December 4, 2008
by Patrick Lafferty
Do not repay evil for evil, or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless.
1 Peter 3:9
Many things make a man, but two things did most to form the man Martin Luther King, Jr. The first was that he’d become acutely aware, at an early age, what it felt like to be oppressed on the basis of his skin color. The second was that he’d been steeped since birth in two complementary notions—that God had assigned dignity to men equitably by making them in His image, and that God had achieved man’s liberation from sin by His Son’s refusal to retaliate against those who maligned and murdered Him. As one who’d been oppressed and who had trusted in the One who’d suffered the severest oppression, King spearheaded a campaign to win justice and equity for African-Americans by the same means His Lord had used. The same Lord who had preached, “Love your enemies and pray for those persecute you.” The same Lord who inspired the apostle Peter to write, “Do not repay evil for evil, or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless.”
Though he would suffer indignity, revilement, beatings, imprisonments, and threats, King refused to repay the evil with evil, for he knew that there was a paradoxically stronger power to be exerted through nonviolence. The nonviolent movement seemed to grow with every new instance of unreciprocated violence against them.
Stokeley Carmichael also knew the life of oppression. He, too, had received threats and seen his friends disparaged, mistreated, impugned, and even murdered. For a time he walked in lockstep with King and the nonviolent, gospel-centered movement. But in time his patience for restraint grew thin. To him, achieving equality through nonviolence eventually seemed foolish and futile. Such a conclusion led him to push no longer just for equality, but for power. And the pursuit of power would be exerted by way of raw, unbridled retribution, if necessary. Nonviolent resistance would take a back seat to a strategy that sought ostensibly more immediate results.
Thus set sail a separate movement, loosed from the moorings of Peter’s received wisdom not to repay evil for evil. Now insult would be met with insult, beatings with beatings.
Henri Nouwen wrote in his little book In the Name of Jesus, “Dealing with burning issues without being rooted in a deep personal relationship with God easily leads to divisiveness because, before we know it, our sense of self is caught up in our opinion about a given subject.” What he means is that our pursuit of a principle is compromised when we allow the defense of ourselves to become the overriding motivation for our effort. Truth can end up taking a back seat to will.
The more Stokely Carmichael asserted his movement’s quest for power, the more obvious it became that self-interest had replaced interest in the noble truth of ascribing equal dignity to all. He and his movement became like their adversaries, rather than rising above them and contending for something more noble because what they defended was greater than those who contended for it.
Your struggles may not be as epic as the civil rights movement, but life presents ample occasion for having to contend for something. The defense of both epic causes and small principles requires the same commitment to the Lord’s call to bless rather than retaliate. In any friendship, any business relationship, any marriage, unless it’s the pursuit of the truth of the matter that motivates us, too easily we begin to defend our mere selves. In doing so we risk escalating the tension, upholding the matter of lesser value, and delaying a resolution. Our fallen, deceitful selves (Jeremiah 17:9) require a sturdier, purer motivation for contending than merely the defense of our desires.
Whatever you find yourself contending for, the true object of your pursuit will be revealed by the means you seek to obtain it. Trading insults and jabs is a defense of the self, while absorbing blows as you represent truth bespeaks a quest for a greater thing. What does the way you engage in disagreement or argument reveal about what your true quest is for? How might His call not to repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling adjust not only the means, but the ends, of your contending?