Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Atlanta, Ga.
Readings: Proverbs 25:21-22; Romans 12:14-18; Matthew 5:11-12, 38-48
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. (Romans 12:14)
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so people persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)
Both Jesus and Paul agree that when we are confronted with people who persecute us the only acceptable response is to bless them — “bless and do not curse them.” But, what exactly does it mean to “bless” those who persecute us?
When we hear the words “bless” or “blessings” we think many positive things. I feel “blessed” if I have someone who loves me. I feel “blessed” if I have a job. I feel “blessed” if I have a house, food on my table, clothes on my back or money in my pocket. All these “blessings” are positive things — things that make me happy and comfortable. But, I don’t think it is thoughts of comfort and joy that Jesus and Paul are talking about when they tell us to “bless” our enemies. Often, blessings are painful!
Paul tells us that when we feed our enemies or give them something to drink when they are thirsty, in short, when we “bless our persecutors” we “heap burning coals upon their heads” by our actions (Romans 12:20). Our act of blessing the persecutor does not bring them comfort. On the contrary, it brings them great pain and discomfort as if hot coals were being heaped upon their heads.
What a concept! Blessings not as comfort, but pain! Think about it! How many blessings have come your way that were, initially, very painful? Some of the biggest blessings I’ve received have been from my staunchest critics. Their accusations about my “filthy lifestyle,” or my “false faith,” or my “wrongheaded beliefs,” have forced me to examine my faith closely. My detractors have forced me to live my theology, not just talk about it. My detractors have forced me learn more about God and the Bible. What a blessing they’ve been! Their challenges to my faith have been painful, disquieting and sometimes discouraging … but what a blessing! They’ve helped me to define my faith. They’ve helped me grow closer to God. Their painful words and actions have been such a blessing!
So blessings, instead of being big and fluffy like comfortable pillows have some sharp edges to them. If we’re not careful, we can get nicked, or wounded very deeply by God’s blessings. But, I believe, sometimes it’s necessary for us to receive blessings that at first appear to be painful and nothing like a blessing.
When it comes to blessing our persecutors, we need to readjust our ideas of what constitutes a blessing. The blessing we give to our enemies does not have to come in the form of comforting words or actions. Even if our words or actions are meant to give comfort, like literally giving food or water to our enemies, it won’t be perceived as kindness, because our enemies don’t believe we’re capable of bringing God’s blessings down. Instead, our words and actions will feel like hot coals being heaped upon their heads.
This idea, though, of blessing our persecutors has troubled me greatly. I’m not sure what it looks like to “bless” one’s persecutors. When I searched the scripture to find out what Jesus did to bless his persecutors I can find little evidence that he prayed for them or fed and clothed them or did anything nice for them at all.
In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Jesus was famous for calling his detractors names such as “hypocrites” and “a brood of vipers.” That doesn’t sound very loving. That doesn’t sound like blessings one’s persecutors. That sounds like returning reviling for reviling!
Jewish scholar Dr. C.G. Montefiore said that Jesus’ direction to love our enemies is beautiful but “how much more telling his injunction would have been if we had a single story about his doing good to, or praying for a single Rabbi or Pharisee! One grain of practice is worth a pound of theory.”
But then it hit me, it may have looked like Jesus was returning reviling for reviling, but he was really blessing his persecutors. By calling them on their legalism … by refusing to cow-tow to their ideas of morality or salvation … Jesus blessed them. By blessing them he heaped burning coals upon their heads. He made them uncomfortable. He made them angry … angry enough to kill him.
And so we, too, must bless our persecutors in this way. We must call them on their legalistic views. We must challenge their wrong-headed beliefs about our lives and about our faith. We must not be afraid to call them “hypocrites” and “vipers” when they act like hypocrites and vipers. For when we do, we bless them. We bless them not by making them comfortable and happy, but by making them uncomfortable and angry … yes, even angry enough to want to see us dead. We bless them because we give them a new insight into God’s nature. We bless them because we allow them to see, even if they refuse to accept it, we allow them to see that God is with even us … society’s despised outcasts.
In short, what Jesus calls us to do is not to return evil for evil, but not to be doormats for our oppressors either. We seek what theologian Walter Wink calls “the third way.” Jesus explicitly taught this third way in Matthew 5 in what we commonly call “The Sermon on the Mount.”
Matthew 5:38-48 says:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
39 But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;
40 and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well;
41 and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
42 Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.
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 sons of your Parent who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
47 And if you salute only your brothers and your sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
48 You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Parent is perfect.
Let’s look closely at this passage and see what Jesus’ “third way” is and how it can help us as we bless our persecutors.
This passage begins with the famous “turn the other cheek” directive from Jesus. Many have taken this passage as advice from Jesus to remain passive in the face of evil. This is not so. This passage, instead of teaching passivity, teaches defiance of evil, without having to stoop to the level of our persecutors.
Look closely at Jesus’ instruction here. He says “if anyone strikes you on the RIGHT cheek.” How would someone hit you on the right cheek? In Jesus’ time no one would hit you with a fist using their left hand, since the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. So, it’s impossible for someone to use their fist and hit you on your right cheek if you’re standing in front of them. Instead they would have to backhand you. By backhanding you, by hitting you on the right cheek, the person striking you is trying to humiliate you, to put you back in your place, to dominate or degrade you. Jesus’ advice to turn your cheek then becomes an act of defiance, not submission. If you offer your left cheek after the right has been struck, the attacker’s only choice then is to hit you with their fist. But, in Jesus’ time only equals fought with fists. So, but turning the other cheek, we’re telling our persecutors that we won’t be humiliated or degraded. By turning the other cheek we make our persecutors view us as equals, and deal with us on their level. They can no longer see us as less than or unworthy. When we turn the other cheek we’ve chosen the “third way.” We don’t return reviling for reviling, nor do we let our persecutors trod us under foot.
But there’s more! Jesus also tells us if someone wants our coat, we should give them our cloak as well. That would leave us naked and that’s exactly what Jesus was encouraging. Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and it still is in many cultures including our own. Wink tells the story of a squatter’s camp in South Africa before the end of apartheid where police had come to evict the residents. The police told the women they had five minutes to leave before the bulldozers began their work. Instead of packing up to leave, the women stripped naked in front of the bulldozers. The police turned and ran because the taboo against seeing a naked woman was so strong!
Of course, we don’t have to take this directive as literally as the South African women did. What Jesus is telling us that if our persecutors seek to take things from us then we should give them all of our things … but, like those South African women, the one thing we do not give up is our dignity.
An example of those who have stripped naked today would be Rev. Jimmy Creech. The Methodist church stripped his credentials from him for performing a same-sex marriage in his church. They stripped him of everything. He could have salvaged his career with the Methodist church by cooperating and NOT performing the marriages, but he refused. He stripped naked and showed the church he would not cooperate with their persecution of gays and lesbians. After his courageous stand, 69 pastors in California performed a same-sex wedding together. Their message? If you want to strip one of us, you must strip us all. They stood naked before the church, offering up their clothing of credentials. The church’s response? Not one of them stood trial. They all remain pastors in the Methodist church today. Why? Because one man stripped naked and exposed the folly of the Methodist church policy. Others followed suit, and together they found the third way and stood up to the church. The policy against Methodist ministers performing same-sex marriages remains and is hotly debated, but these pastors have made it clear that they will strip naked and give up everything before they will cooperate with a policy that does damage to a certain group of God’s children.
But, Jesus isn’t finished. He also tells us that if we are forced to go one mile, we should go two. What does that mean? Who would force us to go a mile with them? Well, in Jesus’ time, Israel was under Roman rule. One of the things that Roman soldiers could do is press citizens into service to carry their packs for a mile. Wink says that, “whole villages sometimes fled to avoid being forced to carry soldiers’ baggage.” But, a mile is all the villagers could be impelled to go. Forcing a citizen to carry a bag any further was an infraction of the Roman military code. Imagine the shock, and panic, from a soldier who finds a citizen who won’t drop his baggage after a mile but insists on going another mile! The Roman infantryman will be in deep trouble.
By exceeding our persecutors demands on us we shock them, maybe even anger them, but we also show them that we have a sense of dignity and worth that they can never take from us.
The best real world example of blessing our persecutors by finding that “third way” is a group called “Soulforce.” Founded by Mel White, a man who used to be a ghostwriter for men like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, Soulforce is dedicated to the non-violent principles of confrontation made famous by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Soulforce has launched pickets at the general conferences of many denominations including the Southern Baptists and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America or ELCA as they’re known. But, I think the most impressive thing Soulforce has done in its short history is to arrange a meeting between 200 gay, lesbian, bi and transgender Christians with 200 members of Jerry Falwell’s church in Falls Church, Virginia in 1999.
The meeting was a blessing to both sides by all accounts. Both sides had a chance to meet, to tone down the rhetoric, to get to know each other. Conservatives learned that gay people didn’t have three heads and two horns and gay people learned that some conservatives would actually stop and take the time to listen to their stories and really hear their pain.
The proof is in Falwell’s own words. Here is what he had to say about gays and lesbians in the years before his meeting with Soulforce.
“There is no middle ground. For Christians, there can be no peaceful coexistence with those sodomites.”
What did he say after the meeting?
“We can have friendships with homosexuals … We can have friendships with people we disagree with.”
Certainly Falwell hasn’t changed his beliefs about homosexuality, but he does realize, at least, that it’s real people he was previously attacking. That’s progress using Jesus’ third way. Soulforce did not fight Falwell’s evil words with evil words of their own, nor did they sit passively by let his evil words go unchallenged. Instead, they sought to meet with Falwell and his followers, to show them the faces of GLBT Christians, to share their stories of pain and persecution. I’m sure it was an uncomfortable meeting in many ways for people on both sides. But what a blessing for everyone involved!
So, we are called to find the third way in our own lives. When persecution comes, how can we respond? How can we resist the temptation to return reviling for reviling? How can we find the courage to seek the third way instead of sitting by passively while we are persecuted?
Here are three ways to begin today to bless your persecutors:
1. Do good: Whenever you have a chance to do something good for anyone who does not like you — do it. Even if you’d rather die than say a nice word to someone who you know loathes you for any reason — do it. Don’t do it because it makes you better than them, or more righteous than them. Don’t do it because you expect them to change their opinion about you. Do good to those who hate you because eventually it will change YOU. Eventually you will no longer see them as the enemy. You will see another child of God struggling with issues and they may be taking those issues out on you in some form or another. By doing good to them, you’ve found the third way. You act in ways they don’t expect. Your acts of kindness will shock them. Sometimes it may even make them mad and feel like you’re heaping hot coals on their head. But do good anyway.
Who knows? By doing good to someone who hates you, you may discover you’ll be making a new friend. Abraham Lincoln was once being criticized for his attitude towards his enemies.
“Why do you try to make friends with them?” a colleague asked. “You should try to destroy them.”
“Am I not destroying my enemies,” the President asked gently, “when I make them my friends?”
2. Bless: When someone is persecuting you or saying horrible things about you, bless them. Even if you have to utter it out loud, stop wherever you are and bless them. Say something nice about them. Go out of your way to say nice things about them. Again, this is not something you do to make yourself look better, although, your kind words about someone who is speaking ill of you might just shame them into silence. By speaking well of your enemy and blessing them you practice the third way … you’ve not returned reviling for reviling yet your enemies’ words and deeds have not gone unchallenged. This too is a practice that not only blesses your persecutor, but blesses you as well. Blessing others changes us as effectively as it changes others.
3. Pray: We always pray for those we love, but do we really pray for those who hate us and would rather see us dead? Keep your enemies in mind when you pray. Ask God to heal the wounds in their lives that cause them to lash out at others. Ask God to have mercy on them and to give them the understanding and compassion they need to see others as God sees them. We’ll find as we pray for our persecutors that our hearts will also be transformed from hatred to love for our enemy.
Those steps may sound easy, but they aren’t. And because they aren’t many people refuse to even try them because of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:48. When he finishes his examples of how to bless our persecutors, he admonishes his listeners to “be perfect.” Those words discourage many of us from even trying to bless our persecutors, because there is no way we can be perfect. Even though the popular question now is “what would Jesus do?” we often ask it and learn we can’t possibly do whatever Jesus would have done because we’re not “perfect.” But, that word is a bit misleading in the translation. The Greek word used here is “teleios” which also means “mature” or “adult.” What Jesus is urging us to do is to react to our persecutors in a “mature” or “adult” way. It’s easy to stick our tongue out or curse at those who attack us. It’s easy to return reviling for reviling. It’s hard to be “mature” or “adult” in our reactions. But that’s what Jesus is asking of us. Be “mature” … react with compassion, bless your persecutors and don’t curse them.
If we do all of this, if we do good to our persecutors, bless them and pray for them, then their words and actions against us won’t trouble us. The popular Prayer of Jabez from 1 Chronicles 4:10 ends with a plea to keep us from evil so that it won’t trouble us. When we truly bless our persecutors and do good to those who hate us, their evil won’t trouble us because we’ll know how to find Jesus’ third way so we can react to them in a mature manner with compassion, mercy and justice, instead of returning reviling for reviling.
But, keep in mind the sharp edges of blessings. When you bless your persecutors, don’t expect them to thank you. Most often they will curse you because your blessing to them hurts! Remember, however, that it can work both ways. When their words hurt you, it may be the sharp edges of a blessing that you’re feeling and not a curse. Be mature. Examine closely how you react to persecution. Do you return reviling for reviling? Do you passively sit by and let the words roll by? If you do, you may be missing out on a wonderful blessing! Instead, seek Jesus’ third way and be mature in your reactions. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” [Luke 6:27-36], and watch as the edges of those blessings soften up as God envelopes us all, friend and foe alike, in a loving embrace.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.