But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
In 1962, as Dr. Martin Luther King was speaking in Birmingham Alabama, a white man jumped onto the stage and attacked him, repeatedly hitting him in the face. After the first punch, King dropped his hands to his side, refusing to defend himself. Chaos ensued. Others intervened and forcibly removed the man, while King kept saying, “Don’t hurt him. We must pray for him.”
For many who worked closely with the young civil rights leader, watching King’s response to his assailant forever changed them. They realized that for King non-violence was not simply a strategy, but a way of life so practiced that even his reflexes responded non-violently when violently attacked.
In this third reflection of a series, Living a Called Life, I invite you to consider the holy vocation of participating, through the grace and power of God, in the redemptive work of transforming evil into good. This is the difficult path of redemptive suffering. We do not choose this path, but it is thrust upon us whenever we are confronted with tragedy, trauma, injustice, or other painful circumstances we cannot control or fix on our own.
Sometimes, as a result of the good that results, we come to believe that God willed the evil in order for good to be realized. It’s an understandable response, and if you attend this Sunday, you’ll hear an example of it in the classic biblical story of Joseph and his brothers. (Genesis 37-50) After a long and winding path of suffering brought about by his brothers’ resentment, Joseph finds himself in a position to bring about extraordinary good. Joseph says to his brothers, “Do not be distressed because you sold me into slavery, for God sent me here before you to preserve life.” Later he will say even more directly, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. (Genesis 50:20)
I do not presume to understand the ways of God, and the challenge to reconcile belief in a loving God in the face of all that is truly evil in this world is real. Many thoughtful people turn away from the idea of a loving God precisely because they cannot reconcile such belief with what they see and have experienced.
But this I know: it not necessary to believe that God causes evil or tragedy to experience the transforming power of God’s love through them, a love that does indeed bring good out of evil.
Such transforming love is offered to us through the grace of God and in relationship with Jesus, the one who came to show us the depth and breadth of God’s love. Daily I choose to believe, in the words of St. Paul, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. More than that: I believe that at times we are called to join with Christ in the acceptance of suffering, taking into our very being, so that in some small way we might participate in the mystery of resurrection–bringing life out of death, transforming evil into good.
Such a vocation requires practice in small things in order to be ready for the larger challenges when they come. Dr. King was practiced in non-violence, so that when he was called upon to embody non-violence, he no longer had to choose his response. The way of love had become his way of life.
As followers of Jesus, we do well to practice the disciplines of love, forgiveness, and generosity of spirit. Most of this practice takes place in the realm of smaller transgressions, and the acceptance of life’s imperfections. There may well come a time, however, and maybe that is now, when we are called to greater sacrifice. Rarely do we feel ready to accept and embrace the suffering that can be thrust upon us. But here we are and the choice is ours.
Only then do we know the true cost of such love, a cost that we cannot bear on our own. In a hauntingly beautiful and courageous sermon preached at Washington National Cathedral, syndicated columnist Michael Gerson described the heroic vocation of living with the insidious disease of clinical depression.
“Many, understandably, pray for a strength they do not possess.
But God’s promise is somewhat different:
That even when strength fails, there is perseverance.
And even when perseverance fails, there is hope.
And even when hope fails, there is love.
And love never fails.”
We would never wish our suffering on others, nor must we believe that God willed the suffering to come. Yet there are gifts that come to us, costly gifts, but real nonetheless. When we accept this calling as our own, we experience deep communion with Christ and a love that will never let us go. For that, we can be eternally grateful, and confident in the redemptive power of love.