Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Perhaps that is how Jesus might have phrased part of his Sermon on the Mount, if he was an African American in the sixties in the United States of America.
“An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind”, is a phrase attributed to Ghandi and certainly seems to comply with his understanding, both of violence and of the world.
Both these men acted within communities and circumstances of violence, as Ghandi sought to establish freedom from the yoke of foreign empire and Dr King sought freedom from the injustice of the empire into which he was born.
When they speak, much of what they say resonates with the words of Jesus, as he implores and challenges his followers to lives which are more. The resonance is not simply the radical wisdom they each offer, but the context in which they offer it. The violence of empire taints the lives of King and Ghandi, and colours the context for every word and action of Jesus.
Retaliation is one thing when you are talking to your children about how to play together, but another when a soldier beats your child for being in their path. The marks of a broken community under the empire’s fist are everywhere: corrupt tax officials taking the jacket off your back and Roman soldiers conscripting your back to carry their goods. Beggars abound, forced by poverty into brazenness and despair.
Jesus calls them, and now us, to more. Walk further with the pack; offer your shirt; be generous, even when it’s hard.
And, by the way, love your enemies and pray for them. Jesus calls us to be extraordinary, because being ordinary means that we end up blind and toothless. Jesus asks us to be perfect, in love and in service, but that is simply too much to ask, is it not?
This is, however, our call. We know the consequences of walking the accepted path – darkness awaits. So we will choose light, the light found in Jesus, who turned his cheek to the violence and lost his clothes to the soldiers and carried his cross as far as he could and loved his enemies at every step – priests and Pilate and Herod and executioners.
Jesus (and King and Ghandi) hasn’t crafted some maxims with which to inspire contemplation and mindfulness. This is about living an alternative life, as citizens in a God’s empire of justice and hope. We will travel this journey together, with Jesus’ light, with the Spirit’s song within us, and with each other for company and grace.