“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I am a Cleveland Indians fan. I follow the Indians, not because they their winning record (obviously), but by accident of geography. I grew up in Northeast Ohio, went to high school in Akron, and my first job after college sent me to Cleveland for ten years. As a Cleveland fan, Boston is considered to be an evil empire second only to the New York Yankees. This week’s attack on the Boston Marathon (a very different thing than baseball) stirs in me the sort of protective feelings that siblings have for one another. Feelings such as, “Nobody messes with my brother but me.” We don’t yet know who committed this horror, but the reaction of most Americans is, like mine, anger. This is, I think, a natural and instinctive reaction, but a dangerous one as well. As Christians, we need to carefully gauge our reactions so that our emotions do not draw us away from the path we have been called to follow.
Anger is not evil. Nor is it wrong or sinful to feel angry, but how we allow anger to motivate us, in what direction we allow anger to push us, may well be. Anger over the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into a war with Japan. Anger over the attacks of September 11th provided support for wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. These may, or may not, be proper if we judge them as a means of seeking justice or resisting aggression, but we cross a line when we allow hatred and revenge to become our motivation.
As a follower of Jesus Christ, I do not believe, as some of my friends do, that we have been called to a path of non-violence or pacifism. I do believe, however, that we have been called to a different path, a direction different than our instincts alone would lead us.
In Leviticus, a book often noted for its violence, we find a warning that revenge will lead us astray.
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19:18
But what if the perpetrator of this horror is not “among our people” but someone else? Well, Jesus had something to say about that…
27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
This is hard. Jesus wants us to do good to people who insist upon doing us harm. Why? Every fiber of my being wants to hit back when I am hit, to hurt the guy that hurts my family and to put the smack-down whoever did this thing to the people of Boston. But that isn’t what Jesus had in mind. Our calling is to a different path. If you read the rest of the passage I just interrupted we get a few more details…
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. – Luke 6:27-28
This is hard. Why should we do good to those who seek to harm us? Why should we be merciful? Because we are called to follow a different path, a radical path, a path that calls us to love not only those who love us back, but everyone, whether they love us or not. We are called to love the way that Jesus loved.
Paul echoes these same feelings in his letter to the church in Rome and summarizes it by saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)
I don’t think that any of this means that we cannot protect ourselves or seek justice, only that we must guard ourselves from seeking revenge and retribution instead of justice, and being driven by hatred and vengeance instead of mercy and compassion.
This isn’t the place our instincts would lead us.
We are called to follow a different path.