2011.08.10 W It was a night back in Berkeley, and I was thoroughly enjoying the familiarity of it all. Walking the worn path back home from studying late at night, I couldn't help but feel a bit nostalgic, with a twinge of fondness for school, maybe even enough to wish class would come a tad faster. The night was clear, the weather bearable, the streets empty, the walking company pleasant, the conversation joyful — exactly as I like it.
All too soon we were back at the apartment and ready to part our separate ways. Familiar routine — hand over the laptop, open the door, say good night. But oh, maybe a something a little out of the ordinary.
Hello robbers. Fists struck my head and back. Hands grabbed her and swung her away from me. Too fast to react. No words, no threats, no sounds, no chance. Three verses two, and the element of surprise. It was hardly a struggle, a harried one at best. Ten seconds later, laptop gone, two victims stunned, and three robbers scattering. Robbers one, us zero.
I bolted after them, not fully grasping what had happened, what I was doing, nor what I planned to do. I thought of all the times I was late for class and had to run with a backpack. I guess they were finally paying off. Back to the chase. The trio split — the one with the laptop ran straight and the other two vanished right. I chose the laptop, and caught him just a block up. He was alone, out of breath, an easy hit and run target. I considered it. A tackle from behind would stun, a blow to the head would immobilize, and the only thing stopping me from retrieving the laptop would be a footrace down the hill, which given that his fellow robbers were nowhere in sight, would have been easy.
'Love your enemies' materialized in my mind. Yes, I knew that the context of the passage comes from what Jesus said before, that these commands are specifically for Christians who are being persecuted "for the sake of the Son of Man" (Lk 6:22). If I was being stolen from because I professed the name of Christ, the commanded response would be clear —
27 “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
29 Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either.
30 Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back.
Or, to put it into my context — 'But I say to you who hear, love the robbers, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who take advantage of you. Whoever hits you on the head, offer him your face also; and whoever takes away your laptop, do not withhold your camera and phone and wallet from him either. Give to everyone who demands anything from you, and do not demand it back.'
But that night we were not being persecuted nor stolen from because we professed the name of Christ. I knew I was not commanded to offer them to hit my face as well. I knew that Jesus was not commanding me to show them my own laptop, camera, wallet, keys to my car, my apartment and all the valuables inside. I knew Jesus did not forbid me from taking back my friend's property.
But I didn't. Is justice mine to seek? Could I stand before my friends and the court and be blameless? Probably. But could I stand before God, who sees perfectly and judges the thoughts and intentions of my heart (Heb 4:12)? I was angry, and had every reason to be. They ambushed us, rushed upon us from behind like cowards, hit my friend and stole her laptop! But my violence would not have done justice. The "anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God" (Js 1:20). And instead of hatred and rage, by the grace of God I felt pity, compassion, sorrow.
"Is it really worth it?" I yelled. "Just give the laptop back. I don't want to fight." I walked towards him. He was scared, about the age of 17 or 18, I guessed. "Come on man, give the laptop back and we can be over this. Is it really worth it?" No response. Eternities passed. Then his friends came, and he retreated back towards them. A different robber walked up.
"Back up. Empty your pockets." Fists bared, eyes glaring, teeth clenched. "Back up. Back up. Empty your pockets." Now I did the retreating. I thought, 'upper cut to the jaw, knee to the groin, blow to the back — neutralized. But what if he has a knife? No, he would have flashed it already. Besides, he's smaller and younger than me, maybe about 18 or 19. Is it worth it?'
' "Vengeance is Mine," says the Lord' (Ro 12:19). And Keith, vengeance is not yours. It is not your job to extract nor exact it. "I don't want to fight. I don't want to fight," I repeated. It wasn't the most intelligent conversation I've ever had, but we kept up the dialogue for a few more steps, until, by the providence of God, laughter and voices from the house nearby. He froze, and looked left. "It's very easy. One call, that's all I need," I said. Terror in his eyes. I yelled, "Robbery! Robbery!"
They bolted to the car, and I flipped out my camera to try and record the license plate. The driver hit the gas and missed me by a couple inches, screeched left back where we had come from. Around the corner, and they were gone. I checked my camera. Nothing.
The next hours were spent making a couple of 911 calls, finding dropped keys to the apartment, giving witness statements to the two policemen, making small talk, cleaning up the wounds, and finally going to bed. At the end of it, here was the damage: a lost laptop, scratches on the hand and arm and leg and back, a dropped and broken food container, the naivety of two college kids shattered — the end of the summer semester punctuated with the exclamation mark of a reality check.
Bitter? Resentful? Hurt? Victimized? Indignant? I don't think those would be accurate words. Perhaps regret. Maybe a little angry. Definitely thankful. But overwhelmingly, I felt pity. I prayed, thanking God for His deliverance and protection, for justice to be exacted through the government and the His sovereignty, for Him to be merciful to them and bring them to faith, and for our own hearts to forgive well in light of the cross. The ethereal, familiar refrain floated as a wisp —
The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day; And there have I though vile as he, washed all my sins away Wash all my sins away, washed all my sins away; And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away. (There is a Fountain Filled With Blood by William Cowper)
Forgiveness is easy when we look at the cross.
Two days later, the scene often manages to invade my mind. What if I had done this? Or that? I should have done this. I could have done that. What if… My thoughts pull me away from trusting that my God is sovereign and that He is my good Father in heaven, and I force my flesh to pray and submit to His plans. The robbers' faces still come to mind when it's dark, and I'm barely below the level of paranoid when walking on the street, stopping at stop signs, and going anywhere when it's dark out.
Often I drift back to when I first caught the robber with the laptop. I should have said, "You are sinning against the perfect God. Is it really worth it? To trade your soul for a joy trip, for a toy, for some cash? Think about your life. You are a thief, condemned and worthy of eternal hell. I am too. Jesus saves from this worthless kind of life, of wasting it worshipping things and people and temporary highs and worthless trash. You were made to worship God, not steal. You were made to worship Jesus, not assault. You were made to worship and submit to the King, not rebel against Him and His people. Repent and believe in the gospel, for it's your only hope!"
Prepare me for the next time Father, to be bold with my mouth for the sake of the gospel. Amen.