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. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
-Matthew 5:38-42 (NIV)
I noticed this week that a large, private Christian university had launched a “think tank” to, in their words, “equip courageous champions to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ, to advance his kingdom and American freedom.” (I don’t really want to name the university or link to them, but if you’re interested you should be able to find them easily enough.)
I guess I’m generally pretty suspicious of “think tanks”; I tend to think that they mainly serve as convenient tanks for charitable money, with vague enough missions that they don’t much have to account for it. I’m definitely for proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ, though, and for advancing his kingdom. I’m certainly appreciative of American freedom as well, though I get a little jittery when those things are clumped too closely together. I think too much can get compromised, and usually the compromise doesn’t come in the “American freedom” part of mission statements like this one.
To be specific, I think when we link the truth of Jesus, the advance of his kingdom, and a (any) specific view of America, we can too painlessly and easily equate the America of our mind’s eye with the work of Jesus in the world. When that happens, the truth of Jesus tends to become whatever American ideology might be driving us. The advance of the Kingdom gets confused with the advance of a conservative or liberal or more inclusive or more exclusive or more religious or less religious America. We tend to get less involved with, I don’t know, living the way Jesus taught us as we get more concerned with Presidents and congresspeople and Supreme Court Justices and political power.
But the truth of Jesus and the advance of his kingdom doesn’t necessarily have much to do with American freedom, however we conceive of it.
You know that’s true. There are people right now in some of the most oppressive, repressive, dictatorial regimes in the world who are living by the truth of Jesus and working for the advance of his kingdom. They would love to live with the most eroded version of American freedom that you and I can imagine in our worst nightmares, but they are experiencing the blessings of God in Christ — and blessing their world — right where they are.
A quick question: in which democracy did Jesus live? The early church?
In fact, concern with American freedom — however you conceive of it — sometimes makes it difficult to live out the truth of Jesus in our lives. If you doubt that, then take a look at this line from the mission statement of the “think tank” I referenced earlier:
Bemoaning the rise of leftism is no longer enough, and turning the other cheek in our personal relationships with our neighbors as Jesus taught while abdicating our responsibilities on the cultural battlefield is no longer sufficient. There is too much at stake in the battle for the soul of our nation. Bold, unapologetic action and initiative is needed…
So, correct me if I’m wrong, but this group of thinkers from a Christian university is so committed to “the truth of Jesus” and “the advance of his kingdom” that they explicitly believe that they shouldn’t follow one of Jesus’ direct commands. According to them, what Jesus taught is no longer sufficient. We have “responsibilities on the cultural battlefield” — fighting “the rise of leftism,” apparently — that outweigh our responsibility to follow the teachings of Jesus.
Well, I’m not part of a think tank — I can barely think — but could I just ask a crazy question? Who says we have responsibilities in any culture war at all? Has the American church been drafted, and I didn’t get the letter? Can I just sit this one out? Can I be a conscientious objector in these vague “culture wars”?
The problem with this think tank is that they’re conflating being a Christian with “defending American ideals and Judeo-Christian values.” Leaving aside the fact that they’re defending a very specific subset of those ideals and values they say they champion, I don’t see Jesus telling the Zealots to rise up against the Romans — in fact, if anything he seems to say the opposite. That thing about turning the other cheek: that wasn’t only about personal relationships. Jesus followed that up by telling folks who found themselves coerced to “go one mile” to “go with them two” — probably alluding to the practice of Roman soldiers forcing local residents to work for them, carry their burdens, use their animals, and so forth.
Point is, Jesus had the chance to tell his followers to defend Israelite ideals and values. He told them that their responsibilities on the cultural battlefield of Roman-occupied Palestine consisted of not resisting an evil person, giving to the one who asked something of them, loving their enemies as well as their neighbor, and praying for those who persecuted them.
What Jesus taught is sufficient.
It’s sufficient to prioritize being reconciled to those who have something against us. That matters even more than the personal observation of our own religion.
It’s sufficient to settle disputes with others quickly, instead of letting them develop into long, ugly court cases.
It’s sufficient to guard our hearts against adultery by showing discipline about where we look, and how, and at whom.
It’s sufficient to be people who can be trusted, known for meaning it when we say yes or no, whether to our spouses, in personal relationships, or in public settings.
It’s sufficient to let God’s love for all people — the evil and the good, the righteous and the unrighteous — be the model for our love for those around us, whether they’re people who are like us and who we understand, or people so different that understanding seems impossible. It’s sufficient to show the love of God to every person, not just by what we say, but by what we do.
It’s sufficient to give to Caesar what belongs to him, but never anything that rightfully belongs to God.
What Jesus taught is always sufficient, and may his church always be known less for our political opinions and more for the way we radically follow the One who gave himself for all people. That’s how we advance his kingdom.
The only culture war he ever fought, he fought from a cross.
May we carry our own crosses and follow him by giving ourselves in love for others. That is sufficient.