In the early years, citizens of Rome saw Christ’s followers persecuted, tortured, brutalized, and murdered in huge numbers, throughout the Empire. In most cases, they did not resist the evil that was done to them – but rather, they went willingly to their painful deaths. Why? Of course they had faith – a giant faith, a faith rarely seen in human history. But many in the pagan world had faith, and yet, when threatened, they resisted. The world had never before seen anything like the willing martyrdom of these early followers of Christ.
The world had never before seen it simply because it was a completely new and radical idea introduced by Jesus and described in Matthew 5 (38-39, 43-44): “You have heard that it has been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, resist not evil: but whoever smites you on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also…. I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
Now if that is not a revolutionary concept, we don’t know what is. And the proof lies not only in the rapid spread of Christianity among the Romans who witnessed these martyrs and were awestruck by their example. The proof can be seen in our own time, in the civil rights revolution that in less than 50 years brought America from Bull Connor to Barack Obama. It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s doctrine of nonviolence in the face of evil that made the movement unstoppable by any human force. It is one of the most powerful ideas known to man – and yet it did not come from man, in fact for human beings it is completely counter-intuitive – our first instinct is to strike back, not turn the other cheek.
Dr. King was extremely conversant with Christian theology, and yet at a critical juncture early in the civil rights movement, he began to doubt the power of love to resolve social problems. A chance conversation about Gandhi led King to study the Mahatma’s successful use of nonviolence to gain freedom for India – and that restored Dr. King’s belief that love was powerful enough to gain civil rights for African-Americans.
That story is well-known — what you may not know is that Gandhi’s inspiration was an Orthodox Christian whose name will be familiar to you – Leo Tolstoy – who in 1893 wrote a seminal book not about Christian ideas, but rather how to put those ideas into practice, especially the ideas expressed in Matthew 5. “The Kingdom of God Is within You” was translated into English in 1894 and the same year a copy came into the possession of a young Hindu lawyer in South Africa. Gandhi found the book “overwhelming” and after launching his campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience in India in 1906, could often be seen carrying Tolstoy’s writings with him into jail. The two men corresponded until Tolstoy’s death in 1910, and in fact the last long letter Tolstoy wrote was to Gandhi.