Snakes and Doves
Imagine, if you will, Jesus taking out a want-ad for followers: “Wanted: energetic, enterprising idealists ready to change the world. Join the movement for putting God back in charge today!”
People answer the ad enthusiastically. Ordinary people show up to the info session, ready to leave it all behind and enlist with this kingdom of heaven movement. “This guy’s got vision!” they say to one another. “‘Harassed and helpless,’ you got that right, buddy! We haven’t had any decent leadership around here since… well, it’s been a real long time. Kick Herod and his people to the curb. Yeah, he’s a little unconventional, I’ll give you that, his speeches are a little mysterious, way over my head. But he’s in this for the common folk, like us. Hungry folks. Possessed folks. Sick folks. Sign me up!”
Jesus starts to speak and the room goes silent in that pin-drop sort of way. He’s utterly serious. “The kingdom of heaven, it’s here, now. This is the moment. Do what I do: cure people, snatch them back from the jaws of death, make leprosy vanish, expel evil! Join me!”
The crowd leaps to their feet. “Yeah!”
“There’s just one thing,” [the crowd hushes] “Travel light. Take nothing with you. Nothing. No money. Don’t charge for this; we’re doing all this for free. No suitcase, either. Just one coat. No shoes. Nothing to defend yourself.”
Some look around, the second thoughts evident on their faces. Others stare at the floor.
He continues: “When you go announcing that God, not Caesar, is on the throne again and showing people what that looks like — remember, this is an itinerant gig — you’re going to have to rely on the hospitality of strangers, of the people you’re trying to recruit for our movement. If they’re receptive, roll with it. If they’re not… to hell with ‘em.”
People are headed for the exits at this point.
“What I’m saying is, I’m sending you out like hostage negotiators. You’re going to walk into a situation in which people are being held for ransom and you’ve got to march in there empty-handed and demand their release.”
Would you sign up?
I’m not so sure. To follow Jesus (however you understand those words) and spend your life building a world that resembles more closely what God intends it to be — a world of abundant life, of wholeness and human flourishing — is high-risk behavior. You may get hurt. Discipleship is hard. It is costly. It’s not a volunteer project, but a wholehearted, all-in pursuit. And you can expect opposition, even hostility. Retaliation isn’t an option. Confrontation, yes, but no “proportionate responses.”
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
That verse has puzzled me for a long time. What does that mean? To be smart and gentle? Shrewd and kind? Compassionate, but not naive? To be peaceful, but not a “doormat”?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a sermon on this one verse. He called it, “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” Observing that people don’t do well at blending opposites, he said “The idealists are not usually realistic, and the realists are not usually idealistic. The militant are not generally known to be passive, nor the passive to be militant. Seldom are the humble self-assertive, or the self-assertive humble.” King then preaches about the pitfalls and pervasiveness of soft-mindedness and hardheartedness. He drives it home, making a case for the utter necessity of nonviolent resistance in the movement for Civil Rights: “A third way is open to our quest for freedom… which combines tough mindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the soft minded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted.”
His sermon is the first in a collection aptly titled “Strength to Love.” That’s what this is about, really, strength, because it takes incredible strength to follow Jesus in proclaiming God’s rule of love in our speaking and living. Because the normal order of things, which this rule of God stands in contrast to, the default modes are ingrained within us. That’s one reason why joining in Jesus’ work of healing disease, defeating death, welcoming outcasts, and confronting evil seems so daunting and even impossible, because how can it be done any other way than to fight fire with fire, to get the power and use “it” on “them”? It takes strength to walk amongst wolves because — here comes the hardest part — we have to love the wolves too.
What that looked like once upon a time, sixty years ago. Few people so clearly and powerfully model this as the four North Carolina A&T students who sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and catalyzed the sit-in movement. I had the pleasure of meeting one of them, Franklin McCain, when I was in college (I was his porter at a hotel and completely awestruck). These were people of deep faith and their creative, courageous blend of tough-minded and tender-heartedness was far from weak; it was strategic. So as we think about how this sort of strong love will be strategic for God’s purposes now, let’s watch how it did then.
To be tough-minded and tender-hearted, what does that look like for you? For us? In this moment when we cannot relent in casting out the demons of white supremacy within society and within ourselves. In this moment when so many are sick and a reckless consumerism threatens to make even more sicker. In this moment when God’s poor and immigrant and trans children are treated as lepers. In this moment when the powers of death seem to have a white-knuckle grip on things. How do we show up to these challenges, as they appear on large and small scales, with both our wits and with our compassion?
What being serpent or dove-like looks like in practice depends. It takes discernment. Jesus went on to say, past what we read earlier, “Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” Jesus asks us to show up as laborers to the harvest empty-handed: to leave our defenses and egos and our other go-tos that are usually within arms reach behind. Maybe “open-handed” is a better way of saying it. We show up with hands open to receive the strength, God’s kind of strength, for the work to which we are called.