Rev. Elizabeth Michael
Preached at University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, NC
February 19, 2017
My second week of seminary, I was sitting in the school cafeteria, my head awash with the declensions of Greek nouns, and my heart full of everything that was So Beautiful and So Inspiring about seminary and all the people there who loved God So Much. Most of us sitting at the table enjoyed flexing our nascent theological muscles, and so conversation was predictably serious; we spoke with Deep Conviction and Assurance of our own profundity. We ate those airy Belgian waffles you make by ladling batter full of empty calories into a communal waffle iron, and we talked about images of the Triune God and the ever-expanding power of civil religion, and at some point, we found ourselves on the topic of this passage from Matthew. Several of us marveled at the nature of a God who knew long before Ghandi said it that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind; we talked about what a beautiful thing it was to counter the world’s propensity toward violence with the fresh and tender cheeks of those who were committed to living in a different way.
There was a woman at our table who was a generation older than most of us; she had spent her whole adult life living and working in Latin America, in solidarity with those who lived under the weight of an oppressive system that kept them poor and politically powerless. Perhaps because of the significant difference in life experience, she rarely joined the conversation, but I remember that as we began talking about these words of Jesus that day, she turned her face toward us with unmistakable fervor in her eyes. She broke into our musings and brought all her friends from Latin America with her in one pointed question: “What do you say to people who have turned the other cheek so many times that they’ve been beaten to a pulp?” All the sudden, my theology felt as airy and empty as the waffle on the plate in front of me.
There is a danger in preaching and interpreting these words of Jesus: a danger that we will read them in such a way that we learn from them not how to be disciples, but how to be doormats. A danger that the woman whose partner beats her may hear Jesus commanding her to turn her already lacerated cheek for still another strike; or that the poverty-stricken victim of an unjust lawsuit may hear Jesus say he should voluntarily make himself still more poor. A danger that those committed to working against evil, for the good of all of God’s children, may read “do not resist an evildoer” and deduce that Jesus would have them be quiet and complacent in the face of forces that defy God’s righteousness and love.
The theologian Walter Wink is helpful here. He says there is a temptation to consider only two options for action in the face of evil: either we respond to evil in kind, becoming the very thing we seek to oppose, or we remain passive in the face of it, resigning ourselves to its power. But Wink says there is a third way and that it is the way Jesus offers in this passage: “Jesus’ examples,” he says, “go beyond both inaction and overreaction to a new response, fired in the crucible of love, that promises to liberate the oppressed from evil even as it frees the oppressor from sin.”
This third way is the only way that is faithful both to the scriptures and to the question left hanging in the air at my seminary breakfast table. And it is the test by which we can measure our response to broken relationships. True, Christ-like love offers freedom both to the hurting and to those inflicting the hurt; any response which does not offer freedom to both parties is not real love.
The civil rights movement that sought to overturn segregation in the 1960s knew this truth well. In a sermon on this passage, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached about how our liberation is bound up in one another. “Hate scars the soul and distorts the personality…[W]e too often think of what it does to the person hated. This is understandable, for hate brings irreparable damage to its victims. We have seen its ugly consequences in the ignominious deaths brought to six million Jews by a hate-obsessed madman named Hitler, in the unspeakable violence inflicted upon Negroes by bloodthirsty mobs, in the dark horrors of war, and in the terrible indignities and injustices perpetrated against millions of God’s children by unconscionable oppressors. But there is another side which we must never overlook. Hate is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.”
And as proof that his life had been fired in the crucible of love, Dr. King then began to speak to those who most hated him: “One day, we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process.”
Nine years after Dr. King preached that sermon, seventeen years after Brown vs. Board of Education declared school segregation unconstitutional, the schools in Durham, North Carolina were still struggling to integrate. With hopes of smoothing the transition, a city councilman arranged for a series of community meetings, and went looking for appropriate leadership. The book Best of Enemies, which many of you may know, tells the rest of the story. The councilman recruited Ann Atwater, a pillar of the black community, who had honed her community organizing skills by working on housing policy and tenants’ rights. And as Ann’s co-chair, the councilman recruited C.P. Ellis, the Exalted Grand Cyclops of the Durham Ku Klux Klan at the time. Ann and C.P. had enough experience of each other to know the councilman had recruited two enemies to lead the community forward on school desegregation. In fact, the night of the first meeting, the two pulled into the parking lot at the same time, and C.P. called Ann over to his car. He told her he had something to show her, popped open his trunk, and unwrapped his .32 caliber revolver. Ann took one look at the gun, turned to C.P., and said, “C.P., that may be your God, but this is mine.” And she pulled out the heavy Bible she’d tucked under her arm. “We’ll see which one is stronger.”
Judge for yourself which power turned out to be stronger. Ann and C.P. sat at meeting table together night after night and gradually found some common ground. Their children were among the poorest in the community, and they shared frustration at not having the opportunities that were made available to middle class children. Amid this long effort to bring quality education to all children, these two enemies forged a friendship, and at the end of the meetings, C.P. gave up his Klan membership. The friendship came at a cost—people from each of their communities accused them of conspiring with the enemy; they got threatening phone calls at home. But when C.P. Ellis died in 2005, Ann was in the front row at his funeral. And when an unsuspecting funeral attendant approached her to let her know that those seats were reserved for family, she responded, “C.P. was my brother.”
That sermon of Dr. King’s is the same one that includes his famous lines, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that…Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
Here’s how light drove out darkness in Billings, Montana, back in 1993. Early that year, hate literature targeting Jews, African Americans, and Native Americans began circulating around the community. Racist groups like the KKK had become a visible presence in the community; white supremacists declared the state one of those comprising their Aryan homeland. Four days before the Jewish high holy days, tombstones were overturned in the Jewish cemetery, and on Rosh Hashanah, a bomb threat was made to the temple. A Jewish woman, Tammie Schnitzer, and a Christian woman, Margaret McDonald, were able to channel some of the community’s energy into speaking out against the hate, but tensions ran high, and many of Billings’ citizens lived in fear. With December came the celebration of Chanukah, and one night Tammie’s son Isaac, age 5, was watching television with his babysitter in the living room when a brick came flying through his bedroom window, enveloping in shards of glass the menorah that had been perched in the windowsill.
When word spread through the community that a child’s safety had been jeopardized by the prejudice and fear, Margaret McDonald called her pastor. “What would you think,” she asked, “if we had the children draw menorahs in Sunday school? If we [photocopied] as many pictures of the menorah as we could? If we told people to put them up in their windows?” So that weekend Sunday School children carried home crayon drawings of the Jewish lamp stand, and, one by one, windows in Christian homes in Billings were filled with pictures of menorahs. The local paper published a full-page menorah for subscribers to cut out and tape up. When Chanukah services were held in the tiny Jewish synagogue, dozens of Christians came to worship, and others stood outside to protect the worshiping community.
The acts of nonviolence were not without consequences. The glass panes of the Methodist church, which featured paper menorahs, were smashed; someone fired shots into a Catholic school that had joined the effort; parents called the police department in fear. But the menorahs multiplied; tens turned into hundreds turned into 6000 pictures of light blazing from windows across Billings. And before long, the racist groups disappeared, and with them, the acts of vandalism and the hate literature.
I thought of the people of Billings when I recently reread these words of Madeline L’Engle, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
I wonder what it looks like to adorn our windows with such a lovely light. To make our hearts and our homes beacons which broadcast beloved community, to summon forth solidarity with the oppressed and to invite the oppressor into a new way of living. To offer to our community a light that is so beautiful that all who walk by this church will want with all their hearts to know the source of it.
I suspect that if we choose to move more and more into this light, that our effort that will come with some pain and carry some risk. Jesus speaks these words about nonviolent resistance and loving enemies not to the masses, but to those already committed to following him. I’d forgotten this, until we started reading the Sermon on the Mount this winter: at the very beginning of Matthew 5, Jesus looks at the crowds, and then ascends to the top of the mountain, where only his disciples follow him. The Sermon on the Mount is advanced discipleship, and to be fired in the crucible of love is to suffer along the way. Just ask the disciples on that mountain; ask Ann Atwater, CP Ellis, and Dr. King; ask the residents of Billings, Montana. Ask the one they all strive to follow, who in just a matter of days now in our liturgical year will turn his face toward Jerusalem, where a cross looms in the distance. But beyond that cross is a light so brilliant that every light we’ve ever known pales in comparison. Isn’t it lovely? Don’t you want, with all your heart, to draw closer still?
 Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, Doubleday, 1999, p. 110-1.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” in Strength to Love, Fortress Press, 1994.
 The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South by Osha Gray Davidson, UNC Press, 2007.
 Story told by Janice I. Cohn, “Christmas Menorahs: The Power of Courage and Goodness,” accessed https://www.niot.org/blog/christmasmenorahs on 2.18.17, and by journalist Claire Safran, accessed 2.18.17 https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/not-our-town-0,
 Madeline L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Macmillan: 1995, p. 122.