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Seeking the Nuance in the Text - Midweek Musing 2/1/24

Last week in my sermon, I mentioned Rev. Walter Wink who I heard speak at a conference on peacemaking in Montreat, NC several years ago. In his speaking and preaching, Walter Wink educated and challenged me on the life ministry and resistance of Jesus. One of the most powerful things that he talked about was Jesus’s call to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, and give not only your shirt but also your coat when taken to court. There are a number of sermons that I could preach on those texts, and perhaps I will, but to summarize them, all of those instructions were not simply meant to be passive but actually were active acts of resistance to bring about change through shaming of the one inflicting injury. We often miss lots of this nuance when we read the text. However, one individual who clearly understood the nuance of Jesus words was Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi who demonstrated great courage in his life was initially doubted and mocked, even by his fellow countrymen is now revered as the father of modern India (and is even credited with helping inspire the US civil rights movement.)

Once near the start of the India Independence movement, Gandhi was leading his people in passive resistance to the British colonial occupation. A major conflict had crystallized over a punishing tax on salt, which discouraged local industry and led to dependence on salt imported from abroad. In that tropical land, salt was more than a luxury. You see, in the steamy heat of the India subcontinent, salt was a nutritional necessity, as well as a way of preserving food in that era before widespread refrigeration.

Gandhi decided to challenge the injustice, but to do so following the principles of Jesus, of whom he was an admirer — although not a disciple. More importantly, Gandhi knew his British overlords professed to be followers of Jesus, at least nominally. His turn–the–other–cheek tactics were designed not to overcome them with violence, but to shame them into relenting.

Gandhi began by writing a letter to Lord Irwin, the British Viceroy, telling him exactly what he was about to do. Then, at dawn on March 12, 1930, he donned a homespun shawl and sandals and took up a wooden walking stick — the traveling–garb of the poorest of the poor. He set off on foot with several dozen companions for a 240–mile walk to the sea. His plan was to illegally harvest salt from the sea, by boiling water in pans over open fires.

Gandhi was 60 years old at the time. He didn’t know if he would make it to the sea. He expected to be arrested or even beaten along the way. But the British authorities knew what a popular figure he was. They feared a public backlash. So, they let the salt march continue.

Still, the British were waiting for him at the beach. When the first batch of salt had been refined, they turned over the pan and ground it into the sand. But Gandhi picked up a handful of sand, glistening with salt, and held it high. He announced, “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire!”

And so he did. Gandhi’s turn–the–other–cheek move, forsaking armed rebellion, was the first of many non–violent protests to come. Gandhi was jailed, but the protests continued. When a crowd of 2,500 protesters showed up at a government salt works, the authorities sent armed police to stop them. An American journalist, Webb Miller, was there. “Suddenly,” he wrote, “at a word of command, scores of native police rushed upon the advancing marchers and rained blows on their heads … Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like ten–pins.”

It sounds like evil prevailed that day, doesn’t it? But no. It was quite the opposite. Miller’s newspaper account flashed around the world. Someone read it on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Winston Churchill would later admit that Gandhi’s non–violent protests “inflicted such humiliation and defiance as has not been known since the British first trod the soil of India.” Eventually, that nonviolent resistance movement led to India’s independence.

Friends, may we each seek to understand the words of the text, but also the nuances in those words so that we can truly follow God’s call to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.

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