I used to dread middle school dances. The angst began with the whole decision over whether to even go or just bag the whole thing. Among my circle of friends, the conversations typically went something like this: “You know that dance is on Friday. You going?” “I don’t know, maybe. How about you?” “I’m not sure yet. Is Chris going?” “He says he’ll go if we go.”
And so it went, until we finally decided we should go; not necessarily because we wanted to, but because it would do more harm to our social reputations not to go.
Which, in the end, I usually ended up regretting. Why? Mostly, the awkwardness of it all; the beady little eyes of the chaperoning geometry teacher; the loud music that I wasn’t really into; the cute girl I secretly liked who someone else had the nerve to ask to dance; the self-conscious standing around with friends as we tried desperately to look like we were having fun. The technical term for our approach to the whole scene was wallflower.
Sometimes when people hear certain phrases from Jesus, they consider Christians who embrace his teachings to be little more than wallflowers. On the surface of things, sayings such as “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you, turn the other cheek,” feel like asking to be walked all over.
Because everyone knows that if you love your enemies, you’ll be exploited. If you do good to those who hate you, you’ll be taken advantage of. If you bless those who curse you, you’ll become a laughingstock. If you pray for those who abuse you, you’ll be bullied. If you turn the other cheek, you’ll be smacked again.
Maybe Jesus is just soft. I mean, if these words were posted on Twitter, they’d be mocked and laughed at. He’d get trolled for being a snowflake. Love your enemies, turn the other cheek - that’s a recipe for losers. Everyone knows that if you really want to succeed in life, you should hate your enemies and do ill to those who hate you and curse those who curse you and abuse those who abuse you. That’s the recipe for success. Might makes right … right?
But it is possible to change the world while following Jesus’ humble ways, even if it doesn’t necessarily lead to what many might consider “success.” As an example, I wanted to share the story of a little known Ugandan martyr named Janani Luwum. I heard his story a number of years ago and it has always stuck with me.
Luwum was born in Uganda in 1922, briefly worked as a schoolteacher before studying divinity in London and being ordained an Anglican priest. In 1969 he was consecrated bishop of Northern Uganda, which soon after coincided with the overthrow of the government by the notorious dictator Idi Amin. You may recall hearing of the brutal era of repression and the bloodbath that ensued in this landlocked east-African country. Hundreds of thousands of people were murdered for being of the wrong ethnicity or the wrong religion or simply not showing adequate allegiance to Amin.
In 1974, Luwum became Archbishop of Uganda at a time when the cauldron of tension between church and state became increasingly heated. During this period he continued to call out the human rights abuses when few dared to publicly defy Amin. The archbishop was quoted as saying, “I face daily being picked up by the soldiers. While the opportunity is there I preach the Gospel with all my might, and my conscience is clear before God that I have not sided with the present Government which is utterly self-seeking. I have been threatened many times. Whenever I have the opportunity, I have told the President the things the churches disapprove of.”
That is not being a wallflower. And yet it is following precisely Jesus’ counter-cultural words of love and forgiveness. Janani Luwum did not fight violence with violence, rather he fought violence with love and prayer, forgiveness and blessing. He resisted injustice, advocated for his people with fervor and compassion and called out the abuses and excesses of an oppressive and sinful regime. He died a martyr, gunned down by Amin’s henchmen for speaking truth to power. Yet his courage continues to serve as a model of hope and inspiration to Ugandans as well as to people of faith throughout the world.
As Christians begin the introspective, penitential season of Lent, we are reminded that the way of the cross is ultimately stronger than the way of the hammer. Wherever you live out your faith this season, may you be drawn ever closer to the transformative power of love.
Rev. Tim Schenck serves as Rector of the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter @FatherTim.