He lived by what He taught. When the Romans came for Him and beat Him incessantly, He could have called ten thousand angels to His defense. Instead, He turned the other cheek. After they nailed Him to the cross, mocked Him, demeaned Him publicly in the most shameful way possible, He still prayed for them, asking God to forgive them for their sins. Upon seeing how Jesus died, the centurion said from the foot of the cross, “Surely this was a righteous man” (Luke 23:47).
A few years ago, someone asked me a piercing question about the Sermon of the Plains (or the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel): “Where is the line between turning the other cheek and being someone’s doormat?” Wow! What a great question! “Jesus. Oh, Jesus. I need you to come answer this lady’s question for me, please.”
Jesus let me struggle with that question for a while. Later that day, when I heard that Rosa Parks, the mother of the civil rights movement, had died at the age of 92, I felt as if I’d found part of the answer to her question.
Rosa Parks was tired of being a doormat, and she was tired of her people being doormats. It was a simple request, but in politely refusing to give up her seat on the bus, Rosa Parks drew a line in the sand. Through her defiance, a movement was started which we embrace today as the catalyst of the Civil Rights Movement. But, how was Rosa’s action Christ-like? How did her actions measure up against the words of Jesus as taught in the passage previously mentioned?
Jesus said in His sermon: “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back” (Luke 6:30). If you interpret Jesus’ words literally, Rosa Parks didn’t do what Jesus said to do. The white man asked the black seamstress for her seat on the bus. Wasn’t she obliged to give it up? If not on the basis of the South’s culture of racial separation of the day, which demanded that she do so, how about as a follower of Jesus? Didn’t Jesus say “Give to everyone who asks?”
We cannot take everything that Jesus said to its literal extremes. Jesus once said:
If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. (Matt. 18:8-9)
People in their right minds would never actually cut off parts of their bodies in order to fulfill this commandment of Jesus. Jesus would never want that. What’s the intent of His message? Sometimes we must go to extreme measures in order to keep sin out of our lives. That’s the message!
When we interpret Jesus’ message in the statement, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back,” we must use the same logic. What if we gave to everyone who asks? Wouldn’t that be psychotic? What if someone asked for sex? What if someone asked us for our entire paycheck? What if someone asked for our child? You might say that these are ridiculous scenarios. Perhaps. They are intended to show that Jesus’ words have a general intent and should not be taken to a literal extreme.
The general intent of His words about our enemies is that we must seek to change our enemies by loving them. Perhaps in loving them we can actually make them our friends. By our love we can show them the error of their ways. We can make some enemies into friends by showing kindness to them;by surprising them with non-violent behavior and unbelievable generosity. In short, we should act lovingly toward them. This doesn’t guarantee that they will cease being our enemies. In fact, Jesus’ enemies didn’t cease being His. Instead, they killed Him. Likewise, many African Americans died in non-violent protests seeking a change in the laws of our country.
Rosa Parks’ actions were non-violent. Non-violent resistance became the cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rosa Parks’ resistance was in keeping with the spirit of what Jesus taught in this passage, as she sought to overcome evil with good, although she didn’t follow what He taught in a literal sense.
Jesus also demonstrated in His life that there are times when the enemy must be confronted directly with his evil ways. Evil must be resisted or else it will continue. Evil can be resisted even while we are still loving those who are perpetrating the evil. The truth of the Civil Rights Movement is that without the non-violent resistance to the racial inequalities of our laws, change might have never occurred.
While Rosa Parks wasn’t the first brave soul to emerge in defiance of unjust laws, she was the first to be cast into the spotlight, and the one for whom the torch of the Civil Rights Movement would be carried for future generations because of her courage not to move.
In defying the order to move from her seat on that bus in Montgomery, she wasn’t only making a seat for herself; she represented all African Americans who continued to be subjected to that kind of injustice. In that sense, her refusal to move was a way of loving others who continued to be demeaned as she was being demeaned.
Her actions remind me of those of the Apostle Paul and Silas. While preaching in Philippi they were arrested, beaten, and thrown into prison. After an earthquake shook the prison, causing the cells of the prison doors to come open and the chains of the prisoners to break free from the walls, they didn’t escape. Instead they witnessed to the jailer and convinced him to become a believer in Jesus.
When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.” But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.” (Acts 16:35-37)
Paul stood up for himself and against the injustice shown to him and his friend Silas. In doing so, he was standing up for all Roman citizens. Should this injustice go unchecked, what would prevent them from beating another Roman citizen?
Paul and Silas’ protest was not contrary to the teachings and the nature of Jesus. By speaking out they were not allowing evil to go unchecked.
Of course the questions are raised, “What’s evil? What’s good? What must be done?” It’s easy to draw the line in such a way as to put ourselves on the side of the good and others on the side of evil. Jesus warned us plainly, though, about making the mistake of the Pharisees by pointing out the speck in our brother’s eye while having a log in our own. Should we get past that dilemma, evil ought to be easy enough to identify. It ought to be. But the Civil Rights Movement reminds us just how easy it is for us to have logs in our eyes. Thankfully, God sends us people like Rosa Parks who have helped us see ourselves as we really are simply by refusing to be a doormat any longer.
There’s still more to be done. What work have you contributed to race relations? Have you the courage to draw the line where evil is being done?
Do you have the courage to stand up when there is prejudice being levied against the poor, the overweight, the wealthy, the politically liberal or conservative, women, homosexuals, the elderly, immigrants, believers of other religions? Prejudice comes in a variety of forms. Where is your weakness?
I realize some of you reacted negatively to some of the categories in the above list. However, we don’t have to agree with people’s choices before we stand against those who are mistreating them. Jesus stood with the woman caught in adultery, before she turned from her sin. He stood against the prejudices of those who were rallying against her. Not only must we do that to be like Jesus, but in order to be forgiven by Jesus we must confess when we are among those with rocks in our hands seeking to harm someone instead of love them.
May we continue to strive to fulfill the words of our Declaration of Independence, which states that “all men [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Just having these words in a document doesn’t make them so. Otherwise, the Civil Rights Movement would never have been necessary, and slavery would never have been a part of our history. Otherwise, the Women’s Suffrage Movement would not have been necessary. Otherwise, the law preventing poor whites who could not afford to own land from voting would not have had to be changed. We must live to make sure the words of the Declaration remain a reality for ALL people, even though those words obviously did not mean “all people” in its original intent.
Just because our African-American brothers and sisters moved through that wilderness and in some ways have found the Promised Land that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed about, that dream is far from a reality for many African Americans, other minorities, and even for many poor whites. Poverty is no respecter of persons. Hunger knows no color barrier.
Remember there is still injustice around us. God still calls people of all races and economic brackets to stand up for the powerless, to speak up for the defenseless, and to lift up the fallen. Yes, there may be a cost involved, but if you want some inspiration, look to the same person who inspired the leaders of our Civil Rights Movement; look to the One who went to the cross to stand up for all who were powerless over sin and defenseless over the enemy’s temptations, and who was lifted up from the earth in order to draw all men and women to Himself. Look to Jesus.