Friday, August 18, 2017

The Slow, and Sometimes Frustrating, Path of Discipleship

In the aftermath of the tragic events in Charlottesville there has been a wave of criticism towards some churches and pastoral leaders who did not promptly or explicitly express the “proper” public outrage and condemnation of the white supremacists. I know priests who received highly critical, if not outright nasty, emails from parishioners. Social media has been flooded with articles, blogs, and opinions from right and left about what should or shouldn’t be said or done. More often than not, the driving factor of this controversy has been substantially colored by one’s political leaning. It is great that the internet connects us and allows the spread of information to happen in near real time, but it also compels people to give an immediate response as well. Against the advice of St. James, we become quick to speak and slow to listen.

Ultimately the challenge before us is how should a disciple of Jesus Christ respond in the face of injustice, violence, hatred, and racism? If we believe that Jesus is the Way, then how is he leading us in these turbulent times?

Unfortunately, the path of discipleship does not meet our demands for a quick fix. The way of Jesus is the way of love and that is a slow and personal process. The way of Jesus is not easy or comfortable; it calls us to die to our own selves, our own desires, our own plans and expectations.

Let’s not forget that Jesus walked the earth in a time and place of inequality, oppression, and division. Pontius Pilate and Herod ruled the land with iron fists. Tax collectors took advantage of the poor. Even the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, exploited their positions of power. Zealots were rising up and engaging in armed resistance while the Essenes withdrew from society as the forerunners of the Benedict option. We are to be imitators of Christ, so what did Jesus say and what example did he give?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?” (Matthew 5:43-48)
Let’s rephrase what Jesus said in terms that apply to us today.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You should punch a Nazi.’ But I say to you, love the racists, and pray for the skinheads, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not white supremacists do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not Antifa anarchists do the same?
 Ouch.

Maybe instead of holding anti-protests filled with screaming and signs we should simply hand out bottled water to the racists, or offer to provide lunch for them? Does that sound too radical? Is it too much to ask? I have to confess that it’s not my idea, but St. Paul’s advice, “Rather, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.” (Romans 12:20-21)

As I watched the news reports and videos of the protests and violence, and while I took in the Facebook commentaries, and as I shook my head at our President’s tweets I was convicted of one simple truth. The white nationalists and the Antifa radicals and the social commentators and our politicians were all acting out of a place of fear. Fear of losing control. Fear of the “other”. Fear of opinions and backlash. Fear of political ramifications. If you strip away the hate and anger and grandstanding, if you pull back the curtain, you find that the Great and Terrible Oz is really just a small person living in fear of what he or she cannot control.

This is why it is so important to combat hate with love. This is why Jesus pleads with us to love our enemies. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18) It’s spiritual jujutsu, using the aggressor’s force against them. A fire can only burn if you continue to feed it fuel. Love sucks the oxygen out of fear, it strips it of its power. Hate can huff and puff, but it cannot bring down the brick house of love.

Once again, consider Jesus as our example. He was certainly not blind to the social issues and injustices of his time, but his primary concern was the individual conversion of heart of the people he encountered. Whether it was Nicodemus the Pharisee (John 3:1-21), the woman at the well (John 4:4-42), Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), or the Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13), Christ’s method was maddeningly slow but deliberate. Christ resisted the temptation to segment people into groups—religious leaders, social outcasts, the “one-percenters”, the systemic oppressors. He knew that one life deeply impacted by love, could have a great impact on others.

Change in the Kingdom of God happens slowly. It doesn’t always move at the speed or direction that we want. It comes only at the expense of our very lives lived in a radical way of love.

1 comment:

melyadopt said...

Hi, Tom! Beautifully written. Tough to read. I am so far away from where Jesus wants me to be.

Thank you for writing this. I needed to hear this message on this particular day.