A research paper I submitted for Christian Ethics that addresses the need for social reform through the means of nonviolence and love.
The proposed research paper will set out to accomplish that by the ethical variable of love and through nonviolent tactics can the invisible walls of racial segregation be removed as taught within the New Testament narrative of the sermon on the mount. The focal point will compare this methodology with Martin Luther King’s book, Strength to Love with that of Cheryl Sanders, Empowerment Ethics, how historically and biblically, justice through obedience and following the way of Jesus can social change take place within a community.
The sermon on the mount is first of five speeches delivered by Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew, that describes how a disciple of God’s kingdom should live out the reign of Christ. Jesus begins his discourse with the beatitudes that are more than a group of moral rules and principles but delineates the Christian character we are to emulate. Our focus for this research paper will be to carry the truths found in the “blessed are” statements into a characterological mode that emphasizes an agape love towards our enemies. This transformative initiative approach is the climax of his teaching that enables Christian ethics to return to following Jesus.
The love of being human and reciprocating it towards our enemies is the heart of what Christ was trying to teach his disciples. In Matthew 5:43-48 we find the greatest commandment that is cloaked in love with our fellow neighbor, but this term, enemy, wasn’t understood according to the Pharisees and scribes. They actually taught hatred towards anyone that was not considered an Israelite. Everyone else was deemed an outsider, estranged to the culture and an enemy of God. These dogs (Gentiles), as the Jews referred to them, caused a division or partition that led them to find some other way to encounter God during the New Testament era. Even Nicodemus, afraid of his fellow Pharisaical brothers, hid by night to inquire of Jesus the meaning of salvation (John 19:39). Cheryl Sanders explores this evasiveness when she refers to the enslavement of African-Americans with slave religion as an “invisible institution” that was practiced in secret. Even when certain passages of scripture were read to manipulate the slaves and sanction slavery, leading them to believe that obedience to their masters was a priority over all, they didn’t conform their faith to such teachings. Martin Luther King expresses this nonconformity view; “Nonconformity is creative when it is controlled and directed by a transformed life and is constructive when it embraces a new mental outlook.” The slaves looked forward to a day in which freedom would ring throughout the land and be finally recognized as part of the visible reign of God.
The next part of the sermon begs the question, who is considered my neighbor? Jesus is asked this very question by an expert of the law (Luke 10:29) and determined not to get caught in the paralysis of analysis he answers in Christ-like fashion. Jesus complimented this lawyer for his keen understanding of what was required of the law for eternal life and begins to tell an everyday story to drive home the point. This parable of the Samaritan reveals that Jesus’ understanding of who is my neighbor is what constitutes the love of a neighbor. There are no limitations to who qualifies as a neighbor and the apostle Paul goes further to say that this is the “fulfillment of the entire law (Rom.13:8-10).” Martin Luther explains to us that a good neighbor looks beyond accidents and discerns the inner qualities and characteristics that make men human, therefore, brothers.
The neighbor comes from all walks of life, culture, color and religions. In order for social change to commence, the challenge of multiculturalism needs a reduction in the way we view how society should be perceived across a broad spectrum of social goals, values and education. This cultural diversity that encompasses a variety of groups can be harmonized and infused under the umbrella of love. The essence of this love seeks to unify each other that goes beyond cultural differences. Sanders makes a connection with how God views equality and justice: God’s attributes of impartiality and justice lead to the conclusion that God is intolerant of prejudice and injustice and is supportive of human efforts to eradicate these social evils. How we view our neighbor is not conditional but should be unequivocally transparent in such a way that compares with Gods take on humanity. Jesus on the mount advocates in extending the obligation reserved for the neighbor to the enemy and in doing so destroys the distinction between the neighbor and enemy altogether. This settles the question, who is my neighbor, as each of us are neighbors in our own respected culture and race that all benefit from God’s grace.
The neighbor is also defined as someone who is personally concerned for the welfare of others. The attitude of the Christian should be one that illustrates a blessing on those that curse and hate, continually praying for them which despitefully abuse and persecute. This type of love is sacrificial in nature that demands unselfishness and is purely motivated when the other person benefits. This love looks beyond the needs of their own and attends to the needs of others. This love-ethic is central to the Gospel and once we have defined the neighbor, then one’s moral obligation becomes clearly seen.
Now that we know who our neighbor is, the next phase that still needs addressing is the enemy. Who is regarded as my enemy? Howard Thurman in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, suggest that there are three enemies that we confront when a love-ethic is involved. The first enemy is the personal one that is interwoven into the life of others in an intimate setting that may result in conflict. Jesus promotes a discriminatory love that seeks to reestablish relationships with those who were primarily considered outside the community of God’s people. A positive act of love to pray for those who persecute wasn’t just a sentimental feeling in the form of words but a non-retaliation motive that exhibited a desire to love the enemy. This love can be accomplished through reconciliation and developing a capacity to forgive.
The second kind of enemy was one that comprised of persons who made it extremely difficult for individuals to live without shame and humiliation due to their activities. An example of this is Jesus’ friendship and association with the tax collector. The moral evaluation of such an occupation carried with it a negative view that lumped them together with beggars, thieves and robbers. In the New Testament, they are even paired with sinners (Mark 2:15), immoral individuals (Matt 21:31) and even likened to the Gentile (Matt 5:46). This, however, didn’t stop Jesus from becoming friends and fellowshipping with them in public even when others didn’t agree with his companionship. The publican carried out the service of the Roman government and abused their power through corrupted collecting which led to a widespread hatred of them. Norman Geisler makes the statement that love’s decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively. This situation ethic takes the love principle as a universal norm and doesn’t pass judgment based on who or what the situation dictates. This kind of love operates apart from a system of pre-tailored, prefabricated moral rules.
The third type of enemy mentioned was one that followed the example of the Roman empire that composed of personal, impersonal, religious and political standpoints with a group. To love Rome was to love the enemy as this dominant power ruled with an iron fist over there Jewish inhabitants. This kind of relationship describes the Negro and how America governed those who were racially different from what was considered the norm. Thurman explains that for the Negro it means that he must see the individual white man (enemy), in the context of a common humanity. Mutual love can only be possible if both sides respond to each other. Love is said to not be a one-way street running from God, in which God has no motive, does not seek any return of love from us, and is unaffected by our love or unfaithfulness. For racial equality to happen there needs this sense of mutuality that seeks to return love in exchange for hate.
These three enemies all have one thing in common, they are involved in the lives of those they come in contact with. How we handle this sort of enemy is the question that we will put forth in the next section. Our response should always be in love and put it into action without compromising the Gospel and integrity of our faith is what Jesus meant when he said, “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile (Matt. 5:39-41).”
It was Martin Luther King who set the pace for the civil rights movement that incorporated nonviolent means in protesting racial discrimination. One of his first peaceful protests was the Montgomery bus boycott that proposed a citywide boycott of public transportation at a church meeting. The boycott was proved to be effective as a large number of its occupants that rode the transit system were black paying residents. The federal court deemed that it was unconstitutional to require segregated buses in Alabama and Montgomery, thus leading to many more nonviolent protests in seeking to erase racial oppression.
Another nonviolent form that can be found in Empowerment Ethics with David Walker’s appeal in self-help ethics. This prescribed the unity for black progress through the emancipation and education of the slaves that applied biblical context to the problem of racist ideology of black inferiority. It was this type of approach that Cheryl Sanders believes there is one critical component for middle-class blacks who are responsible to serve as advocates for the poor blacks and help them develop into their full God-given potential. This type of love is delivered without violence, force or self-defense but seeks to reach a higher righteousness to obtain its goal.
The death of Christ was a model of nonviolence that is not only a command for the disciples to live by but reflects the true character of God. According to John Howard Yoder, effective nonviolent resistance was not at all unknown in recent Jewish experiences. The culture understood this method of social nonconformity and exercised their right when called to do so. During the trial of Jesus, the Roman Empire joined forces with the Jewish sect and attempted to crush this nonviolent movement of compassion and equality that Christ was presenting to the known world at that time. The early church would ignore this way of doing Christian ethics and adopt a violent-based system that Jesus rejected and repudiated. This would lead to crusades, wars against non-Christians and even so-called witches would be hunted and burned at the stake.
The cross is a symbol of forgiveness and freedom from the bondage of sin. This, according to King, was love in action, overcoming evil with good and was nailed not simply by sin but blindness. This display wasn’t an act of pacifism but simply obedience to God that was made in the hope and anticipation that this love would be delivered to everyone who would receive it. This agape love enters incarnationally into our very situation of bondage due to sin and reconciles us back to God. This way of love can be seen as a cardinal ethical norm that can begin to remedy the racial tension presented in everyday occurrences. The teaching, works and life of Jesus on the cross show that the objectives of the reign of God are not to be accomplished by violence. This turning of the other cheek on the cross explains and asserts a confrontational nonviolence that welcomes the enemy and bids him come and be transformed. In retrospect, can the cross be the center of a three-wheel as Cheryl Sanders identifies: Self-love, love of others and love of the Spirit which all radiate power from the hub of the wheel where the divine and human love connect. It’s in this, wheel within a wheel analogy, that the cross can break the divide of humanism which seeks to segregate the populist.
During the garden of Gethsemane, we also see Jesus choosing the way of suffering rather than violence. Yoder suggests here that the temptation to refuse the cup is precisely the temptation to resort to armed resistance. This parallels with Matthews account of Jesus’ arrest when he said: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword (26:51-54).” All four Gospel accounts report Peter’s use of the sword in a legitimate defense. But Jesus appeals to his Father in heaven and understood the messianic violence that was to take place.
It’s in the second mile that we are instructed by Jesus to carry the burden and show a nonviolent way to oppressed people to take the initiative and expose the exploitative circumstance. The Roman soldier went the first mile (Matt. 4:41) and the law commanded them to pass the heavy load of forced labor to anyone of their choosing. The strategy Jesus was imposing was to preserve the humanity of all parties involved and carry such a burden that might restore relationships through nonviolent means. It’s easy to grow bitter and cynical when the labor of love is forced on you. Dr. King recalls when the “Hallelujah Chorus” was born out of an undesirable cell that transformed a negative circumstance into a positive one. When presented with the opportunity to move forward, Dr. King suggests not to cooperate passively with an unjust system that makes the oppressed as evil and guilty as the oppressor.  There needs to be a determination to move collectively forward that clings to the hope inside of us and a refusal not to be stopped by our selfish ambitions or preconceived ideas of conformity. By accepting this way of a nonviolent love affair, those that follow in the footsteps of Jesus will share in the abundant witness of God’s reign no matter what governmental authority reigns over them.
Love In Action
In our treatment of others, it must never depend on who they are or what they do to us. How we view others should be controlled and governed based on their condition. Treating people as enemies will only create enemy-like reactions. Regardless of how evil someone may appear to be God still continues to provide his common grace to all that may even bless and prosper their efforts as well as ours. God is not dealing with them in a way according to what they are or even what they do to him but is governing the entire world by his own love which is absolutely disinterested. This love must be reciprocated, not by the actions and words of a few, but applying the principle of love this way opens the possibility of social change and progression that is cooperative in nature. It is this type of cooperation that birthed the Azusa street revival in 1906 which marked the beginning of Pentecostalism. William Seymour worked alongside black women who were involved and partnered with him in evolving the movement to what it is today. His influence by women’s spiritual leadership may seem unconventional but it demonstrates to us an example to follow and what the outcome may be.
When Jesus encountered the Samaritan women at the well it attested this very same idea of cooperation. He had already violated the expectations by not traveling around the city. His willingness to talk and accept a drink from her broke the conventions of a patriarchal society. Walter wink stated that “we can see that in every single encounter with women in the Gospels, Jesus violated the mores of his time.” In working together towards a common goal of social reform, we need to involve the masses to work as a team in constructing a community that unifies rather than seeks to disconnect.
A Unified Church
In the sermon on the mount, we are elevated to seek the higher ground, love our enemies, invite into the community and become a church that strives towards peacemaking. Only when the church renounces the way of violence will the people see what the Gospel truly means, because then they will see the way of Christ reenacted in the church. Responding to violence with love shapes our New Testament witness to work towards our challenges and difficulties in a given society and confronts our neighbor with mutual worth and value. Finding this common environment where all can experience a God entrenched vision of fellowship is what will tear down the segregated mentally in our communities.
The pilgrimage to nonviolence as King says is an approach that does something to hearts and souls of those who are committed to it. It’s in this commitment that a nonviolent love affair between our neighbor, enemy and community, can we then begin to see the change in racial segregation take place that incorporates all colors and creeds as God indented. A zealot option, as Yoder explains, seeks to create an atmosphere of war and rebellion in finding a peaceful resolution. The social ethical concern is moved by a deep desire to make things move in the right direction. The church has the unmistakable task of bridging the racial gap through love that will usher in the reign of God in an active and nonviolent manner. Love is the name for what God does to man in overcoming the disunion in which man lives. Reunification of this type of love is essential to working peacefully with those over us and responding to oppression through prayer and reconciliation one with another. The acid test of loving our enemies, as taught by Jesus, affirms our essential humanity, placing everyone in the context of an all-loving God.