This series explores the biblical vision of peacemaking, what being committed to Jesus’ way of nonviolence might entail, and how we as Christ’s followers can point the world to a peace that is beyond its apprehension and capacity to make. Read previous posts here.
To believe in the power of God’s redeeming love is, of course, an act of faith. Jesus’ way of “defenselessness” is a scandal to those who think that evil and sin have the upper hand in the world and can’t be eliminated without the use of force. By contrast, Christ’s way relies on the certainty that through a power greater than ourselves, the forces of death can be redeemed here and now. It assumes that the cross, not power or force, is God’s way of overcoming evil and breaking the cycle of violence. To love the enemy is thus an act not only in keeping with conscience, but with the way God works to renew this world.
I never tire of hearing about stories of nonviolence. In a world bent on tearing itself apart, I need reminding that love indeed is a force more powerful than any other. In a book I recently edited, Bearing Witness, I devote a chapter to the story of Sarah Corson. In the early 80s, Sarah Corson, along with her fifteen-year-old son Tommy, were working in a remote village in South America, trying to help the village people start a church and build a fish hatchery. One evening, while on her porch, she heard a crash. A soldier had accidentally stepped into their water barrel. Then, in the clearing, she saw about thirty soldiers rushing their house. The newly elected government was convinced that Americans were to blame for the resistance to their takeover. They would not rest until they had exterminated every American in Sarah’s zone.
Sarah had only a split second to pray. Paralyzed with fear and responsible for the team members inside the house she uttered: “God, please take away this fear. I don’t want to die afraid. Please help me to die trusting you.” She was immediately aware of God’s presence. She then stepped up to the closest soldier and welcomed him. “Come in. You do not need guns to visit us.” At that, the soldier jumped, dropped the bullet he was putting in his gun, and shouted, “Not me. I’m not the one. I’m just following orders.”
“God, please take away this fear. I don’t want to die afraid. Please help me to die trusting you.”
At that, the commander stepped up to Sarah and shoved the muzzle of his rifle against Sarah’s stomach. The soldier who led the attack also turned his gun on her. They were convinced that no American would live in poverty unless they had a political motivation. But Sarah explained that she was there to teach the Bible. Had they ever read the Bible, she asked? “You have missed the best part of your life. Please let me tell you what it says.”
The soldiers made no objection. Sarah then proceeded to read the Sermon on the Mount from her Spanish Bible.
“Jesus teaches love your enemies, and to return good for evil.”
“That’s humanly impossible!” the commander cried out.
“That’s true, sir,” she answered. “It isn’t humanly possible, but with God’s help it is possible.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“You can prove it, sir. I know you came here to kill us. So just kill me slowly, if you want to prove it. Cut me to pieces little by little, and you will see you cannot make me hate you. I will die praying for you because God loves you, and we love you too.”
The commander lowered his gun and stepped back. He was almost convinced of their innocence, but was still under orders to take Sarah and the rest to a jungle military camp. At gunpoint, the soldiers took them into the village and began to load them onto trucks with the others there. Suddenly, the commander had a change of mind: “Halt!” he said. “Take only the men. The women will come with me.”
He then led Sarah and the other women back to Sarah’s home. “I know what they do to women prisoners,” he explained. “You would be abused many times. I cannot take you. I could have fought any amount of guns you might have had,” he went on to say, “but there is something here I cannot understand. I cannot fight it.”
“I could have fought any amount of guns you might have had, but there is something here I cannot understand. I cannot fight it.”
Not knowing what would happen to the men and the rest of their team, the local people insisted they could not have a service in the church on Sunday. The soldiers would consider such a meeting as subversive activity. But on Thursday night they received a message that the commander who had attacked them was planning to be at their Sunday service. He asked to be picked up, since he had no jeep on Sundays. He was determined to come, even if he had to walk ten miles. It sounded like a threat.
Sarah took a jeep and went to get the commander, along with his bodyguard. The people decided, in faith, to hold a Sunday service after all. The commander and his bodyguard marched coldly into the church, still holding their rifles. The church was packed before the first hymn was over. Sarah led the service, and did what was customary: welcome the visitors by inviting them to the platform, singing a welcome song, and waving to them. Everyone would then line up to shake the visitor’s hands, hug them, and say some personal words of greeting.
Hesitantly, the soldiers came up and stood very formally with their guns across their backs. As songs were sung, a man on the front seat came forward and put out his hand. “Brother, we don’t like what you did to our village, but this is the house of God, and God loves you, so you are welcome here.” One by one, the congregation, including the women, came up to welcome them. The soldiers stood there incredulously.
Then the commander went to the pulpit. “I can hardly believe what I have seen and heard this morning. I was told that Christians love their enemies, but I didn’t believe it. But you have proven it to me this morning. I have never believed in a God before, but from this point forward I will never doubt his existence as long as I live.” In a low voice he confessed, “I don’t know God, but I hope someday I shall, and that someday we can once again greet each other as brothers and sisters, as we have done this morning.”
“I was told that Christians love their enemies, but I didn’t believe it. But you have proven it to me this morning.”
The soldiers went home with Sarah for lunch and then left, planning a return visit that never transpired. Three days later the U.S. embassy was successful in negotiating the release and return of all the Americans in the country.
The way of nonviolent love does not come naturally, nor is it easy. A soldier of shalom must let the story of their lives be rewritten by the author of life. This takes time and it takes work. It ultimately takes faith. But it is the only way to demonstrate the power of the cross that transforms evil into good. Ultimately, evil lies within each one of us. Only love can reach that place within to dislodge all that gives rise to violence in the world. The use of force may restrain and punish evil, but it cannot redeem it. Yet this is why Jesus came into the world: “Behold, I make all things new!” Including enemies and nations at war!
I’m not done yet; I’ll continue these thoughts in two weeks – check back then for more!Comments
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