Imagine for a moment a man walking down a street wearing a cross necklace. He must be a Christian, right? Now imagine this man shouting racist and sexist things to passersby as he walks down that street wearing a cross necklace. Do we still think that he is a Christian? We may assume he is not because he does not resemble Jesus whatsoever in this moment. Of course, followers of Jesus conform to Christ’s likeness to varying degrees, but this brief exercise of the imagination helps to highlight the difference between form and substance.
Now imagine for a moment a city primarily populated by Christians. This city has a publicly owned water tower and on top of it is a cross that is beautifully alighted at night. It really is a lovely cross and it carries a lot of meaning for many of the people in the city. This city and this cross do exist in real life, and I have some thoughts about them.
Back in 2015, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FRFF) discovered the cross. This organization had successfully sued many cities to remove religious imagery from public property and sought to do the same in this city. The trouble is, they had no legal standing and had not been able to find any city residents to file the lawsuit on their behalf. Quite the opposite occurred.
Over 1,400 small wooden crosses soon appeared on front lawns throughout the city, a strong display of solidarity against the FFRF. City officials were quoted in newspapers stating that they would not be removing the cross. The city offers legal reasons why it need not remove the cross and they may be quite accurate, but I want to focus on the response of this city in light of the commands of Christ.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his followers in how to respond to enemies, making a plain reference to lawsuits:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38–42)
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There is some obvious dissonance between the commands of Christ and the response of this city. The FFRF sought to sue the city and, instead of handing over the cross, the city dug in its heels and strongly resisted them publicly. The mayor said, “I’m not going to respond to a leftist, liberal foundation that wants to tell me… what is appropriate.” But what if they instead responded to Christ who tells his followers what is appropriate? What might it look like if a city populated primarily by Christians obeyed the commands of Christ in this instance?
I propose that a more Christ-like thing for a city like this to do in this situation would be to remove the cross, mail it to the FFRF, complete with a letter of blessing, and purchase lunch for their office staff. The letter would suggest to them that the cross on the water was something really precious for all the citizens of the city, but obeying the commands of Christ was the most precious thing of all. The letter would say that the city can only respond in love and kindness to everyone, even the FFRF.
Paul, in his letter to the Romans, said something very similar to Jesus:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’” (Romans 12:17–20, emphasis added)
Burning coals is a symbol of judgment in the Old Testament (Psalm 140:10). By not resisting and by blessing the FFRF, the city would enact the belief that vengeance belongs only to God and that our only part to play is to bless and love our enemies.