A house bombing, Jesus, and relational boundaries

[During June, Friday posts will be devoted to the topic of how we relate to one another. This theme will draw from chapter 5 of Luminous, Being Present with One Another.]

Today I want to talk about the importance of boundaries.

I used to think that as a Christian, I was supposed to absorb mistreatment from others without saying anything. I reasoned that Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek. We are to surrender all of our lives to God. That means releasing others from our demands. My reasoning had a hyper-spiritual logic to it. It made sense. If I could be spiritually tough enough, I could take anything anybody wanted to throw at me.

I was right, and I was wrong.

The bombing of Martin Luther King's house
Jesus does give us the ability to take anything anybody wants to throw at us. But the idea isn’t simply to be able to absorb mistreatment. Turning the other cheek is about non-retaliation. Shortly after Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, Martin Luther King was preaching at his church. An usher rushed to him and delivered a message. His house had been bombed while his wife and infant daughter were home. He rushed to the scene. Miraculously, his wife and daughter had been in the back of the house and not the front where the bomb had gone off. As he surveyed the crater in the porch and the shattered front of the house, hundreds of his black neighbors gathered in outrage. The police were there, and the scene started to turn violent. The police chief appealed to King to say something – anything – to prevent a riot from breaking out. In that moment, King faced a decision that would shape the direction of the civil rights movement.

With a word or two, he could have appealed to the anger of the crowd and touched off a night of enraged mayhem. Instead King urged the crowd to take a higher road. He reminded them that the one who lives by the sword will die by the sword. He said, “We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.’”

Choosing not to participate in damaging social systems
King chose Jesus’ path of non-retaliation. However, Jesus’ path doesn't mean doing away with boundaries. One of the crucial lessons I learned somewhere in my thirties was that if I simply absorbed mistreatment and didn't say anything, I was allowing sin to proliferate unchecked. I became an enabler. That wasn't good for me or the one(s) who were mistreating me, and it didn't foster God's kingdom. So I learned to say things like, "This is okay, but that's not okay." And, "I'm not going to be treated that way." In other words, "I won't knowingly participate in cycles that are sick, hurtful, and contrary to the way of Jesus.”

Non-retaliation combined with non-participation was the backbone of King's strategy in the 1950s and 60s.

By the way -- and this is crucial -- we must let the Bible define for me what is healthy and what is not. Otherwise we are prone to define "healthy" as "what I like best for my own interests."

So the thought for today is that loving those who mistreat us doesn’t mean living without boundaries. Insisting on boundaries is actually vital to the kingdom of Jesus. Next Friday I will talk about how we are clarifying relational boundaries in our local church. It’s something new to me but incredibly healthy – a “Relational Covenant.”

Note: Throughout 2014, my Friday posts will be excerpts and thoughts from Luminous: Living the Presence and Power of Jesus (IVP, 2013). My hope is that these posts launch you into the weekend in a Jesus-centered way.


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