Warm-Up: Matthew 5:38-47
Not sure if you’ve watched the news lately, read the paper, or even spent more than 4 seconds on social media, but there is a lot of talk about racism, bigotry, and other forms of hate these days.
I tend to avoid the buzzy political/cultural topics on this site because I want the content on here to be timeless and relatable for as many people as possible. Some issues, however, are timeless themselves and unfortunately hatred is one of those issues.
Not only that, but I’m also working through a series on How to be a Light to the World. The focus is on the Sermon on the Mount, and this week I’m supposed to write about Matthew 5:38-47. It’s a timely passage given the recent events – this time it was the protests and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Unfortunately it will probably be timely in a couple weeks because of another event, as history has shown no shortage of hate amongst people.
I want to be clear from the start – hatred of others (in the form of racism or anything else) is wrong. I think most people who believe the Bible agree with that idea. The real challenge, and what I want to write about, is how we respond to hatred in a Biblical way that honors God and causes change in our culture.
The right response to hate is so simple it could be a bumper sticker, but the implications are not easy. It might sound cheesy and cliché, but as we dive into this text you’ll see that the response is actually revolutionary and the only way to cause change. The answer to hate, of course, is love.
While concepts like “love is the answer” or “God is love” may seem cliché today, it hasn’t always been the case. I would argue that the Sermon on the Mount was a turning point in Western thinking.
The most dominant religion was the polytheism practiced by the Greeks and Romans. If you read or study the stories of Greek mythology, you quickly realize they didn’t demonstrate love very well. Their core value wasn’t love, but power. They sought to dominate each other, and the tales of these gods are filled with violence, treachery, rape, and the like.
But then, a Jewish carpenter from a small town comes along and offers a different teaching. “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.“
I imagine many in the crowd thought Jesus was nuts, and some were even offended. But Jesus didn’t just teach this idea, he lived it and then died for it by suffering on the cross without a hint of retaliation. This was in total opposition to the cultural idea of what gods were supposed to do.
The Right Cheek
Earlier this summer I heard Dr. Julius Kim give one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard, and it happened to be on these verses. If you really want to understand the cultural context of Matthew 5, then I highly recommend you watch the video or download the podcast yourself.
Kim explained that the love Jesus preached wasn’t an easy love to give, but rather a love that is only possible when your life has been transformed by the gospel. For instance, have you ever noticed how Jesus calls out the right cheek in verse 39? “But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
When you’re facing someone, the only way you can slap their right cheek is to use your left hand (which most people don’t do) or give them a back-hand slap. In those days, giving someone a back-handed slap was one of the most offensive and heinous things you could do to another. In fact, it was punishable by law, with the payment often being an entire year’s salary.
It’s hard to not retaliate when someone slaps you on the cheek, but even harder when it is one of the most offensive things someone can do to you. Each example Christ gave in Matthew had similar connotations. He called people to a radical love, and he still does.
This is not a love that can be summoned by knuckling down and trying hard. Jesus isn’t calling us to love people out of the goodness of our own hearts. This is a love that can only be possible when our lives are being transformed by the work of Jesus in our lives.
The Wrong Responses to Hate
Like me, you’ve probably seen a lot of different responses to hatred in our culture. Here are a few ways to respond that I would argue are actually unproductive:
1. Hate: The most common response or method to fight hatred is to hate those who hate. But here’s the problem, if you hate people because they’re haters, that also makes you a hater. In other words, you haven’t reduced the amount of hate in the world, but rather you have increased it.
Martin Luther King, Jr said it best, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
2. Apathy: I’ve heard it said that the opposite of love isn’t hate, but rather, it is apathy. Both love and hate are active things, apathy requires nothing.
When Jesus calls us to love our enemies, he isn’t calling us to ignore them or their actions. He isn’t calling us to allow them to continue hurting people. He calls us to love them. In Romans 12:20-21, Paul says “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 on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” You can’t stop people from hating others if you ignore them, it requires an active love.
3. Blame it on stereotypes: It can be easy to add even more stereotypes to the mix. I’ve heard people say things like, “All Trump supporters are racist!” Like with hate, the irony here is you are creating more examples of the problem you’re trying to stop. Racism is wrong, in part because it assumes things are true about large groups of people and ignores who they are as individuals. In the same way, assuming and treating all democrats or all republicans (or any group) the same is wrong because it ignores who they are as individuals – their fears, their struggles, their hopes and their dreams.
In an interview with CBS, John Stewart described it this way: “But there is now this idea that anyone who voted for him is — has to be defined by the worst of his rhetoric,” Stewart said. “Like, there are guys in my neighborhood that I love, that I respect, that I think have incredible qualities who are not afraid of Mexicans, and not afraid of Muslims, and not afraid of blacks. They’re afraid of their insurance premiums. In the liberal community, you hate this idea of creating people as a monolith. Don’t look as Muslims as a monolith. They are the individuals and it would be ignorance. But everybody who voted for Trump is a monolith, is a racist. That hypocrisy is also real in our country.”
4. Social Media Rants: In the New Testament, you often see the apostles go to the marketplace and preach the good news. Acts 17:21, for instance, says, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”
Today we don’t have a physical place for this idea sharing, but there is a digital place. We spend a lot of time on social media. We share ideas and look for new pieces of info. While I don’t think it’s wrong to comment on society on social media, I do think it’s dangerous and I don’t think it’s enough. Even if you’re the best writer in the world, you likely won’t be solving things like hate with less than 135 characters and odds are you’re shouting into an echo chamber of people who already agree with you. Change is far more likely to occur, and you’re far more likely to be listened to, when you actually converse with others and live life with them in the flesh.
5. Shame: A common response to hatred is also shame. If you hear someone say (or even consider) something you think is wrong or hateful, then we quickly turn to shaming them. “How could you think that and embrace such bigotry you terrible person?”
This is the response of the pharisees, and frankly, it won’t change people’s minds. When you shame someone, they almost always feel like you’re attacking their identity. They might stop talking to you about their view and you might think you’ve been successful, but in the end, they’ve probably only buried their view a bit deeper in their heart. There it remains safe from shame, there it remains safe to grow, and there it festers until it bursts forth in a fit of rage.
You may be tempted to shame, reject, or ignore people who demonstrate hate. But as Jesus said to the Pharisees in Mark 2:17 (and Luke 5:31 and Matthew 9:12), “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The Right Response to Hate
And now we’re back to the beginning – the right response to hate: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…“
We are to love our enemies, but what is love? Entire books can be written on that 4-letter word, and it should be obvious that Jesus isn’t calling us to feel warm and fuzzy when we think of our enemies.
As I said earlier, love is an active thing. Put simply, to love someone is to protect them from harm (“turn the other cheek,” not “slap them back”); to provide for their needs (“let them have your cloak” and “do not refuse the one who would borrow from you“); to give them your time and service (“if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles“). Jesus also calls us to “pray for those who persecute you.”
The ultimate goal for our enemies isn’t for them to be obliterated or destroyed, but rather for them to be transformed by the grace of God. Jesus desires to see them come to faith and changed by the gospel, in the same way you or I or any other believer was changed.
Again, this response isn’t easy. When you consider the depths of love Jesus calls us to with the severity of the enemy, it can seem impossible. And it is, unless the love of Christ that was demonstrated on the cross is changing and enabling our hearts.
Last week, I heard my friend John say that “the remedy for racism is relationship.” My initial response was, “that’s easy to remember and sounds nice because of alliteration, but racism is probably more complicated than that.” Then I read a story about Daryl Davis called, “How One Man Convinced 200 Ku Klux Klan Members To Give Up Their Robes.”
Davis is a blues musician and a black man. He has spent the last 30 years building relationships and friendships with members of the KKK. “He says once the friendship blossoms, the Klansmen realize that their hate may be misguided. Since Davis started talking with these members, he says 200 Klansmen have given up their robes. When that happens, Davis collects the robes and keeps them in his home as a reminder of the dent he has made in racism by simply sitting down and having dinner with people.”
Davis has discovered the remedy for racism, and we would do well to follow his lead. It is far from easy to love your enemy and spend time with them, but if Christ is working in your heart and guiding the conversation, positive change can happen. David described it this way, “If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy — it doesn’t have to be about race, it could be about anything…you will find that you both have something in common. As you build upon those commonalities, you’re forming a relationship and as you build about that relationship, you’re forming a friendship. That’s what would happen. I didn’t convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves.”
This is now probably the longest post I’ve written, so I should probably stop. I initially posted this the other day and then took it back down because I felt like it was still incomplete, and it probably is.
Can all issues of hate be solved through going to lunch with people? I don’t think so – but Davis has demonstrated that it is one way you can show love to others and make a difference. Issues of hate, however, are often systemic and bigger than individual efforts. They require entire communities coming together in love, which again, isn’t possible without the work of Jesus in our lives. We must also take time as communities and individuals to take responsibility for the hatred in our own hearts – I assure you that as a sinner you have some.
In fact, there are countless practical things we must do to solve hatred, but ultimately love must be the foundation of whatever approach we take. For if you love others, even your enemies, you will be a light that drives out the darkness.