Must we always live in fear of our enemies: Iran, Syria, and all those terrorists plotting to strike at any moment? It wasn’t long ago that we were afraid of Russia, Libya, and Cuba. I think I detect a pattern… What will it take to break this never ending cycle of anta- gonism and violence?
Recently President Obama, extended his hand and offered renewed relations to Iran [link to BBC story], a nation the previous administration had labeled the “axis of evil”. Some have criticized Obama as naive, as being too soft on our so-called enemies. But I see his action as a breath of fresh air. When will we finally learn that targeting others as the enemy is one of the worst ways to galvanize our nation? That political leaders who use those sorts of accusations as a basis of power lock us all into no win situations, which only ever lead in one direction: towards conflict.
Obama, on the other hand, says he’s seeking an opening, some way to avert the growing threat of conflict fueled by the previous administration: “With the coming of a new season, we’re reminded of this precious humanity that we all share. And we can once again call upon this spirit as we seek the promise of a new beginning…” But again critics claim that Obama’s gesture will prove useless if Iran does not desist in aggressive behaviors.
In Acts 4:5-12 [link to text] the Apostles, have been arrested for healing the sick and for preaching the resurrection. They are brought before the most powerful people in Jerusalem: “the rulers, elders, and scribes… with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.” This is the apostles’ first confrontation with the very people who plotted to kill Jesus, who are most likely considering the same fate for Peter and John.
The political and religious leaders interrogate the disciples:
“By what power or by what name did you do this?” The rulers demand to know who or what has given them this authority? In other words, “Who do you think you are?” But Peter doesn’t take the bait. Instead, “filled with the power of the Holy Spirit” he responds:
“Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth…”.
This is not the sort of response the rulers are used to. For instance, the apostles demonstrate none of the bravado that Mel Gibson displays in the movie Braveheart. Who can forget that famous scene in which William Wallace (Braveheart) challenges his English oppressors with his weapon raised high? Or his freedom speech [watch on youtube]. Not to mention that scene at the end of the movie, when Braveheart, during his gruesome execution, screams “freedom” [watch on youtube]. It was in his memory, in his name, that the Scots finally drove the English from their land, but at what cost?
Peter makes no inflammatory statements in the name of freedom or justice. Nor does he claim that his authority comes from a God who is more powerful, or in whose name, he threatens vengeance on his persecutors.
On the contrary, Peter immediately identifies Jesus as the one “whom you crucified”. He says this, not to incite antagonism, or as a demand for revenge for the death of their leader. Instead he does something quite unexpected, he offers healing: the same healing that the God of the Old Testament had offered the Jews for centuries. He makes one demand: repent, give up your antagonism, “so that times of refreshing may come” (Acts 4:20) when and if the cycle of violence is broken. He doesn’t ask for justice, he doesn’t even ask for an apology. This is an incredible offer which is only possible because Peter has already given up his own antagonism and has forgiven them despite the fact that the High Priest and his cronies don’t for a moment regret what they have done, and would certainly kill Peter and the apostles if they could. Forgiveness is given regardless of whether they repent or not.
I can imagine the rulers’ reactions: they thought they had gotten rid of Jesus once and for all. By preaching Jesus’ resurrection, the apostles have tapped into a whole new basis of power, one which overrides that of the powerful elite and their gods of power. As Peter’s says to them:
`the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.’
No wonder the political and religious leaders are worried; they’ve just been deprived of their most effective means for squashing their enemies: execution. But Jesus’ resurrection in of itself is not sufficient: it arises out the moment of his crucifixion, when Jesus, quite unlike Braveheart, forgave those still intent on killing him.
The act of forgiveness is then repeated when the resurrected Jesus first appeared to the disciples who had also rejected him in his darkest hour, he extended his hand in reconciliation, transforming their darkest hour into an offer of healing. [see Luke 24:36b-48] In John’s Gospel, Jesus said to them “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’” Jesus then breathed the Holy Spirit on them, which in turn enpowered them to offer healing to their enemies. [see John 20:19-31]
It is for this reason that Peter says, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” This is not a claim that Christianity is the one true religion. Quite the opposite, Jesus has founded a basis for power that has no need to malign anyone, but instead extends itself to everyone, saving the oppressor and the oppressed, from antagonism on both sides. This is no small accomplishment. Indeed Jesus’ action interrupts the old order of events, it opens a space in human relations, creating an opportunity for healing that had previously been impossible, even unimaginable.
The High Priest, the elders, and scribes, are left speechless. Luke says they are amazed by Peter’s speech because he is uneducated, a fisherman, untrained in the art of speaking (which was a big deal in the ancient world). But I say it is his offer of reconciliation even at the moment that the authorities are plotting to kill him. More than once they threaten the apostles, but their threats no longer have any power, not because the disciples believe that God will restore them to life, making them indestructible like the Terminator, but because forgiveness has freed them, and can free us, from the power that death holds over humanity; it becomes a new “cornerstone” for meaning and action in the world - a new source of life.
When Luke says that Peter is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, he describes one freed from the cycle of antagonism and violence, one who, at the crucial moment, has the ability to offer his outstretched hand. He has no need to fear his enemies, in fact, as far as Peter is concerned, he has no enemies.
I hope that Obama, in the spirit of forgiveness, can give up all the antagonism he’s inherited, and in the process open a space for refreshment, for healing for the nations of the world. -Sue Wright