by J. Denny Weaver, originally published by Mennonite Church USA’s Menno Snapshots
This post is part of Mennonite Church USA’s #BeTransformed series.
J. Denny Weaver graduated from Hesston College, Goshen College, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and Duke University. He taught in the religion department of Bluffton University for 31years. He interrupted seminary study for a term of service with Mennonite Central Committee in Algeria and, later, went to Haiti with three Community Peacemaker Teams (formerly Christian Peacemaker Teams) delegations. His writings include “Becoming Anabaptist,” “The Nonviolent Atonement” and “God Without Violence.” He and his wife, Mary, live in Madison, Wisconsin, and attend Madison Mennonite Church.
The continuing presence — even worship — of guns in our society and the slowly growing U.S. involvement in the war in Ukraine make it more important than ever for Anabaptists to maintain a nonviolent witness.
Nonviolence is central to the story of Jesus and his teaching about loving enemies, and it is also visible in surprising ways in the secular world, when we have eyes to see it.
One such unexpected validation of “love your enemies” appears in the pages of the second edition of Michael Schmidt’s “Donald Trump vs the United States.” In Schmidt’s account, John Kelly, chief of staff to then President Donald Trump, was deathly afraid that the fiery rhetoric exchanged between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could easily escalate into nuclear war. Both leaders had hidden insecurities, Schmidt wrote, and Kelly feared that the need of one of the leaders to save face and appear tough could result in a nuclear initiative. Kelly pointed out that tens of thousands of people would die in the first hours of a nuclear war and appealed to national security interests. Neither of these arguments made much impact on Trump, Schmidt said. Finally, Kelly appealed to Trump’s pride and ego. He explained that, beginning with President Dwight Eisenhower, no American president had tried to reach out and establish a relationship or made friends with a North Korean leader, and perhaps, Trump could be the first. With his pride engaged at the possibility of being first, Trump did establish a friendship with Kim Jong Un. The two met three times thereafter, and the immediate threat of a nuclear war was averted.
Schmidt’s account brought to mind Jesus’s injunction to avoid an-eye-for-an-eye retaliation, followed by three examples of how to respond to a provocation (Matthew 5:38-44). Turning the other cheek followed a strike on the right cheek. Since the left hand was not used in public, that strike can only be a backhanded slap by which a superior intends to insult or provoke a person of lesser standing. Turning the other cheek refuses the insult and turns it back on the aggressor. To surrender the undergarment with the coat means that a poor man who cannot repay an overwhelming debt will walk naked all day. In a society in which the one who causes nakedness is shamed, the act of surrendering the undergarment exposes an unjust economic situation. Finally, the regulations of the Roman occupiers of Palestine allowed a soldier to commandeer any local to carry the soldier’s heavy pack for one mile. Going the second mile put the soldier in violation of his own rules and could end up with the soldier begging the local to put it down, lest he face discipline and, perhaps, even make the soldier reluctant to ask another to carry it.
It is immediately after these three examples that Jesus tells us to love our enemies. These responses demonstrate what “love your enemies” means. Jesus says that when confronted with a situation of violence or injustice, rather than responding with equal or greater violence, do something to change or defuse the situation. Without the resort to violence, this approach offers the offender an opportunity to rectify unjust behavior. When we take seriously the belief that God is revealed and present in the life and teaching of Jesus, this rejection of violence also describes the character of God, the creator of all that is. With eyes shaped by the teachings and life of Jesus, that rejection of violence becomes visible in the grain of the universe that God created.
Retired General John Kelly had no idea of the ultimate significance of the suggestion that Donald Trump develop a relationship with Kim Jong Un. Nonetheless, I believe that the suggestion did reflect the grain of the universe.
When we understand that love your enemies means to act in a way that defuses a situation or exposes an injustice, it is apparent that it is not an impossible ideal but a commonsense way to act in the so-called real world.
The account by Michael Schmidt illustrates that truth. This story should reinforce our shared Anabaptist commitment to nonviolence and being a peace church. For the good of our society, as well as for our churches, we should seek every way possible to witness to that peace in our society.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
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