A dear friend from Chicago visited me recently in Los Angeles. Both of us are Christians, and while we agreed that violent force was not preferable, I think he felt I was too radical in implying that any show of violence is unchristian. “I agree,” he told me, “that we shouldn’t kill people, I just hope you’re never in a situation where you have to shoot someone.” I paused for a moment to think about what he had just said, to picture my loved ones in a moment of life-threatening danger. And then it dawned on me, “There is never a situation where I have to shoot someone.” He questioned me further, “What if someone was trying to kill you? Or to kill you family?” I replied, “I might want to shoot them, or try to shoot them, but I don’t have to—it’s my choice. It’s always my choice.”
My faith tradition is what reminds me that I do have choices—in everything. The consequences may be extreme, but it’s the narrative of the Christian faith that gives me the eyes to examine my options rather than act on instinct or cultural norms alone. Jesus found himself having to make a heavy choice when he was in a life-threatening situation. From the Christian perspective, his choice was not in vain. He succumbed to a murderous crucifixion, as many who have sought to follow him have since then, for a greater good—for the hope of a better way for humanity. It was high cost.
It’s hard to leave God un-implicated in violence when we Christians consider our sacred texts as a whole. But it is, after all, Jesus who we claim as our savior, Jesus who was and is our God in the flesh, who shows and teaches us, not how to be God but how to be human—fully human—God’s way. When Jesus had the “gun to his head” his choice was peace. When Peter struck out in his defense, he delivered healing. When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate alone and vulnerable he said, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom belonged to this world, my servants would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But for now my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). Clearly, his ethics—his sense of defenselessness—was not from here but it was for here. He operated according to God’s peaceful ways in this world, not according to the world’s violent ways in this world—that, he said, would have looked like his followers charging in with swords and clubs to save his life.
I’ve been asking myself lately what it means to love your enemies like Jesus taught. I’ve decided this is a difficult question. It may not be one that I can’t even fully answer right now because, at least not consciously, I don’t have any real enemies. I have people I fear and I have people I don’t like, but I’ve never purposefully called or felt that anyone was my enemy. As Dr. King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Perhaps, on a very personal level, I still live in a moment of comfort and convenience. I hope I never have to meet a true enemy, someone who threatens my life or that of my family, but what if I do? Then what would it mean for me to love them? It certainly couldn’t mean that I should kill them to defend my own life and what I love.
Jesus says in the gospel of John that “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me…” (12:25) My faith calls me to a higher ethic that says that true life, “life of the ages,” begins when we stop fighting for our lives, and instead we live for peace. It begins when we believe and walk according to the ethics of a peace-making God in the world. Dr. King lived this kind of Jesus-like ethic when he sought to peacefully bring all people into the Beloved Community. Unsurprisingly he and Jesus met ultimately similar fates. Dr. King said that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” At the heart of Christianity is the idea that if we can—in our communities and by the power of our faith—live according to this costly belief, it is the way of true life.