When I was a child some of the first words I learned were by Charles Wesley: ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon a little child; pity my simplicity, suffer me to come to thee’. That was part of the prayer my mother taught me to say each night before I went to sleep.
Like many people, I grew up thinking of the Lord Jesus Christ as someone who had a permanent smile on his face and, to use the language of the world, ‘wouldn’t hurt a fly’.
Meekness is a characteristic of all saintly people. Moses ‘was very meek; above all the men which were upon the face of the earth’ (Numbers 12:3) and Jesus said of himself, ‘I am meek and lowly in heart’ (Matthew 11:29).
The Lord also tells us that the meek are blessed ‘for they will inherit the earth’ (Matthew 5:5). In modern translations of the Bible, Moses is said to be ‘very humble’ and the Lord is described as ‘gentle and humble in heart’.
Angry at the right time
Yet that is not the only characteristic of the Lord we find in the Bible. Many years ago I remember reading a book by Dr G. Campbell Morgan (twice Minister of Westminster Chapel in London). From his studies in Hebrew and Aramaic he had learned that a meek person is ‘someone who is never angry at the wrong time but always angry at the right time’.
He gave as an example the occasion when Jesus overthrew the money changers’ tables in the Temple. Christ demonstrated his meekness by being angry and doing something about the wicked behaviour he saw there.
We do not like to think of the Lord as ‘a revolutionary’ for fear of getting into politics and demonstrations, so we prefer to regard him as someone who was always nice, pleasant and inoffensive. Yet we do not have to read very far into the Gospels to discover that he often confronted, with some vehemence, those who were wrong.
He called the Pharisees hypocrites and likened them to ‘whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean’ (Matthew 23:27).
When we become true disciples of the Lord we are also called to act boldly and not be afraid to defy the standards of this world. Think how the followers of Jesus must have felt when he told them to overturn the second part of the then popular saying, ‘love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. He urged them to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them (Matthew 5:43-44).
I saw a practical demonstration of this earlier this year. Some friends had obtained tickets for my wife and me to join them at a meeting in a local church (the tickets were free but the seating was limited). This was to hear Harvey Thomas and his friend speak about their experiences in Brighton following the events of 12 October 1984.
On that day an IRA (Irish Republican Army) bomb exploded in the Grand Hotel where the Conservative Party Conference was to be held. Five people were killed and thirty-four injured. Among those trapped in the rubble was the conference organiser, Harvey Thomas.
The bombers were caught and Patrick McGee, who planted the bomb, was sentenced to thirty-five years’ imprisonment – but was released from prison in 1999 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Following the bombing Mr Thomas, wishing to ‘live out’ his Christian faith, took part in many conferences about reconciliation and peacemaking.
Fourteen years after that terrible day, he was preaching in Louisville, Kentucky, on the text, ‘forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us’ (Luke 11:4). As he urged the congregation to forgive those who had sinned against them, it suddenly struck him that he had never forgiven Patrick McGee. So he went home and discussed this with his wife and then wrote to the bomber while he was still held in the Maze prison.
Mr McGee replied and some while later both men met in a house in Dublin. This initial meeting led to a mutual respect between the two men who now encourage people to try to understand the views of those with whom they disagree.
Patrick McGee has formed an organisation working towards restorative justice and reconciliation in Ireland and Harvey Thomas has become a patron of it. They now sometimes share the same platform speaking about the work of bringing peace – even though Mr McGee is still not a Christian.
I was challenged while listening to an answer Mr Thomas gave on the question of forgiveness. He said something like this: ‘God requires us to repent before he will forgive us for our sins against him, but he never lays the same obligation upon us when a fellow human being has wronged us. Nowhere in the Scriptures is it stated that forgiveness between human beings should be conditional on the other person’s repentance’.
The friendship between Mr Thomas and Mr McGee was purely a private matter until the press got hold of it, and then it became headline news for a while. Certainly, there are many other cases of Christians showing love for their enemies but this is one that I have witnessed recently.
The actions of Harvey Thomas and his family challenged me to ask myself whether, in similar circumstances, I would obey the Lord’s commands with the same alacrity. Would I be prepared to invite into my home someone who had tried to kill me, had murdered a number of my friends and caused untold suffering to very many more? This is a case of revolutionary love.
The author is a retired pastor living in Bracknell, Berkshire