The Hard Word of Peacemaking Dave Rogalsky
Scriptures: Matthew 5:38-48, Jeremiah 29:4-7, Romans 12:16-21
Theme: To look at how we work at peace in our lives, so that we can speak to peace in the wider world.
A hundred years ago the Christian nations of Europe threw themselves at each other in a highly organized blood bath. Beginning in 1914 and lasting until 1918 the war was directly and indirectly responsible for between 15 and 19 Million deaths, and an additional 22 to 24 Million wounded.1 This includes combatants and non-combatants. Think of it, a minimum of the entire population of Canada killed and wounded, and for what? To lay claim to lands, resources, prestige, and the lives of people. In order to have more lives to rule over, the Christian countries of Europe killed the number of lives of the entire population of Canada. Yes, I keep on emphasizing the Christian Nations. These were all countries who claimed to follow the same God, who came among us as the same Jesus of Nazareth. Many scholars trace the beginning of the severe decline of the influence and authority of the church in the West to this war. If these people all claimed to worship the same God, how could they all claim their God gave them the authority to kill and destroy each other? Who wants that God?!
Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I respect folk who made choices to go to war because they thought it their duty. I have ministered to, visited with, and eventually carried out funerals for Canadian war veterans. Living in a free country such as ours means making room for difference of opinion. I honour those who follow their conscience, even when their decision is different from mine.
But, I believe that all the nations of Europe were wrong to go to war. According to Canadian Historian Margaret MacMillan in The War that Ended Peace, the war was fought mostly over slights, disagreements, and an itch to try out the new destructive toys which a group of men, most of whom were Queen Victoria’s grandsons or grandnephews, had acquired in attempt to impress each other.
That war ended at 11:00 local time, on November 11, 1918. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. It was called the “the war to end wars” but it obviously didn’t. In fact the punishing terms read to Germany in the Peace of Versailles probably led directly to the beginning of another war just twenty-one years later.
You and I can do little about wars out there. But we can do much about our own relationships. Jesus didn’t preach at the nations about war. But he had much to say to his followers and listeners about lives of peace. This Peace Sunday, we focus on our lives.
The Jews of Jesus day continued to be a militaristic people. From the time of the founding of the confederacy of Israel in David’s time, a thousand years before Jesus, and even before, the Jews had fought with each other, and with the nations around them – with the Amalekites, the Moabites, Edomites, Egypt, Syria, Assyria, Lebanon, Babylon, the Greeks under Alexander and Antiochus Epiphanes, and the Romans. In Jesus’ day the Jews were under the military power of Herod the Great and his descendants, the mercenary armies they paid, and the Romans who kept the Herods in power. One of Jesus’ disciples was Simon the Cananaen or Zealot (See Matthew 10:4, Luke 6:15). The Cananaens were Jewish guerrilla fighters, ambushing Herod’s mercenaries and the Roman troops. They were zealous for the land to be purified from the half-Jewish Herods, their mercenary armies, and the idol worshipping Romans. Some of them were called Sicarii, for the daggers they carried and used to assassinate those associated with the Herods and Romans, including those who collected taxes for them. Another of Jesus’ disciples was Matthew, a tax collector (see Matthew 10:3), and we know the story of Jesus with Zacchaeus, another tax collector (see Luke 19:1-10). Must have made for interesting times around the table with both a zealot, and the one he desired to kill, at the same table for supper.
In the years after Jesus there were several revolutions of Jews against the Romans. In 66-70 AD a major revolt led to direct rule by Rome and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Another revolt took place in 132–136. It was named Bar Kokhba after the Jewish leader who claimed to be God’s Messiah, God’s anointed servant. This resulted in Jews being banned from Jerusalem and a Gentile city established in its place. Many Jews were simply killed and many others sold into slavery.
The Jews were a violent people, even among themselves. There are stories of riots, of grudges, and of factions fighting among themselves. Jesus was born into and lived in a violent time. This violence was a basic aspect of life as people held each other as enemies in neighbourhoods, families, and synagogues. The culture of Europe a hundred years ago was much more violent than it is now too.
The Jewish law of Jesus’ day was violent as well. In the passage Elsie read Jesus quotes from the law, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Taken from Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21, the law states that if neighbours get into a fight, and one person puts out his neighbour’s eye, or knocks out a tooth, the punishment will be that the perpetrator will receive the same disfigurement. The law actually goes further, saying “21 Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Deuteronomy 19:21 (NRSV)) Instead Jesus tells his listeners that they are to
not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
This was a major turnaround. Three times the Old Testament law told them an eye for an eye, but Jesus tells them to not resist violently, not pay back with violence, and to not take vengeance. They are to be a different people.
There is actually an escalation in this passage that we miss. The slap on the cheek is probably in the family. The suing is in the neighbourhood. The forced march is the Roman presence in the country. It was Roman troops who could demand that any one carry their pack for a mile. Jesus wasn’t just talking about pacifism out there among the occupation troops, but also wasn’t just talking about abuse at home. He was talking about nonviolence in all aspects of life.
43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes God’s sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
Jesus was calling on his followers to be ready to make peace in the family, the neighbourhood, and on the international scene. Peace for Jesus was love of those we consider and experience as enemies. Hard work!
But there is also a subversive element here. Women have long been held down by the direct application of this law. “If your husband hits you, then turn the other cheek, it’s what Jesus wants, you know.” Interestingly men have felt licence to be violent from this, though they should be just as ready to accept violence from their spouse, and as readily turn their cheek. But there is a hidden truth here. Jesus said, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” To be struck on the right cheek requires that the one striking to use a right backhand stroke, or a left hand open stroke. Both of these are insults. The first was how a slave was struck. The second required the use of the “dung hand” and told the one being struck what the striker thought of them. When Jesus invites the turned cheek, this would require an open right hand strike, that of an equal to an equal. It is a form of saying, “I am equal to you. If you strike me, you must treat me as an equal.” Imagine the man or father, having struck their wife or daughter, seeing the woman turn the other cheek, saying to him, “I am your equal. Don’t you dare treat me as an inferior.”
The same kind of subversive action is in the other two forms of violence of which Jesus speaks. The court case was probably unjust. The person being sued was being “taken for all they had,” even their cloak. In the Old Testament this was beyond the law. In Exodus and Deuteronomy God says:
25 If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. 26 If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; 27 for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate. Exodus 22:25-27 (NRSV) See Deuteronomy 24:13.
To be sued for your cloak was beyond the law. So why not offer the rest of your clothes in court to make a point. “This person is contravening the law! Here, take literally everything. I stand before you naked!”
And in the last example, Roman soldiers could only demand one mile of slavery. To offer the second mile was to say to the Roman, “I do this freely. I am not your slave.” Jesus was suggesting non-violence, acceptance of another’s violence, but not self-degradation. “Accept the violence without resorting to violence,” said Jesus. “But do it standing tall, a person of worth, loved of God.” Being a peacemaker is hard work.
I hope this sermon raises all kinds of conversation:
What about violence in the Old Testament, attributed to God, claimed as God’s will by the people, or claimed to be in response to God’s need for violence?
What about justice? My friend from Iran asked me, “Should we have just let Iraq run roughshod over us in the Iran-Iraq war, a war where they used poison gases, killed women and children?
What about justice – how can God allow so much human violence?
What about self-defence?
What about defending the defenseless around you – women, children, the weak, the elderly?
What about our violence against native Canadians?
All good questions, and there are many more. But Jesus teaches, and models, non-violent resistance to powers and governments. He did not get nailed to the cross without pushing back, but did not use violence. In fact when one of his disciples swung a sword as Jesus was being arrested Jesus said:
"Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:52 (NRSV)
And then he healed the man whose ear had just been cut off.
How do we live in our families, neighbourhoods, country and world, in such a way that violence is not the first or last resort, a world where we look for creative solutions to need, desire, history and the future? Where do you start to act non-violently, but not as a pushover, remembering God’s love and regard for you, and God’s love and regard for your enemy?