America is not unfamiliar with social upheavals. As far back as our own revolution, Americans have witnessed an unending series of incidents brought about by the illusive and taxing pursuit of some of the most powerful ideals of the human experience. Americans have fought other nations and each other over almost sacred concepts like liberty, justice, equality and freedom. These concepts are so mighty in our collective psyche, that we have killed our kindred and our kind and willingly given “the last full measure of devotion” of ourselves sin our attempts to ascend to “higher ground.” Some of our actions in pursuit of the collective good are noble. Sadly, on tragic days, our search for truth and beauty finds us trodding an ignoble path, characterized by shameful actions and pitiful expressions of our frustration with the failures of our society.
In light of the aforementioned history, the chaos that now characterizes Ferguson, Missouri is nothing new. We’ve had Tea Parties, tar and feathering mobs, lynchings, a War Between the States, and a string of riots between various groups over the years, including a riot in 1930 between Filipino-American farm workers and local anti-immigration townspeople in Watsonville, California in 1930 over labor issues in agriculture! In my lifetime, there have been riots in the 1960’s in reaction to Dr. King’s death. Riots over compulsory school bussing in Boston in the 70’s, and there were riots in California after the Rodney King Trial. There was great debate and heightened racial tension in the nation after the O.J. Simpson trial’s conclusion and we now have national tension and rioting revolving around the Grand Jury decision surrounding the Michael Brown shooting incident. Unless we are willingly partaking in revisionist history, it is clear that our American experience has always been punctuated with episodes of civil unrest – sometimes violent, sometimes not but always a bit scary.
Among the questions that persist in all of the discussions I’ve seen since the Brown situation emerged on the national landscape are, “What do we do?” “How do we deal with this?” “Is there any hope?” As a Jesus follower, I believe the answers to these questions are straightforward, yet extremely difficult to apply in real life, real time. The solutions are not difficult to apply because of a lack of opportunity to put one’s money where one’s mouth is, but they are difficult because of the high personal costs of doing “the right things.” The answers to bring real progress to our ongoing national conversation on race require costly, hard core commitments to some of the simplest to understand, yet most difficult to carry out life principles outlined by Jesus. I’ll cite two principles for us to consider in how we can make a difference in times of upheaval and controversy. First, Jesus calls us to love our enemies!
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
As a pastor, I can tell you that one can effortlessly formulate a “rip roaring, feel good” sermon on this passage a feel great about one’s grasp of the content. I can attest to the fact that one can feel downright “Christ-like”, warm and fuzzy down to one’s toes until someone curses you to your face. Or, someone lets you know verbally and literally that they hate you. Or, someone uses their power, position and resources to persecute you and make your life a living hell. Those realities make the passage come alive with the costs of what Jesus is calling us to do when we’re punched in the gut in a way that messes up our day, disrupts our harmony of life and wrecks our hopes and dreams.
Jesus is calling us to a radical way of life to radically address the mountainous challenges of our times. What do I mean by radical? I mean that the Lord is calling us to obey our spiritual training, not our natural instincts. What distinguishes heroic effort from cowardly failure? Is it superhuman ability? Is it uncommon courage? Is it exceptional aptitude? More often than not, it is unwavering commitment to the truth of one’s training and the ability to adhere to that training and aggressively apply it when one’s natural inclinations would lead one to act otherwise. It is the commitment to not walk by the person in need in the spirit of the Good Samaritan. It is the dogged tenacity to pray for those who are killing you, like the first martyr Stephen. It is the iron clad grip on the ways of Jesus, emulating his example of complete love and forgiveness, as he prayed for those who were killing Him as He was being crucified saying, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” It is the commitment Jesus had to see the opportunity to transform and enemy to a friend when one who has mocked you sees the light, as did the thief on the cross, leading Jesus to stop dying and minister to his new ally, assuring him of a home in Glory in the midst of His own anguish. It is the ability to see past one’s own pain and suffering to love and serve others. Jesus managed to care for his mother and follower John even as He suffered because His mission centered on the needs of others, not His own comfort and relief. For the Christ follower who feels the weight of oppression, persecution and injustice, we must speak the truth in love but always IN LOVE. We must persevere for justice but always loving and praying for our enemies – especially if they’re our friends! We must recognize that withstanding the pounding of evil doers in the strength of holiness doesn’t make one a chump, it crystalizes one’s identity as a righteous warrior poised to shake up the world for the good. Jesus never stopped speaking the truth. He also never adopted the tactics of His enemies. Our actions must solidify our identity as Jesus’ people never relenting in speaking and doing what is right – even if we get hurt.
On the other hand, if you find yourself in a position of strength and control in these stormy times, what should you do? Micah 6:8 has some excellent marching orders: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” DO justice. In all one’s undertakings and interactions. Be the person who can be counted on not to “take a side” but to speak and act for what is just. Be the person who has a heart of compassion and mercy when others are looking for ropes. Remember God’s mercy towards you and walk in the humility of that knowledge. Be the change you’re seeking to experience.
The illusive healing we all seek will also call for a willingness to cross cultural, linguistic, racial and social barriers over and over again. I have spent the majority of my ministry time intentionally reaching across barriers, not only seeking to establish dialogue, but seeking to build a life together with people different from me. I have been and continue to be hurt in the process. I say again, I have been and CONTINUE TO BE hurt in the process. I’m no one’s fool and I am very realistic about my calling. But if I give up now, what good will all the effort have been? I’ve come to the conclusion that true faith calls one to experience true pain and to die figuratively every day to one’s own comfort and could even call one to one’s literal, physical demise. Yet, the words of Jesus compel me to press on: “What profit is it to a man, to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” The pursuit of comfort has many benefits, but missing from among them is “a satisfying grasp of eternal purpose, a peace of heart and a peace of mind.”
Why the rant? Because tough times call for tougher resolve. Because riots will happen again and we can’t spend our time wondering if we’re resolved to press on for a better nation and a better world every time our cities burn or react in shock when they do. The fight is a life-long and our commitment must be life-long as well, with a call to the next generation to pick up where we leave off. I may not have all of the answers for every specific situation that arises, but Jesus has provided me with what is necessary to stand in faith, courage and effectiveness, making a difference however I can, wherever I can until my time is up. To this end I am committed. Hard Core! All the way! Is anybody with me?
With all my love, your friend and brother,