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The Moral Authority Of A Gentle Answer
By: Scott Sauls
“A gentle answer turns away wrath.”
– Proverbs 15:1
“This generation is the first to turn hate into an asset.”
When Dr. John Perkins, the 89-year-old Christian minister and civil rights icon/activist, said these words at a recent leaders’ gathering in Nashville, things I’ve been feeling about the current state of Western society came into sharper focus. For many years now, I’ve grown increasingly perplexed over what feels like a culture of suspicion, mistrust, and us-against them. Whatever the subject may be—politics, sexuality, immigration, income gaps, women’s concerns, race, or any other social concerns over which people have differences—Angst, suspicion, outrage, and outright hate increasingly shape our response to the world around us.
John Perkins knows suffering. His mother died when he was a baby. His father abandoned him when he was a child. His brother was killed during an altercation with a Mississippi police officer. As a black man during the civil rights era, he endured beatings and imprisonments and death threats. Since that time, Perkins has faithfully confronted injustice, racism, oppression, and violence while also advocating valiantly for reconciliation, peace, equality, healing, and hope.
If anyone has a right to be bitter, if anyone has a right to “turn hate into an asset” and use it to his own advantage, it is John Perkins. Yet, instead of feeding the cycle of resentment and retaliation, he spends his life preaching against these wrongs while advocating for forgiveness and moving toward enemies in love.
With the moral authority of one who practices what he preaches, Perkins’ life is a sermon that heralds reconciliation and peace between divided people groups. He has built his life upon the belief that his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, has left no option except to advance neighbor love through the tearing down of what Scripture calls “dividing walls of hostility.” This is an essential task for those who identify as followers of Jesus Christ, who laid down his life not only for his friends, but also for his enemies. Jesus is a God of reconciliation and peace, not a God of hate or division or us-against-them (Ephesians 2:14-22). He is the God of the gentle answer.
While some do not understand what it feels like to be ostracized, belittled, or persecuted, Dr. Perkins remind us all that every person bears the Image of God and is a carrier of the divine imprint. Because of this, every person is also entitled to being treated with honor, dignity, and respect. The inherent dignity of personhood makes the prophet’s description of neighbor-love that much more essential in our dealings with one another: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness” as an overflow of walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).
Hurtful behaviors such as violence, scorn, gossip, and slander injure both victim and perpetrator. The hurtful behavior certainly devastates its target, but the hate that lies beneath eats the haters alive, clouding their thinking, crippling their hearts, and diminishing their souls. In the end, those who injure become as miserable as those whom they injure. Those who vandalize someone else’s body, spirit, or good name also vandalize themselves.
Perhaps for this reason, the Bible is careful to warn that all anger, including the constructive righteous kind, should be arrived at slowly and not from a reactive hair trigger. “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;” the apostle James writes, “for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:19-21).
In being slow to anger through a spirit of meekness, we express the image of God in us, who, being both perfectly righteous and the universe’s chief offended party, “forgives all [our] iniquity” and “crowns [us] with steadfast love and mercy” and “is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:3-4, 8, emphasis mine). If God’s default response to human offense is to be slow in his anger—even the righteous kind—how much more should this be true of us, even when expressions of righteous anger may be entirely justified?
Jesus renounced outrage and advanced the power of a gentle answer throughout his ministry. In one instance, as they were traveling through a Samaritan village, Jesus’ disciples were met with rejection, hostility, and scorn. Feeling offended and incensed by the Samaritans’ inhospitable posture and disregard for their Lord, the disciples James and John, the so-called “Sons of Thunder,” suggested that Jesus retaliate by calling down fire from heaven to consume them. Jesus responded to the two brothers by rebuking them (Luke 9:51-59).
John Perkins’ response to the injuries perpetrated toward him and other people of color honors our Lord in ways that the Sons of Thunder did not. Rather than calling down fire on his enemies, Perkins concluded that the best and only way to conquer outrage was with what he called a love that trumps hate.
“Yielding to God’s will can be hard,” Perkins wrote in 1976. “And sometimes, it really hurts. But it always brings peace…You have to be a bit of a dreamer to imagine a world where love trumps hate—but I don’t think being a dreamer is all that bad…I’m an old man, and this is one of my dreams: that my descendants will one day live in a land where people are quick to confess their wrongdoing and forgive the wrongdoing of others and are eager to build something beautiful together.”
Building something beautiful together will require participation from all sides. For those who are prone to injure, the call is to repent and to engage in the noble work of renouncing hatred and exercising love.
For those who are vulnerable to becoming injured, the call is to participate in the noble work of resisting bitter and retaliating roots of anger while embracing truth-telling, advocacy, and forgiveness.
For all of us, the universal call is to lay down our swords, listen, learn from our differences, and build something beautiful. Shall we get started?