Sunday, August 1, 2010

Nonviolence: A Matter of Forgiveness; A Gift of the Holy Spirit

Today we went to church with one of the guys we're living with at Casa San Dimas here in San Francisco. The sermon was on Mark 2:1-12, the story of the paralytic who is lowered through the roof in Capernaum. The twist of the story is that when the man is lowered in front of Jesus, instead of healing him right away, Jesus says the following crazy thing (don't worry, he heals him afterwards! ;-) :

“Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.”

-Mark 2:8-11

I had left our house this morning to head to church after reading a book on nonviolence titled, "Is There No Other Way" and, needless to say, had the topic of Christian nonviolence on my mind when we walked into church. The passage from Mark that was being preached on brought back to me a memory of another thing Jesus said long after the healing of the paralytic and shortly after his resurrection. Bear with me here I swear this'll make sense in a minute:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”

- John 20:19-23

This must have resounded with the disciples and perhaps would have been difficult to hear, for earlier in Jesus teachings, when he taught them how to pray he had said:

(Following the Lord's prayer) For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

- Matthew 6:14

And perhaps they had remembered what he had said to his enemies while dying on the cross days before:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

- Luke 23:33-34

People have been asking me over the last few months as I have explored the issue of Jesus and non-violence, "What got you so interested in this issue? Why do you think it's so important? Shouldn't you be focusing more of your attention on more 'doctrinal' issues like salvation, sanctification, etc?" These are valid concerns, and were my focus strictly on "non-violence" itself, perhaps these concerns would be justified. Yet I feel that non-violence strikes at the heart of a much deeper issue that has more to do with how we respond to God's forgiveness, Jesus cross, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit than it does with nonviolence as a stand-alone ethic.

I've heard it preached, and I can't remember from where, that the one thing that Jesus asks us to share with him in is His cross. Jesus tells his disciples to , "take up their cross and follow me" and after he was taken up to heaven many of his disciples literally did so under persecution from Rome. At the essence of what it means to be a disciple is emulation of the teacher. Over and over again at church we are told we should become more like Jesus. The WWJD movement said it well with their simple reasoning for situational ethics, "What would Jesus do?" Many Christians are willing to do this when it comes to healing the sick, clothing the naked, and visiting those in prison yet they stop where Jesus words are perhaps the strongest and most difficult: "If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld." Here in John 20, not only has Jesus given us the power (through the Holy Spirit) to heal the broken but he has given us the power to forgive sins. Over and over again throughout his teaching ministry Jesus reminds us of the importance of our forgiveness of others (including our enemies) and how this forgiveness we offer is balanced spiritually to how God forgives us. This is why the gift Jesus offers to his disciples of the ability to forgive sins must be complimented with the teaching that, "If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your father forgive your trespasses." To put it bluntly: "You have been forgiven your sins and I am bestowing onto you the ability to forgive others their sins as well as the ability not to. Yet if you choose not to forgive others their sins, neither will I forgive you yours." Jesus reinforces this dynamic in the parable of the ungrateful servant (Mat. 18:21-35) and perhaps more importantly (if we're discussing how a disciple should be like his teacher) we see this radical forgiveness exemplified in its fullest in Jesus death on the cross for even his enemies as we see in Luke 23.

And so to put it simply, the reason why I feel that non-violence is vitally important to the Christian life has less to do with nonviolence per se and has much more to do with what Jesus taught concerning his forgiveness and our God-given spiritual gift and obligation to forgive others in response. If we have been forgiven much than how much more should we be willing to forgive our enemies even when they take our lives and the lives of our families? Non-violence and forgiveness as a response to violence is a scriptural value, important not only as a Christian ethic, but also as a response of the Christ-changed heart showing the fruits of the Spirit.