Lest We Forget Who We Are and Whose We Are: Followers of Jesus’ Ways of Non-Violent Resistance – Matthew 5:38-48

lest we forgetLest we forget” is a phrase that has become synonymous with Remembrance Day. Sadly, our Remembrance Day commemorations have become disconnected from our history and the vast majority of those of us who observe Remembrance Day have forgotten its origins. Our collective amnesia about the phrase, “Lest we forget” is a case in point. I have always assumed that the phrase was coined to encourage the world not to forget those who have served, fought and in too many cases died to protect our freedoms. While the phrase’s attachment to Remembrance Day has served as a call to collective remembrance, it was coined for a far more humbling purpose than to honour the fallen heroes of foreign wars. The phrase, “Lest we forget” was coined by the great poet laureate of the British Empire Rudyard Kipling, in his daunting poem, “Recessional” written to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Kipling’s poem was a sobering call to humility at a time when the British people were basking in the glory of Empire. Recessional served as a reminder that the sun might never set on the British Empire, but God was still in God’s heaven and thus, the sun rises upon the evil as well as the good. Kipling warned those drunk on the excesses of Empire that God was sovereign and not the British people.

The entire poem is addressed to God as a prayer, and serves as a call to the Empire’s powerful Victorians to remember their place.

God of our fathers, known of old—

Lord of our far-flung battle line—

Beneath whose awful hand we hold

Dominion over palm and pine—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

 

The tumult and the shouting dies—

The Captains and the Kings depart—

Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,

An humble and a contrite heart.

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

 

Far-called our navies melt away—

On dune and headland sinks the fire—

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

 

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose

Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—

Such boastings as the Gentiles use,

Or lesser breeds without the Law—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

 

For heathen heart that puts her trust

In reeking tube and iron shard—

All valiant dust that builds on dust,

And guarding calls not Thee to guard.

For frantic boast and foolish word,

Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!   Amen.

Amongst the pomp and circumstance of this solemn day, it is all to easy for those of us who aspire to be Christians, to forget who we are and whose we are. For we are a people who follow a man whose life was given to the cause of non-violence; a man who resisted the temptation to fight even in the face of the most brutal occupation army that the world had seen in first century. Jesus of Nazareth refused to take up arms against cruel oppression. Jesus proclaimed a radical new response to violence.

Jesus’ insistence upon non-violent resistance in the face of evil was not just something he taught or proclaimed, it was something Jesus lived. Even on the dark night when armed soldiers came for him, when he knew that to be taken would inevitably lead to his execution, Jesus refused to take up arms to defend himself. When, one of his followers drew a sword to defend him, Jesus insisted that his ally put down his weapon, insisting that  “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.”

Contrary to what some would have you believe, Jesus’ death was not the act of a lamb going meekly to the slaughter, but rather the act of one who embodied his own teachings. Jesus said, “You’ve heard the commandment, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”. But I tell you, offer no resistance when you are confronted with violence. When someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer the other. If anyone wants to sue you for your shirt, hand over your coat as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go two miles. Give to those who beg from you.  And don’t turn your back on those who want to borrow from you. You have heard it said, “Love your neighbour—but hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. This will prove that you are children of God. For God makes the sun rises on bad and good alike; God’s rain falls on the just and the unjust. If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that?”

“Lest we forget”, Jesus did far more than preach non-violence, Jesus lived it even onto death.  Sadly, most of us who claim to follow Jesus have all too often found Jesus way too difficult and we have drawn our swords, unwilling to embody a non-violent response to violence, lest we too be called upon to follow Jesus even onto death. Generations upon generations of followers have been confronted by perpetrators of oppression and seen one of two choices available to them, either draw the sword and fight, or put away the sword and submit.  But there is a third way. The way that Jesus taught; the way of non-violent resistance.

All too often, the various translations of the gospel texts have failed to communicate what is clearly written in the Greek. Indeed, King James, who authorized one of the translation that has served a vast majority of armies for generations, was so disturbed by what was written in New Testament Greek, that he insisted that the words be translated in such a way that those whom he wished to oppress would hear exactly what he wanted them to hear and submit. It’s complicate, but suffice it to say, the Presbyterians we’re giving King James trouble in the north, and the King wanted them to submit to turn the other cheek, and so he ordered that the Greek word “antistenia” be translated as “resist not”.  So, the King James version, reads: “That you resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

The problem with this translation is that it does not adequately communicate the meaning of the text. The term antistenia was in the first century a technical term for the way in which the Roman legions fought in battle. Anti stenia means to stand against, to line up; to adopt the military stance, weapons drawn, shield up ready to march against the foe. A more accurate translation would read something like, you shall not take up arms against evil.

Well, what should you do? Jesus makes it very clear. If someone “smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Most of us have been taught that the act of turning the other cheek is the meek act of a pacifist, but if we lived in the first century under the occupation of the Roman Empire, we would understand this as an act of resistance.  Jesus’ followers would have had first hand experience of being cuffed by the backhand of their oppressors.  Walter Wink explains: “The typical options in the face of this violence were cowering submission or violent retaliation, which likely would have been suicidal. To maintain one’s position and offer one’s left cheek creates in the cultural and political context of the time a dilemma for the oppressor. By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand: his nose is in the way… The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality.  This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship … By turning the cheek, then, the “inferior” is saying, “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I won’t take it anymore.”

Jesus goes on to offer other creative techniques of non-violent resistance designed to create trouble for the Roman oppressors. New Testament scholar Walter Wink offers a detailed analysis of Jesus teachings on non-violent resistance in his book “The Powers that Be” and I highly recommend it to those who are serious about following Jesus. Because those of us who aspire to be Christians, need to know what Jesus was talking about when he urged his followers to go the extra mile. We have held too long to the notion that there are only two choices open to us when we come face to face with violence; either we take up arms and fight or we passively submit.

But Jesus offered a third way. The way of creative non-violent resistance may be the road less travelled, but it is most certainly a road that has led to victory.

In the recent years, many have chosen, non-violence and managed to defeat their enemies. Mahatmas Gandhi used non-violent resistance to defeat the British. In Denmark, thousands of Danes resisted their Nazi occupiers without using violence and saved the lives of thousands of Jews and used a general strike to thwart the expansion of the occupation. Rosa Parks began a movement of non-violent resistance to the viscous oppression of African Americans and set of a series of non-violent actions: bus boycotts, lunch-counter sit ins, and peaceful marches that changed a nation. Poland’s Solidarity movement ended a totalitarian regimes oppressive hold and began a movement that saw the end of Soviet hold on Poland. In the Philippines, in 1986, 200,000 people turned out on the streets that led to the ouster of the dictator Marcos. In Czechoslovakia in 1989, non-violent protest against the communist government, saw half a million people in the streets of Prague and the ensuing general strike that forced the government to relinquish its power. In 2000, Serbia coordinated widespread non-cooperation brought the regime of Slovadan Milosevic to a stand-still and forced the dictator to step down. In 2003, protests against a civil war in Liberia by thousands of women whose creativity saw them withhold sexual relations from their male counterparts.  When the women occupied the site of the stalled peace talks, the warlords eventually agreed to end the violence. Burma, in 2007, thousands of Buddhist monks turned out in the streets and emboldened the people to demand the release of On Son Sue Chi. 

I could go on. But let me end with the most recent act of non-violent resistance. It is said that a child shall lead them. Well, the Taliban is a formidable, viscous, enemy that we and our allies have take up arms against. Our military efforts and the military might of the most powerful nation the world has ever known have failed to defeat the Taliban who continue to terrorize their own people. Yet the resistance of one little girl, one very brave little girl who is willing to stand against the viciousness of her  oppressors has inspired a movement that has the potential to bring this mad-men to their knees. Malala Yousafzai refused to submit and not even the Taliban’s bullets have been able to stifle her witness. Thousands and soon millions of people all over the world have been moved to action. Her father claims that Malala has drawn “with her sacred blood, a clear line between barbarity and human civilization. Malala stands for peace, education, freedom of thought and freedom of expression, her refusal to submit is not passive, but defiant and embodies human dignity, tolerance, and pluralism. Malala’s actions and her father’s words are an indictment of those of us who through our hands up in the air and claim that there is nothing to be done, except to take up arms and because we have lost our appetite for the military interventions, we burry our heads in the sand and hope that the news won’t reach us or touch us.

Lest we forget, who we are and whose we are, we are the ones who claim to follow Jesus. Jesus is the one who was willing to embody his teachings of non-violent resistance in the face of oppression, even onto death. We enjoy the privileges of those who fought and died so that we could live in freedom. Burying our heads in the sand is tantamount to declaring that they died in vain.

Lest we forget, there is a way, it is the road less travelled but it is the way that Jesus walked, and it is a pathway open to us, if we but dare to walk with Christ. Canadians have a proud history of peacekeeping; a history that we seem to have abandoned. What would it mean for us to remember our own best traditions? What would it look like for us to return to the role for which we became known? What does a 21st century peacekeeper look like? What will it cost us to be keepers of the peace? Are we prepared to embody for all the world the role of non-violent resistance? Even on to death? Or are we going to leave that work to children? What can we do to help? What must we do to help?

I don’t have any easy answers, but on this day, when we remember the courage and commitment of our ancestors, should we not also look to the future and dream new dreams. Lest we forget who we are and whose we are, are we prepared to be about the work of loving our enemies? Do we still aspire to the task of being a Christian? Do we have the courage to follow Jesus?

 The tumult and the shouting dies—

The Captains and the Kings depart—

Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,

An humble and a contrite heart.

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

2 thoughts on “Lest We Forget Who We Are and Whose We Are: Followers of Jesus’ Ways of Non-Violent Resistance – Matthew 5:38-48

  1. Pingback: Preparing to Preach on Jesus’ Teaching on Non-Violence: Matthew 5:38-48 | pastordawn

  2. Pingback: The Power of Love: a sermon for Epiphany 7A – Matthew 5:38-48 | pastordawn

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