It’s not often that you’ll find me sitting in church these days. Due to my hectic travel schedule, the 8:30am service time and my increasing ambivalence about institutional Christianity, my attendance record is rather spotty. But last Sunday there I was, two rows from the back, waiting for the service to start. Normally, it would have been a great time to catch up on email. But I figured the elderly ladies sitting nearby would frown at that. So I picked up a Bible instead. It opened to the Gospel of Luke, where I read the following:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 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. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 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. 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. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:27-36).
This is one of my favorite Bible passages–probably because it is also the most challenging. It flies right in the face of our deepest instincts when threatened by evil. If aliens were to observe human culture today, they would likely conclude that we live by the following code instead:
Love your neighbor–but keep a close eye on him–and hate your enemies, do violence to those who hate you, curse those who curse you and ask God to damn those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, cut off his hand. If someone takes your coat, burn down his house. Don’t give to everyone who asks–make sure they deserve your help first. And if anyone takes what belongs to you, bomb them back into the stone age. Better yet, don’t wait until they take your stuff. Shock and awe them into oblivion before it’s too late.
I don’t believe we live by this second code because we are inherently evil. I just think the world is a violent, scary place. So it’s only natural we would want to protect ourselves–preemptively striking those who appear to be a threat, if need be. However, in the midst of our fear-driven lives, what we tend to forget is that violent behavior motivated by fear can only lead to one thing–escalation. Consider this conversation from the closing scene of Batman Begins:
Batman: We can bring Gotham back.
Lieutenant Gordon: What about escalation?
Gordon: We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor-piercing rounds.
Gordon: And you’re wearing a mask, jump off of rooftops. Take this guy… Armed robbery, double-homicide, got a taste for the theatrical, like you. Leaves a calling card. (Hands the Joker’s calling card to Batman.)
Batman: I’ll look into it.
The next film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight, reveals Gordon’s wisdom and Batman’s naivety. Batman is confident he’s using the right tool–violence–to control crime. He just hasn’t applied it to the appropriate degree. When the Joker shows up, he demonstrates not only the foolishness of Batman’s thinking but also the kind of person Batman must become if he’s truly going to win the arms race against evil. The Joker knows the only way Batman can defeat him is to become like him; and he’s über-confident that Batman doesn’t have the guts.
I think we live under a similar delusion. We think we really can win this precarious game of one-upmanship against our enemies–never stopping to consider what kind of people that will require us to become. At what point do the violent acts done in the name of “civilization” cause us to ask whether a civilization whose existence demands such bloodshed is worth protecting? At what point do we realize we are engaged in nothing more than “mutually assured damnation”?
Worse, we project this same logic onto God. We may lose the arms race in the end, but God has infinite resources, so we believe God will bring about the final, ultimate, violent victory over our enemies in hell. This seems to fit perfectly with the “code of human civilization” I outlined above. Not so much with the teaching of Jesus. Because if this is the way God finally deals with evil, I have some questions for God, namely, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.”
Rather than grant divine sanction to our fear-driven survival instincts, I believe Jesus is describing the only possible way out of this vicious cycle. And it’s not by delivering the final, knockout blow against our enemies. It’s by absorbing that blow instead. This may kill us–as it killed Jesus. But I’m confident that our refusal to play the game–our refusal to be an enemy–will eventually encourage our enemies to do the same.