The War Within

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 7
February 19, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Our Lord calls us to resist violence, but not with more violence.

Jim Wallis, the Baptist minister who founded Washington D.C.'s Sojourners Community, has lived very simply among the urban poor of that city, advocating for social justice. But Jim tells of one particular day that tested his resolve: the day he got mugged.

Wallis had just stepped out of his house when four teenagers knocked him to the ground. He could hear them yelling, "Keep him down! Get his wallet!"

"I popped up quickly," Wallis writes, "which seemed to surprise them. Seeing no weapons flashed, I squared to face my attackers." Three of his assailants appeared about 15, and one couldn't have been more than 13.

The boys backed up a little when they saw Wallis, who is a weightlifter, was bigger than them. He began to scold them. He told them just to stop terrorizing people, he said, "I'm a pastor!" He told them if they wanted to try to rob a pastor, they should come ahead and take their best shot.

The youthful muggers turned and ran. But as they did, the littlest kid called back as he ran, "Pastor, ask God for a blessing for me."1


What's intriguing about this incident is that it offers a glimpse into the mind of a boy who is risking his future happiness - even his life - mugging people.

It's clear from the way the boy shouts back over his shoulder, pleading a blessing, that his motives are mixed. Something is at war within him. There's the innocence of childhood versus the hard cynicism of the streets. There's a respect for God - learned from his grandmother, perhaps - versus the terrifying fear that the Devil just may be stronger.

There's a line in the letter of James that speaks to this double-mindedness: "Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings, which are at war within you?"2

Many of us have a war raging within. The fire of resentment, which if not managed emotionally and spiritually, may erupt into violence. Not a mugger's brand of violence, necessarily. Harsh words or even cold silences can vent spleen just as effectively. But if it causes any sort of harm to another, it's violence all the same.

No doubt, if we could have stopped and interviewed one of those teenagers who mugged Jim Wallis, he would have told a tale of resentment that - in their minds, anyway - justified the violence.

No doubt you feel they have little in common with you. The circumstances of their lives are so different from yours: but in fact, this tendency to respond to our cravings with anger directed at another is a universal human trait.

There was a TV commercial for a Wall Street brokerage firm that showed a drooling, fierce-looking lion, padding directly toward the viewer. The voice-over asks, "Where do you want to fit into the food chain?"

The implication is, "It's a jungle out there - and you'd better eat your lunch before someone else does - or, even worse, eats you for lunch!" We don't like to think of business competition as an inherently violent enterprise, but this commercial suggests it can be.

Take that, Hammurabi!

Jesus teaches us a radically different way of managing the war within. In his Sermon on the Mount, he mentions a line of conventional wisdom: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'"

That's an ancient legal principle stated in both the Old Testament3 and the Code of Hammurabi - named for the Babylonian king who promulgated it. It's the foundational principle of what some call equivalent justice.

It may sound like a harsh, even primitive law code, but at the time it was introduced, it was a significant advance in legal thinking. The principle that had prevailed previously was the blood feud. If someone from another clan killed a member of your clan, then your clan was entitled to take out as many members of the offending clan as you could. The survivors from the other clan would retaliate with even more slaughter, and eventually you'd have a real Hatfields-vs.-McCoys situation.

Hammurabi came along and said no, that's too much, and so did the Mosaic Law. If someone gouges out your eye, you're not entitled to make your adversary blind in both eyes. If someone knocks out your tooth, you're not permitted to come back with your big brother and knock out all your assailant's teeth. Laws were meant to be about justice, not vengeance. Far from being a harsh pronouncement, in its own time, this rule of equivalent justice was a significant move in the direction of mercy. It was a brutal but effective way of managing - although not truly settling - the war within.

But by the time of Jesus, the Jewish people found themselves in a different context. They'd been ground under the boot-heels of the Roman legions for so long that freedom seemed an impossible dream. Various Zealot resistance movements had tried, and failed, to oust the Romans. Even in Jesus' own time, a new resistance movement was on the rise that, a generation later, would fail even more spectacularly, resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple and the massacre of many of its inhabitants.

Some of Jesus' contemporaries wanted him to sign on to that resistance movement. But he wouldn't let his own movement be hijacked by the politics of the day. Instead, he said, "Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile."

This is difficult advice. We know how hard it is to turn the other cheek, to forgo one's coat, to walk the second mile.

But is there any other way for us? Blood feuds cannot end the war within. Neither can a thoroughgoing application of old Hammurabi's Code. Still, the fire burns, threatening to consume us from the inside.

There is only one way that will suffice. As difficult as it is, it's the turn-the-other-cheek way of Jesus. Seldom do we see it in action. But when we do, its impact can be amazing. It's the way of true courage.

Gandhi's salt march

One who demonstrated this courage was Mohandas Gandhi, revered today as the father of modern India. Gandhi was leading his people in passive resistance to the British colonial occupation. The conflict had crystallized over a punishing tax on salt, which discouraged local industry and led to dependence on salt imported from abroad. In that tropical land, salt was more than a luxury. In the steamy heat of the subcontinent, it was a nutritional necessity, as well as a way of preserving food in that era before widespread refrigeration.

Gandhi decided to challenge the injustice, but to do so following the principles of Jesus, of whom he was an admirer - although not a disciple. More importantly, Gandhi knew his British overlords professed to be followers of Jesus, at least nominally. His turn-the-other-cheek tactics were designed not to overcome them with violence, but to shame them into relenting.

Gandhi began by writing a letter to Lord Irwin, the British Viceroy, telling him exactly what he was about to do. Then, at dawn on March 12, 1930, he donned a homespun shawl and sandals and took up a wooden walking stick - the traveling-garb of the poorest of the poor. He set off on foot with several dozen companions for a 240-mile walk to the sea. His plan was to illegally harvest salt from the sea, by boiling water in pans over open fires.

Gandhi was 60 years old at the time. He didn't know if he would make it to the sea. He expected to be arrested or even beaten along the way. But the British authorities knew what a popular figure he was. They feared a public backlash. So they let the salt march continue.

Still, the British were waiting for him at the beach. When the first batch of salt had been refined, they turned over the pan and ground it into the sand. But Gandhi picked up a handful of sand, glistening with salt, and held it high. He announced, "With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire!"

And so he did. Gandhi's turn-the-other-cheek move, forsaking armed rebellion, was the first of many non-violent protests to come. Gandhi was jailed, but the protests continued. When a crowd of 2,500 protesters showed up at a government salt works, the authorities sent armed police to stop them. An American journalist, Webb Miller, was there. "Suddenly," he wrote, "at a word of command, scores of native police rushed upon the advancing marchers and rained blows on their heads ... Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like ten-pins."

It sounds like evil prevailed that day, doesn't it? But no. It was quite the opposite. Miller's newspaper account flashed around the world. Someone read it on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Winston Churchill would later admit that Gandhi's non-violent protests "inflicted such humiliation and defiance as has not been known since the British first trod the soil of India."4

Eventually, that nonviolent resistance movement led to India's independence.

If what's mine is yours, then it's all ours

Let's conclude with a little fable. There were two old monks, living together in a crumbling monastery, deep in the desert. Many years before, when they had joined the community as young men, they had taken vows of absolute poverty, resolving to get by with only the simplest of possessions. The austere discipline had proven difficult at first, but in time the two mastered their desires and found great happiness.

One day, the two monks got curious about all the arguments and disagreements they heard others outside their desert community were having. They decided, as an experiment, that they should try having an argument like the rest of the human race. One monk asked the other how to do it.

"I don't know," said the other. "Maybe I should put something out on the floor and say, 'It's mine.' Then you can say, 'No, it's mine,' and then we can argue about it."

It sounded like a plan. So, the first monk reached for a soup bowl and placed it in the middle of the floor. "That's mine!" he declared.

The other monk looked at his brother in the faith, and then he smiled. "All right, you can have it."

And that was the end of their argument.


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