You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
-Matthew 5:38-41 (NIV)
You might have seen the news that the principal of a school in Nebraska banned candy canes a couple of weeks ago. Actually, candy canes were just one item on a memo the principal compiled of holiday symbols that should be avoided by teachers, staff, and parents at the school. Other items on the list included Santa- or Christmas-themed clipart on worksheets, Christmas trees in classrooms, Elves on Shelves, Christmas carols or music, reindeer, Christmas movies or videos (or characters from those movies and videos), Christmas tree ornaments, and even the colors red and green. You can see that candy canes were by no means singled out, but probably gained the most attention because the principal explained the rationale for the ban in this way:
“Historically, the shape is a “J” for Jesus. The red is for the blood of Christ, and the white is a symbol of his resurrection.”
Obviously, this principal was trying to navigate the tricky path of serving a diverse community of students, families, and teachers, some of whom might not celebrate Christmas. “We have varied beliefs in our school,” she wrote, “and it [is] our job to be inclusive.”
It seems like every year around Christmas time there’s at least one story like this that makes national news and ignites a debate about whether or not our country’s “Christian heritage” (whatever you make of that) is being threatened. I don’t know a thing about this principal or her motives, and I won’t presume to accuse her of anything other than attempting to be sensitive to the children she’s responsible for educating and their families.
The school district her school is a part of almost immediately issued a statement that said the principal’s memo does not reflect district policy and suggested that candy canes are off the “naughty” list. They also placed the principal on leave: I really hope that she doesn’t lose her job over what seems to be nothing more sinister than excess enthusiasm. Candy canes do not represent Jesus, though I’m sure that at some point during the 200 years that candy canes have been in verifiable existence someone — probably several someones — has made the connections. But, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a candy cane is just a candy cane.
I’m really not bothered by the principal’s actions. They were a bit misguided, but they seem to have come from good intentions.
I’m a bit more bothered by the actions of Christians (apparently) who made her memo the latest morsel for those who want to see themselves as the victims of some kind of war against Christianity to salivate over.
Let me be very clear here: Jesus has told those who want to follow him what we should do if (and when) the world at large turns against Christianity. If (and when) the world around us wants to take away our freedom to worship without being harassed, if (and when) it wants to take away our livelihood, if (and when) it wants to take away our rights, Jesus is unambiguous about what we ought to do then. It’s not hard to understand. It doesn’t require deep reflection on the text or fluency in biblical languages. The problem is not understanding; the problem is that what he tells us to do runs so counter to the ways we’re used to thinking that it seems wrong.
“Don’t resist,” he says.
“What!? But it’s un-American to let someone walk all over you that way!” Maybe. But it’s very Christian. “If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile,” we argue — but Jesus literally says that’s exactly what should happen. “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth” is in the Bible, yes, but it isn’t the way Jesus says we should deal with those who want to take from us. Want to follow Jesus? When someone strikes you, don’t strike back. On the contrary, treat them with the kind of gentleness that would allow them to strike you again if they chose. Want to follow Jesus? Give more than the one who takes from you expects. If someone takes your candy canes, give them your Christmas tree too.
I know, Jesus is exaggerating — a bit. Honestly, though, not by much. His point still stands: “Don’t resist.” It may be heroic to fight back, but it isn’t Jesus. Jesus defended the defenseless, absolutely. He stood up for the powerless and lent his strength to the weak. But when he was accused, misquoted, attacked, beaten….
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
What bothers me way more than the actions of one Nebraska school principal is that at least some believers attached Jesus’ name to their decision to go to war over those actions. What bothers me is that some might even be celebrating her suspension as some sort of victory in a “culture war” that Jesus would tell us is not worth fighting at all. What bothers me is that we still don’t understand why non-resistance is integral to the Gospel.
Jesus tells us not to resist when people act to threaten our faith because we’ve already won. We don’t have to fight against human beings, none of whom are really our enemies anyway. The victory over evil, injustice, sin, and death was won when Jesus chose not to resist. In him, we see our own path to victory.
We can’t resist because the gospel of God’s love in Jesus can’t be proclaimed by force, or election, or coercion, or legal decision. The only way we have a chance of credibly preaching the good news is by showing our world how it works: by taking seriously his command to love even those who oppose us.
No one will ever take away your right to love your enemies. No one will ever be able to force you to stop being generous to those who take from you. No one will ever be able to oppose you for giving more or going farther than you have to. So don’t you see? No one will ever be able to keep you from practicing your faith. For a Christian, practicing your faith is following the example of Jesus. The only way to stop that kind of faith is to not live up to his example.
This time of year, we’re reminded that his story starts with God giving.
May we receive what he’s given us with joy, gratitude, and worship, and may we then engage our broken, divided world with hearts filled to overflowing, with words and actions infused with kindness, grace, mercy, and caring.
Even if someone wants to take away our candy canes.