As we approach Independence Day, we are reminded of the Declaration of Independence, that document that set-in motion the War of Independence of the United States from Great Britain. It gave us those famous lines, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men 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.” With years of struggle it would slowly become self-evident that women and people of color also have the same unalienable rights.
The Declaration of Independence was a work that took time and effort. Fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence. Like the leaders against oppression all around the world, the signers of the Declaration of Independence experienced untold sufferings for themselves and their families. Of the 56 men, five were captured by the British and tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost their sons in the Revolutionary Army. Another had two sons captured. Nine of the fifty-six fought and died from wounds or hardships of the war. Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships sunk by the British navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts and died in poverty. At the battle of Yorktown, the British General Cornwallis had taken over Thomas Nelson's home for his headquarters. Nelson quietly ordered General George Washington to open fire on the Nelson home. The home was destroyed and Nelson died bankrupt. John Hart was driven from his wife's bedside as she was dying. Their thirteen children fled for their lives. His fields and mill were destroyed. For over a year, he lived in forest and caves, returning home only to find his wife dead and his children vanished. A few weeks later, he died from exhaustion. Such carnage is repeated over and over wherever conflict rages. In Jesus’ life his stance for the truth earned him enemies.
Jesus’ teaching for us today is a declaration of nonviolent personal resistance, spoken in a time of Roman occupation. Jesus acknowledges that we must face evil and may even suffer for it. Jesus says we are not to resist evil. This doesn’t mean we ignore it or hide from it, but we face it with courage and all our humanity and dignity. It shocks us to hear Jesus say, turn and let your other check be hit, let your cloak be taken, go the second mile. Yet none of these examples imply we are to be submissive to violence. Instead Jesus is asking us to resist evil from the depths of our humanity, while never losing sight of the humanity of the perpetrator. Nelson Mandela saw the virtues of this style of resistance; Gandhi observed the old law of “an eye for an eye” only makes the whole world blind.
Jesus’ advice is hard to enact because the first result of conflict is often to dehumanize or devalue the person with whom we are at odds. Today we see examples in the popular media, and from political candidates comments against immigrants and Muslims, the poor, people different from us. Jesus again turns this thinking on its head. He says, it has been said, “t I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Love one another as I Love you.” Love means that we treat enemies, people different from ourselves, as we want to be treated. We want food, clean water, shelter, safety in the storm. So let’s wish that for everyone,
Jesus had enemies, some of the Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, even the Romans with whom he exchanged heated words and spoke the truth. He never backed away from them or sought to physically harm them even when they inflicted bodily harm. Instead he stood his ground with dignity and purpose. Jesus challenged his enemies and even prayed forgiveness for them from the cross.
Jesus never spoke an opinion about armed conflict, although he had a zealot who believed in armed revolution in his company of disciples. Yet when Peter struck and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Jesus did not encourage the counter-attack. Instead he healed the man saying, “those who use the sword will die by the sword.” Matt.26:52.
These acts of nonviolent resistance and of courage tell us what true freedom is about. Jesus puts it this way. “Be perfect,” Jesus exhorts, as your heavenly father is perfect. A better word for perfect here would be “become whole,” “complete” or “mature.” We are created to be whole people.Hate and indifference diminish us. Jesus would have us free. Jesus fought in his own way to the cross to make us free people. Free to have dignity in our personhood, free to act with conscience and moral principle. Free to be a people that do not enslave other people. A free people not afraid of differences of other people. A free people not afraid to stand up against injustice. We may not like certain people. But the gospel calls us to act in their best interest as well. That’s moral perfection.
Be perfect – loving as Jesus taught us to love, even when it is hard. Just as all the patriots, freedom fighters, pacifists, activists for human rights, have all discovered. It takes courage to love. Nobel Laureate and Jewish theologian, and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel, said in his speech accepting his Nobel Peace Prize: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." (The Nobel Peace Prize speech, 1986).
Whose side will we take? Stand with Jesus, in freedom and courage, to face evil. Will we remember Oscar Ramirez and his daughter 2 year old, Valeria, who drowned this past week trying to cross the border. Let us make it our declaration to take our stand against evil and for freedom as Jesus did. Let us speak and act with courage and love, and in doing so become Children of God perfect as our heavenly Father created us to be. Amen.