Who is Jesus? We have a feeling that Jesus is someone we can choose to accept or choose not to accept. There is heaven or hell to pay, but little else about his life and teaching seems to have real meaning.
First and foremost, Jesus is a truth-teller. In our world of lies, a truth-teller is what is needed most. If Jesus is the Son of God, then his answers are absolute. We may want other answers, but the other answers will not work.
We live in a time when it is easy to teach the gospel’s most basic precepts, because we have so blatantly followed opposite tenets in the governance of our country and our lives and are left with great failures.
When the Sermon on the Mount is read aloud to any group, you will see many people shake their heads in disagreement. Jesus’ saying, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” (Matthew 5:39) may be the most head-shaking verse ever, but doing the opposite, as we have seen in Iraq, seems far more foolish.
Violence is never over until someone turns the other cheek. No matter how powerful the armies, conflict will continue until, sooner or later, one or both absorb the violence. France and Germany would still be mortal enemies if this were not true.
When our president was asked about lessons learned in Vietnam, he said, “We’ll succeed unless we quit.” I wonder if it would be safe for an American president to visit Vietnam today had we not quit. The truth is that the two countries involved in that horrible war, after years of conflict, turned cheeks, badly bloodied by war, so that peace had a chance.
If there is to be peace in Iraq, then Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Americans are going have to turn their badly bloodied cheeks. Toughness will only lead to more violence; the only way forward is in turning the other cheek. An “eye for an eye” will go on forever as the children of Iraq and the children of the United States pay with their lives and treasure with only a foolish sense of honor to defend.
Our only hope is in radical forgiveness. We know this kind of forgiveness is possible because the president of the United States was invited and accepted an invitation to Vietnam where 58,000 U.S. citizens died and 2-4 million Southeast Asians were killed. Our hope is in love, the power that overcomes separation, and if you look, you can see it too.
Understanding Jesus as someone we can decide to follow or not follow is the weakness of the present-day proclamation. Ultimately, the truth is all that will work. No matter how much money we spend or how many lives are given, in the end, a lie will not succeed. We can stay in Iraq for years, and there will still be only one option, and that is turning the other cheek.
Why not begin now by asking all people to reconcile, admitting that we have all done great harm? Why not show a willingness to help make things right and ask all other parties to do the same?
It takes far more courage to work for peace than to continue the fighting. In the end we will have to turn the other cheek. The Messiah, the Son of God, says so; and if He says so, it is so!
Larry Wilson is pastor of First Baptist Church in Biscoe, N.C.