Susan B. W Johnson is pastor of Hyde Park Union Church in Chicago.
This article appeared in the Christian Century January 15, 1997, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Much of the training in nonviolent change consists of self-purification and the cleansing of hatred from the heart of those who would change the hearts of others.
We cannot be fishers of men and women if in our hearts we are haters of them. This truth draws together the lectionary passages from Jonah and Mark. It also reveals a nonviolent ethic: love even your enemies; become fishers of them. We will not win people to our convictions if we despise them.
Much of the training in nonviolent change consists of self-purification and the cleansing of hatred from the heart of those who would change the hearts of others. Nonviolence does not mean merely withholding the desire to kill. In its genuine manifestation, nonviolent action assumes that we cannot change others unless we are working on ourselves.
There are about ten weeks between the January 20 commemoration of the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. and the April 4 anniversary of his assassination -- fewer than 80 days between his 39th birthday and his dying. This time has become a uniquely American pre-Lenten period, a time for self-examination and atonement related to issues of race and class, and issues of freedom and nonviolent activity. A pre-Lenten focus on our faith in nonviolence may help us meld our hearts more fully with the undying love of the One who let himself be buried in darkness and death before rising in victory.
In the civil rights era, methods of nonviolent resistance and social reform were cultivated, tested, debated and refined. Experiments in pacifism were not entirely new to American soil, but the fight for civil rights became a highly visible proving ground -- not for the kind of pacifism characterized by sectarian "apartness," but for nonviolent methods of persuasion and dissent which engage a reluctant but dominant society.
Nearly 30 years later, we have barely kept the experiment with nonviolence alive. We seem to know less about how to communicate our differences, our anger, our demands. As a nation we are mired in the hypocrisy of mere civility; we are falsely soothed by the marketing of diversity; we are increasingly incapable of all but the crudest formulations of where our fights really are. At the fringes, gangs and militias give violent expression to an alienation fed by this national paralysis. Sadly, although the dominant culture abhors and fears such violence, we have little idea how to oppose it.
I remain deeply indebted to the nonviolent ethic and faith of Martin Luther King Jr., who proclaimed the gospel by his firm foundation in nonviolent resistance -- from his acceptance of jail and beatings and threats of death, to his refusal to hate a church whose moral laxity deeply disappointed him. In his letter from Birmingham Jail to white clergy, he resolved that he would, neither hate them nor wait for them, but would continue to test them and oppose them nonviolently. He would love the sinners but hate their sin.
In an Advent sermon aired on Christmas Eve 1967, King remarked how "happy" he was that Jesus had not said, "Like you enemies," because there were some people that "I find pretty difficult to like . . I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who would trample over me with injustices. I can’t like them. I can’t like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out."
But he could love them, he said, and King articulated what was at stake for him in loving those whom he could not like, those who would be so much easier to hate. "We will not only win freedom for ourselves [through nonviolence], we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory." King believed that to abandon nonviolence was to lose not just the double victory but any victory. "Hate is injurious to the hater as well as the hated," he said. "Hate is too great a burden to bear."
Jonah is the story of two prophets, a biblical Jekyll and Hyde. There is Jonah the reluctant prophet. Despite his efforts to escape duty, he is conveyed by a great fish to Nineveh so that he can prophesy to the people. And there is Jonah the self-righteous prophet, who is so angry and disappointed at God’s mercy toward the guilty that he would rather die than see their repentance and new life. We are not told the origins of Jonah’s reluctance to serve, but serve he did, as a doomsday prophet. Jonah became so enthralled with his role that he looked forward to the awesome destruction and fiery punishment of God’s people. When the people of Nineveh repented and turned toward God, Jonah remembered why he never wanted to be a prophet in the first place -- God’s mercy. God’s mercy would spoil everything.
There is not one among us, even the most peaceable human being, who has nothing to repent. Once there were gatherings in church basements around the country of blacks and whites, all repenting together of the hatred they possessed and violence they could do to the white people who would attack them during street demonstrations. But they also gathered to research the racism they fought, and to take direct nonviolent action against it -- a kind of "in their face" loving of one’s enemies.
To this end Jonah sat in the belly of the whale, and because he still could not understand it, he sat under a castor bean tree until he could hear that God loved even people who didn’t know their right hand from their left, until he could believe that the prophet comes with doom and the fisher with a net, because God loves the people. We cannot be the fishers of men and women if we hate them.