A WORD FROM THE PASTOR: Two Bible Passages That Must Be Read Together
Sometimes I declare, flatly and unequivocally: Louis Armstrong is the greatest figure in the history of American music.
That statement often draws funny looks. And I know what people are thinking: “You mean the gentle, genial, gravel-voiced singer who gave us ‘Hello Dolly’ and ‘It’s a Wonderful World’ and other examples of feel-good fluff? You mean that guy?” And then I explain that they have only heard one aspect of Armstrong’s career. You must go back to the 1920s and hear the consummate cornetist and triumphant trumpeter who single-handedly changed the sound of American music. You have to hear a recording like 1927's “Potato Head Blues,” which Woody Allen once placed on a list of “things that make life worth living.” (Of course, from a Christian point of view, only God makes life worth living...but from a musical viewpoint, Woody was totally right). Or “West End Blues” from 1928–surely the greatest recording ever made. If all one knows about Louis is “What a Wonderful World,” then one does not know Louis at all. To truly have a picture of who Mr. Armstrong was, we need to know both aspects of his career.
That’s sometimes true of the Bible, too. We embrace a beloved passage of the Good Book...and we read all of life through that single passage. But sometimes there are other passages that further clarify the passage we love.
I’m thinking especially about the Sermon on the Mount–Matthew 5-7–where Jesus gives us some challenging teachings about human conduct. Some Christians take that chapter to mean that we should never punish evildoers. “Resist not evil,” after all. This has led Christians to take some fairly extreme positions. A number of eminent Christian thinkers suggest that our country get rid of its military. If we are invaded, we will respond to the invasion with non-violent demonstrations that eventually will compel the invader to leave our country. These people take the Sermon on the Mount so seriously that they are willing to base our entire defense policy on “turn the other cheek!”
Others apply this concept to criminal justice. I once heard a very nice pastor give a talk to a community organization–a talk about abolishing jails and prisons. The Sermon on the Mount was being applied to criminal justice–“Turn the other cheek.”
This tendency of Christians to not take wrongdoing seriously was memorably lampooned by Lenny Bruce in his sketch “Father Flotsky’s Triumph.” Father Flotsky is attempting to quell a prison riot, and he says to the leader of the unruly prisoners: “You’re not a bad boy, Gus. Killing six children never made anybody bad!” Certainly Father Flotsky was steeped in the Sermon on the Mount. So was the well-known nun who sought mercy for a double murderer by declaring: “A person is so much more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
The latest example of this sort of thing comes from a group of churches who have vowed to never call the police under any circumstances. These churches actually believe the police force should be abolished. The local community should take care of its own problems without getting the police involved. (And no, the churches are not arming their members!) In general, these churches feel that they need to trust God for their protection, not the police.
My first thought is a sarcastic one: If I’m a hold-up man, I know where I’m gonna be spending my Sunday mornings! My second thought is a sobering one: A museum devoted to the history of lynching in America was recently opened in Alabama. Lynching is what happens when “the community” takes care of its problems. (And if we think that sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore, think again: On May 22, just a few days ago, in southern France, a group of 12 teenagers beat to death a man suspected of selling drugs. “The community” took care of its problems. Local police correctly called it a lynching).
The Sermon on the Mount, then, can create some extreme attitudes in believers. But that’s because it was not meant to be read in isolation. There are other Bible chapters that clarify exactly what Jesus means by resist not evil. Just like we don’t understand Louis Armstrong if we listen only to “It’s a Wonderful World” and neglect “Potato Head Blues,” so also we don’t understand the Sermon on the Mount if we don’t also read a chapter like...ROMANS 13!
In Romans 12, Paul says some Sermon on the Mount-type things. He completely forbids revenge. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. What the verse means is that only God has the right to take revenge. So–revenge is forbidden. Just like in the Sermon on the Mount. So that means we let bad people skate, right?
But then, launching into Chapter 13, Paul drops the other shoe. He talks about government. “The one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Individuals are not to take revenge–that is what “Turn the other cheek” in the Sermon on the Mount tells us. But the institutions of government–law enforcement, the courts, etc.–are established by God so that justice can be brought to those who do wrong. In other words: We do not take private revenge, because God, in the institutions of government, has established ways to bring His judgement upon those who hurt others.
That God uses the state as an instrument of His justice does not mean that He does not forgive wrongdoers. There is a scene in the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” where an escaped convict is baptized. And he is delighted! All his sins have been taken away! His crimes are forgiven in the eyes of the Lord. A fellow convict says: “The Lord may have forgiven you, but the state of Mississippi may have a different viewpoint.” In baptism, God forgave his sins; but through the government of Mississippi, God still punishes those sins. The wrongdoer escapes hell, but not prison. God forgives the debt of sin, but the convict still owes a “debt to society.”
Government is not always perfect. The recent pardon of boxer Jack Johnson, after more than 100 years of injustice, is a reminder that the law sometimes makes wrong decisions. Police officers, judges, and others who administer the law are human beings–flawed and sinful, like all of us. But they are given authority by God to bring justice in the world. We pray for them, that they will always use this power and authority wisely.
So Romans 13 tells us it’s okay to have a military, and it’s okay to call the authorities. They are given by God to establish justice. But the Sermon on the Mount tells us that, in our personal interactions with others, we turn the other cheek, and show the kind of forgiveness that we ourselves have received from the crucified and risen Saviour.
God loves you and so do I!