One of my favorite John Wayne movies was his final one – The Shootist. In it he plays an aging gunman who is dying of cancer. In one scene, he’s asked how he came to kill so many men. In part of his response, he refers to a code he lived by:
“I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a-hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”
That’s the American way. The way of John Wayne. Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson.
But it is not Christ’s way.
We’ve been teaching this semester on what life looks like when we live as citizens of the Kingdom of God. The more we study, the more we realize that this kind of life is counter-cultural to both our society and much of the religious (even Christian) world. This week’s passage included these verses:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48
The response of a follower of Christ is the complete opposite of John Wayne’s character. Our response to those who hurt or injure us – or who are different – should be noticeably different than the attitudes of those around us.
For most of us, however, this is all theoretical. We may have people who hurt our feelings or treat us unfairly. But we don’t face much persecution and would be hard-pressed to find someone we could call an enemy.
But as I mentioned in my last post, that is not the case everywhere. David B. Barrett, Todd M. Johnson, and Peter F. Crossing, in a 2009 report in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (Vol. 33, No. 1: 32), estimated that approximately 176,000 Christians would be martyred from mid-2008 to mid-2009. Though there isn’t a way to verify those numbers, even if they were less than half right, there are thousands of Christians who are learning to apply these verses in a very real way.
In a recent issue of Newsweek, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, writes:
Since 2003 more than 900 Iraqi Christians (most of them Assyrians) have been killed by terrorist violence in Baghdad alone, and 70 churches have been burned, according to the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA). Thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled as a result of violence directed specifically at them, reducing the number of Christians in the country to fewer than half a million from just over a million before 2003. AINA understandably describes this as an “incipient genocide or ethnic cleansing of Assyrians in Iraq.”
Recently, Michael has started worshiping with us. He is a grad student from Baghdad. He is also a Christian. On Sunday, he shared with our gathering about his experience as a Christian in Iraq. About not being able to leave his home at night because of the possibility of attack. About his family having to leave their home and move to another city where it was safer for Christians. About friends who were killed when their church was attacked by insurgents.
But he also talked about walking in faith and not in fear. He talked about the choice to respond in love. To forgive. To reach out to their attackers. To let their light shine before men so that they could give glory to God.
And their Muslim neighbors noticed. They saw the counter-cultural way of Jesus.
“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:9-21