Because of Lent, Turner Movie Classics has been showing Hollywood’s best about Christianity this week: Ben Hur and–my favorite theological farce–The Greatest Story Ever Told.
The cast of The Greatest Story Ever Told could alone foretell what blunders the movie would commit:
Playing Jesus? Tall, blond and blue-eyed Max Von Sydow. At least they had the decency to dye his hair dirty blonde. But it still didn’t approach the black hair of Jewish trait. And they gave “Jesus” a voice deeper than any Jew I’ve ever heard, not only missing the mark as far as the genuine Jesus but continuing the chauvinist mindset that a deep, male voice equals authority. Didn’t they ever read of the way Abe Lincoln spoke–a piping, reedy voice? (Imagine Don Knotts.)
Playing the ethnic ruler of the Jewish people–King Herod? Jose (Farewell, Roxanne, for today I die) Ferrer. How could anybody think that Jose Ferrer, one of the finest actors, noble, wise, the best Cyrano de Bergerac ever, would be a good type for the weak and flighty Herod?
Playing Pontius Pilate? Telly (Who loves ya, baby!) Savalas. Of all the unlikely characters in the movie to quote Jesus, Pilate does. He quotes Jesus before ever meeting the Man–something I am positive never happened in reality. In the Gospels, Pilate has no idea who Jesus is until meeting Him. To portray the Roman Governor as knowing enough about Jesus to quote Him is merely a scriptwriter’s playfulness.
And here’s the quote: Telly Savalas (laughing like Kojak) says to King Herod that Jesus teaches “love your enemies!”
Herein enters theological farce. Not only is it an historical flaw to think that Pilate knew a teaching of Jesus. The farce is that he thinks he understands the teaching itself: “Love your enemies?!” As though Pilate is saying, “This is going to be easy. These people are a pushover. ‘Love your enemies?!’ ”
We must consider three factors:
First, when Jesus spoke, He often exaggerated–using hyperbole. It’s a way of giving people an emotional wallop. That way, people would remember it:
*Do not commit adultery–no, do not even LOOK at a shapely woman!
*If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other.
*Do not commit murder–no, do not even get angry at anybody!
These are all from Chapter 5 of the Gospel of Matthew. They are an extension of the Eight Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor…Blessed are the meek”…).
So that’s one thing to remember–these teachings are presented in hyperbole. They are exaggerated language whose purpose is to hit a person right in the gut, where something stays (rather than just in the intellect).
Second, the teaching “love your enemies” does not mean: Let people walk all over you. Just love them. Mothers often advise, “If someone mistreats you–you may feel like killing them, kill them with kindness.” Cop out. That’s advice encouraging you to avoid being a person of strong character. Do not face right up to a person. Do not hold them accountable for behavior that is harmful to you or others. Let a bully be a bully. Kill him–but only with kindness.
“Love your enemies” is often misunderstood that way. The context in which the remark is made is–the petty environment of the people of Jesus’ day, and upon reflection, our own day. In our day, so many people obsess over trivialities. Somebody cuts you off in traffic–the result is “road rage.” Somebody actually takes out a weapon and kills the other driver. This evening in the news, at a factory near Philadelphia, a black man knifed to death a Latino man. Why? The previous day, the Latino had pulled a chair out from beneath the black man. Yell–confront–show you’re upset! Fine. But to obsess over the slight such that you return the next day with a blade and stick it in the other’s stomach?!
This is the type of vengeful society in which Jesus lived. In addition, everybody was religious in that society. And the typical thinking was, “God is on MY side.” My enemies are God’s enemies.
Jesus says, that is not the viewpoint of God in heaven. God makes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on good and evil alike (that is, the people whom WE reckon as good vs. evil). Jesus says, don’t assume that your enemies are God’s enemies. Have a broader viewpoint. Only then, He says, you will be like God in heaven (where there is a broader viewpoint). Then He says it in an exaggerated way: “Don’t hate your enemies–LOVE them!”
He isn’t talking about somebody who breaks into your house, beats you up and takes whatever he wants. Rather, Jesus is talking about the petty, vengeful society that He lived in–where people got intensely uptight over any little slight. Like today when the neighbor’s dog craps in your yard.
Take it down a notch, He is telling us. We can live together as neighbors and work things out without launching a triviality into a trauma.
It is true that when the trauma occurred in Jesus’ own life–the false arrest, conviction, whipping and execution–He said, “Forgive them.” But He did so from a heavenly viewpoint: “They know not what they are doing.”
That is, Jesus could have retaliated at any point in the proceedings–the arrest, the trial…He could have incited a popular uprising. The authorities feared precisely this reaction. That’s why they arrested Jesus at night–and held the first trial of Him at night (at the home of the high priest. Totally illegal in their own tradition–to hold a trial at night.)
Jesus stayed silent. He allowed everything that happened to Him. Why? He had a broader purpose than just surviving. He had a mission to fulfill. And dying as an innocent was central to that mission.
Martin Luther King, Jr., would always be asked by reporters: “What would you do if your wife were attacked?”
Dr. King would respond: “I would hope that I would remain non-violent.”
He had the support of Mrs. King in this matter. They had a broader purpose than just the immediate incident of a mugging. They had a broader mission to fulfill.
So when Jesus–and later Stephen–ask forgiveness for their tormenters, it is for the purpose of a heavenly mission rather than just their own personal survival.
“Love your enemies” doesn’t mean “Take abuse. Ignore injustice.” That interpretation takes the remark out of context, as much as when Jesus says, “If your right hand makes you sin–cut it off!”
Third–and the biggest mistake in “Love your enemies”–Jesus NEVER speaks to a government. That is, He is speaking only to individuals. He never even speaks to anything so institutional as religion–rather, only to religious figures who are abusing religion like the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. He is not speaking to government or institutions. Jesus is speaking to INDIVIDUALS!
A government can not act like an individual.
For example, there are individuals who are people of such good judgment that I would feel safe in saying to them, “If you’re driving in a rural area, at night, and you come to a four-way stop, if there’s nobody else around, go ahead and go through the stop sign.”
I would feel safe in saying that to a few individuals.
But I would never risk saying that as a government, making laws.
A government can not act lke an individual. A government has too many people to watch out for. it can not act like an individual whose judgment is assumed to be good and who knows specifically other individuals who can be trusted.
After 9/11, there were lots of Christians thinking they were taking the high moral ground by proclaiming, “Love your enemies.” That might have felt satisfying to their own selves. But government has more people to watch out for than just the small percentage of pacifists who are willing to die rather than fight back.
After Pearl Harbor, when Franklin Roosevelt addressed Congress, he said that the attack would be answered–and answered for two reasons:
“…we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost…
but we will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.”
A government has responsibility greater than that of an individual. An individual may “love one’s enemies” to the point of forgiving a murderer, as did the Amish community in Pennsylvania after a gunman entered an Amish school and killed students. (The gunman then killed himself. The Amish community forgave him, but he was already dead. Had he lived, would they have forgiven him to the extent of not testifying against him in court?) A government does not have the leeway of an individual. It has responsibility to more people than pacifists or those mistaking the teachings of Jesus.