On July 5th we will gather in church either at the E3 Service or at the Traditional 11 a.m. Service to hear Bob Clendening sing Patriotic Anthems and be inspired to love and serve God. As the 4th of July approaches, recent events make me recognize how important it is for us as Christians to hold our nation accountable to God's standards seen in the life of Christ. With the racially motivated murders at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, we see how far we have to go to be "a city on a hill," lighting the way for the rest of the world. Churches were in the forefront of the abolition movement that led to the end of slavery 150 years ago, and we can continue to be prophets to a world of hate that the love of Christ is the answer to the problem of racial, ethnic, socio-economic, and any other division among us.
The people of Emmanuel AME Church are an inspiration to me. They freely offered forgiveness to the perpetrator of the heinous crime that took the lives of nine of their loved ones, including 3 of their ministers. In listening to their testimony, I understand that the motivation for their forgiveness was not because it would ease their pain by letting go of their anger and hurt. That pain will never go away, though in time it may become more bearable. Their motivation was to be faithful followers of their Lord, who forgave those who took his life.
Standing up to hatred and violence with love and forgiveness is one of the hardest and riskiest things one can do. It takes courage, strength, and a belief in a loving and merciful God for it to make any sense to react to violence in this way. Our natural inclination is to react in kind, demanding revenge. We hear loud voices clamoring for the death penalty for the perpetrator, and we think it only fair. But our Lord said, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also....You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you can be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." (Matt. 5:38-39, 43-45)
Jesus understood that limiting violence to reciprocity was an improvement to escalating violence (that was the purpose of the eye-for-an-eye injunction in Leviticus). But to overcome violence rather than simply to limit it, we need to meet it head on with the only power that is stronger than it is, God's love. To overcome evil we need to meet it head on with the only power that is stronger than it, God's goodness. If we are to be children of God, it is our calling to take up arms - that is, arms that hug and arms that uplift others - in order to confront those with arms that kill.
Being a Christian is not for the faint of heart. It takes the courage of Christ to oppose those with evil intentions with the weapons he has given us, the whole armor of God: "Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." (Ephesians 6:14-17)
As Christ liked to say, "Go and do likewise."
Grace and Peace,
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Rev. Dr. Shannon Smythe
United Presbyterian Church