Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage (Matthew 5:17-48) transports me to mid 1980s America, where anti-government rhetoric was heating up in politics and the trash talk genre was emerging in the media. The Reagan administration was not only successful in de-regulating gun purchases, making semi-automatic weapons more accessible, they also succeeded in de-funding mental health, making services to the mentally ill less accessible. The left was royally pissed at our nation’s support of terrorism and torture in Latin America, while the right pointed to paintings like “Piss Christ” to stir up the culture wars. It was a decade that saw the beginnings of road rage, a growing skinhead movement, and the acceleration of gang violence in our cities. The toxic air made it difficult to breathe hope, but ironically the 80s became one of the most inspiring periods of my life. It was during this time that Kim and I joined a small group at our church, called the Crescent Hill Peacemakers, led by Glen Stassen. Glen is an ethicist who had just published a booked called Journey Into Peacemaking, outlining a process that included an inward journey (reflection) and an outward journey (action) in following the Prince of Peace. While the rest of the outraged world was ranting and raving and breeding an ever-growing violent and vitriolic culture, Glen was constantly changing the conversation toward the things that would actually lead to peace. Glen had this way of sharing story after story, week after week, about real people who had overcome violence and overthrown dictators and overwhelmed the forces of injustice, all through the power of nonviolent direct action. Following these stories, we would bring up issues and conflicts we cared about and share ideas for what Jesus’ nonviolent active love would look like. Let’s try this. . . no that would never work because. . . what about this. . . maybe, but maybe not. . . well, I’ve got an idea that sounds crazy. . . wow, that’s perfect! Let’s try it!
When I read the Sermon on the Mount, I see Jesus playing Glen Stassen’s role, leading a small group of peacemakers, praying and reflecting and developing strategies and tactics and telling stories that inspire the followers to keep the faith and continue the work. Jesus was dealing with a toxic atmosphere of his own – people were royally riled at the Roman occupation, they struggled over conflicts with neighbors, they were dealing with divorce and family breakdown. Zealots and other angry insurrectionists were carrying concealed weapons in hopes of an opportunity to assassinate a public figure. I’d like to think the recorded teaching here in Matthew’s gospel, ending with Jesus’ call to be perfect, is the distilled version of a long series of meetings Jesus had with his followers as they talked about the various issues and conflicts they cared about and faced on a daily basis. Someone would come up with an idea of how to respond; it would get rejected, someone else, another rejection, and then someone would light up and say something like, hey, what if when they hit us on the right cheek, we turn and show them the left cheek as well – you know, that would bring some dignity into the picture, catch them off guard, they wouldn’t know what to do, it could transform the whole relationship – and the rest of the group would respond in unison – wow, that’s perfect! Let’s try it! As I learned in peacemaker group, Jesus was all about discovering and employing these kind of perfect initiatives for transformation, and that’s the kind of perfect peacemaking he calls us to.
The gunning down of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others reminds us that we are living in a time not so different from the 80s or the time of Jesus. The atmosphere is toxic with trash talk, while mental health services are as concealed as the weapons whacked out people are packing. In this current version of vitriol and violence, we need to employ Glen’s strategy, which is to say Jesus’ strategy, more than ever. We need to shift the conversation and breathe clean air into the poisoned atmosphere by telling story after story, week after week, of real people who have used transforming initiatives to overcome violence and overwhelm injustice. I hope to be a part of that new conversation. It’s why I teach 3rd-5th grade Sunday School. I look forward to the day when the kids are trying to figure out a strategy for how Jesus would deal with the bullies at their school, and after several unsuccessful suggestions from members of the group, one of them lights up and shares a crazy idea, and the rest of the group responds in unison, wow, that’s perfect! Let’s try it!
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.