“Acting Toward the Possibility”
February 20. 2022
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” ***
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee debuted in 1960 and won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961. The book takes readers to the roots of human behavior — to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred. It is considered a masterpiece of American literature.
The novel is set in the mid-1930s in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama. It is narrated by Scout Finch, a six-year-old girl who is a bit of a tomboy, and living with her lawyer father, a widower named Atticus and her ten-year-old brother Jem.
Atticus is asked to defend Tom Robinson, a Black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. Atticus takes on the case even though everyone knows he has little hope of winning. The reader sees the trial through the eyes of Scout, as gradually both she and her brother learn some valuable life lessons from their father about tolerance, empathy and understanding.
In one scene, Atticus, is sitting outside the jailhouse where Robinson is awaiting trial. A small group of men confront him. They circle Atticus on the street as he tries to reason with them. The scene escalates, with the group threatening Atticus’s life if he does not stop defending Tom.
Atticus’ children are watching and they run to protect their father. Scout diminishes the threat to Atticus by distracting one of the men who is the father of a classmate. She asks the enraged father about his son, reminding him of where he comes from, who he belongs to, and whom he influences on a daily basis. The energy is broken and the mob disperses. At least for a few moments.
The surprising point of this encounter is when the children speak ill of the man who had threatened their father. Atticus informs them that this father, like himself, is a product of what he has encountered in this world. Atticus teaches his children they should not judge the man for his behavior, but to see that turning the other cheek is the answer. In other words, they are to love him, despite his misinformed and misaligned thinking.
Atticus teaches his children that skin color, social economic station in life and educational achievement do not elevate a person above another. All are to be treated with honor. All given grace.
Today’s reading continues Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain” in which he presents a vision of life which has come as he brings the kingdom of God, a new realm into the world. Like we saw last week, life in this realm is upside down. Expected norms are radically reversed.
As Jesus teaches his disciples in the presence of a crowd that surrounds, he exhorts all to replace old qualities of behavior with those that are characteristic of the new realm under the mercy of God. Listing a bunch of plural imperatives, he describes new behaviors: Love your enemies. Pray for them. Do not judge. Forgive. Give to everyone. Lend and expect nothing in return.
Those who follow Jesus are to live as God lives, mercifully and generous beyond expectation, beyond comprehension. Those who live in this realm as “sinners” do very well indeed: they love, lend, and do good. All these are examples of mercy in action.
In our own day, imagine what this would be like for the world? For God’s people, loving, lending, and doing good are all about generosity that does not draw boundaries based on the recipients’ responses. It is good to keep in mind that love in this passage is about willing good for another and acting on that will.
I confess to being perplexed about these practices for today. On the one hand, it is easy to say why Christians sometimes say that these principles, such as turning the other cheek, are unrealistic in such a violent world. The violent often run over those who do not retaliate. On the other hand, meeting violence with violence increases violence.
At the same time, sometimes the only thing that limits violence is a controlled violent response. Those who choose this route should never accompany it with flag waving and tv interviews, but should proceed with mourning, and with an eye for opportunities to exercise mercy.
Dr. Chuck Sandstrom was a seasoned organizational leader and motivational speaker when he was brutally assaulted by a stranger in Akron Ohio. In spite of a life-altering brain injury, and with the support of his wife Auburn, Chuck has exercised mercy, reaching out to the man who assaulted him and actively engaging in assisting his young family.
In 2009 Chuck was having an unregistered car towed from a rental property he owned when he was confronted by the drunk and angry owner of the car, a man named Michael Ayres. Later he would learn Ayres had a history of alcoholism, violence and incarceration.
Punched in the face, Chuck’s head hit a brick wall breaking his nose and knocking out teeth. He almost suffocated on his own blood and was in a coma for nearly 6 weeks. When he awakened, recovery was slow and difficult.
When he regained his speech, Chuck and his wife Auburn reached out to his assailant’s family. They were struggling and feeling shunned because of the press coverage. Ayres two children were having a hard time in school. Michael himself was in hiding, but finally arrested.
Knowing a court sentence would not bring them healing, the Sandstroms were finding that reaching out to the Ayres family was helping them the most.
In the courtroom, there was a moment when Michael turned and looked at Chuck. Their eyes met. Later the two men would admit that all they saw in each other’s eyes was compassion.
As a result, Chuck and Auburn decided to “join the defense.” They convinced the prosecutor and the defense attorney that punishment for Michael provided no “relief” to them. Their wish was for him to have access to treatment, work, and school and to get out sooner rather than later in order to return to his children.
The Sandstroms succeeded in arguing for a significantly reduced sentence. Later, when Michael learned of Chuck’s forgiveness and mercy, he told his wife he had never had such a strange feeling. He said he felt love like never before.
In early 2011, Chuck engaged with Michael’s son who was flunking the third grade. The boy did not know the truth of why his dad was in prison. He heard it was for spitting on someone. He had cobbled together rumors and misinformation and could not work it out in his mind. At Chuck’s request, Michael explained to his son that he went to prison for hurting someone but did not tell him it was the kind man helping him make it through third grade.
Forgiveness is a way of seeing and mercy is a way of acting. Forgiving cannot change the facts about the world, but in being merciful we can change the way those facts impact us going forward.
The Sandstroms realize most people see the effect of the assault as a tragedy. But for Chuck and Auburn it created an opportunity to love more deeply. Strange as it sounds, Chuck says “I see my brain injury as a great gift. People think we are special to have forgiven this man, but trust me, my wife and I are not abnormally good people. What is true however is that the path of forgiveness can take ordinary people on an extraordinary journey[i].”
Love your enemies. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. Jesus comes into a world of sin and division and brings a new order, where expected norms are radically reversed.
When you love enemies, pray for them, lend without expecting anything in return and do to others as you wish them to do to you, you join the inbreaking of God into human history through Jesus. This new order is not just a promise for the future, but is something that can be realized, at least in part, even now.
This new order come in Jesus makes all the difference in the way we respond to other people. Loving and praying for our enemies and going the extra mile even in the face of adversity, means living in hope — and acting toward the possibility — that even the hardest parts of life can be transformed by the upside down, radically reversed nature of God in our world.
The Forgiveness Project collects and shares stories from both victims/survivors and perpetrators of crime and conflict who have rebuilt their lives following hurt and trauma.
Founded in 2004 by journalist, Marina Cantacuzino, The Forgiveness Project provides resources and experiences to help people examine and overcome their own unresolved grievances. The testimonies we collect bear witness to the resilience of the human spirit and act as a powerful antidote to narratives of hate and dehumanization, presenting alternatives to cycles of conflict, violence, crime and injustice.