Every four years, the eyes of the world are fixed on two very different events: the Summer Olympics and the United States presidential election. I wonder if this wasn’t somehow planned. In the midst of an election season marked by controversy and great division, the Olympics serve to unite an otherwise divided nation. Whether liberal or conservative, almost every American was cheering for Team USA, the likes of Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, and others. The Olympics have a way of restoring our national pride; our petty social and political differences become meaningless and we return to what really matters for us as a nation.
This extends to the international level as well. The Olympics compel the nations of the world to set aside their differences for a time of friendly competition. Instead of shooting at each other, athletes from rival nations can face each other in a neutral and peaceful setting. Even spectators from rival nations can unite in support of certain athletes. No matter what country you’re from, you were probably rooting for Usain Bolt of Jamaica in his sprinting events. The Olympics have a unique way of bringing the diverse nations of the world together under the banner of international peace and unity.
But then the Games come to an end, the torch is extinguished, and the athletes return to their home countries. Just when we had become reunited by national and international pride, we become divided once again. Wars continue. The Olympic stadium is replaced with the battlefield. Around-the-clock Olympic coverage is replaced with even more election coverage. The bitterness and hatred, which we thought might be gone for good, returns as if none of it ever happened.
As the eyes of the world move from the Olympics to the election, many of them also move toward the Christian community, eager to find an opportunity to accuse us of intolerance and hypocrisy. Even the federal government seems to be out to get us, belittling us and destroying our values. How do we, believers in Jesus Christ, respond to this? The natural response is to retaliate. Someone speaks out against Christianity and we want to defend ourselves. We might see an anti-Christian post on social media, and immediately we want to comment and start a “flame war.” Our enemies hate us and want to discredit us; it’s only fair to hate them back and discredit them.
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States and her allies naturally retaliated by declaring war on Japan. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush called for the invasion of Afghanistan and the dismantling of the organization responsible for the attacks. There are countless other examples from history of nations retaliating against other nations for offenses committed. It is only natural for a nation to do so. According to the Bible, God has given nations the authority to wage war and execute judgment on wrongdoers (Romans 13:4).
But we must remember that the authority to lift the sword is reserved for nations as a whole, not for individual members of a particular nation. Oftentimes people, Christians included, feel that they have the right to retaliate when attacked or harmed. If we feel hurt, whether physically or verbally, it is only natural for us to want to give the offenders a “taste of their own medicine.” Believe me, there are many times when I would like to lash out at people for “offending” me. I currently live in the Seattle area, and with that comes dealing with heavy traffic. If someone cuts me off, or rides my tail, or does something else that might compromise my safety, my natural inclination is to retaliate, usually by honking the horn and calling the perpetrator a bad name.
But then I think, “What if they found out that I am a Christian?” Christians already have a negative reputation in our society. I would just be confirming what society believes to be true about us. When I read or hear about fellow Christians being persecuted or even killed for their faith in Jesus, my blood begins to boil, and I think, “Christians would be totally justified in fighting back and avenging the blood of our persecuted brothers and sisters.” But then what would become of our testimony in Christ? It would be compromised. We would be seen as no different from everyone else in the world.
Jesus taught that one of our best witnesses for him in the world is that we behave differently from the rest of the world. He said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). The world says, if your enemy attacks you, fight back! But Christ says, “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also” (6:29). Jesus sets his followers apart by teaching them to love their enemies and treat them the opposite of what the world expects.
This is extremely difficult. It goes against every natural tendency we have as human beings. But consider what Jesus says later in the same chapter: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (6:36). We are no different from any of our so-called enemies. We too had gone astray, deserving nothing but condemnation. But God is merciful! He saved us through the death of his Son Jesus Christ. We didn’t deserve God’s mercy, but nevertheless he graciously offered it, securing our salvation by faith and uniting us together as one body.
The unity we have as Christians is not some fleeting unity, like that of the Olympics. It is an eternal unity. It is a unity that sets us apart from the rest of the world. It is a unity flowing out of God’s mercy. As our Heavenly Father was merciful to us, we too are called to be merciful to others, even our enemies. Christ himself didn’t retaliate when persecuted, but rather took the beating and even prayed for those who were hurting him. We are called to do the same, in unity with one another. For in doing so we are opening up for our enemies the door of salvation!
Rev. Gregory Solberg is a 2012 graduate of Lutheran Brethren Seminary. He serves as Associate Pastor at Community Church of Joy in Sammamish, WA, and as a chaplain in the US Army Reserve.