily because we have been shaped into God’s people, and because we realize how life goes for those whose lives are filled with hate, vengeance, and selfishness.
Jesus has a particular future in mind for us. This is why he tells us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” C.S. Lewis says this in his book Mere Christianity:
“I find a good many people have been bothered by…our Lord’s words, 'Be ye perfect.' Some people seem to think this means 'Unless you are perfect, I will not help you;' and as we cannot be perfect, then, if He meant that, our position is hopeless. But I do not think He did mean that. I think He meant 'The only help I will give is help to become perfect. You may want something less: but I will give you nothing less.' Let me explain. When I was a child I often had toothache, and I knew that if I went to my mother she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let me get to sleep. But I did not go to my mother—at least, not till the pain became very bad. And the reason I did not go was this. I did not doubt she would give me the aspirin; but I knew she would also do something else. I knew she would take me to the dentist next morning. I could not get what I wanted out of her without getting something more, which I did not want. I wanted immediate relief from pain: but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists: I knew they started fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie, if you gave them an inch they took an ell. Now, if I may put it that way, Our Lord is like the dentists. If you give Him an inch, He will take an ell. Dozens of people go to Him to be cured of some one particular sin which they are ashamed of … or which is obviously spoiling daily life (like bad temper or drunkenness). Well, He will cure it all right: but He will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment.”“The command 'Be ye perfect' is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.”
A common Christian reaction to the quote attributed to Gandhi is to say “Jesus is perfect, not me, I’m just a forgiven sinner”. There is truth and humility in that statement, but we need to be careful we don’t dismiss the transformation God desires for us. We are not there yet, but God is working in each one of our lives to teach us to be more like Christ. We can resist him and slow down or stop that process, but that is God’s goal for us. He wants to restore the image of God in us.   

(I have been reading Dallas Willard's Divine Conspiracy. I highly recommend his exposition of the sermon of the mount)




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