No one dreamed it would end the way it did. When convicted rapist Brian Nichols was brought to the Fulton County Court House for a hearing this past March, he managed to snatch the side arm from a deputy sheriff and then brutally murder a superior court judge, a court reporter and another deputy sheriff.
He fled the scene and left the city of Atlanta in a near panic for the next 26 hours. As law enforcement personnel combed the city in search of the killer, what other ending could anyone envision but the shooter dead in a hail of bullets.
But that is not the way it ended. What began with a murderous bang ended with a merciful whimper. The man who shot his way to freedom, in the end waved a white towel and surrendered without struggle. How did this happen?
It happened because Ashley Smith, a plucky and intuitive Christian, was taken hostage by Nichols. He tied her up and threatened to kill her if she did not do what he told her. Ashley, however, decided to take matters into her own hands. Instead of Brian Nichols controlling the situation with threats, fear, and violence, Ashley responded with love, kindness, and compassion.
She put into practice the biblical proverb “A kind word turns away wrath,” and St. Paul’s admonition to “overcome evil with good.”
This is the very approach to evil Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “resist not evil.” This doesn’t mean that we lie down and become doormats for the violent tyrants of this world. In fact Jesus was saying just the opposite. The key is in the word “resist.” In the original language of the Bible this word meant to “resist violently.” Jesus was telling us that we must resist evil in creative, non-violent ways.
For instance, the command to “go the second mile” was actually a clever way of wresting power from an oppressor and turning weakness into advantage. Roman soldiers could by law force anyone to carry their heavy equipment–but only for one mile. No one could be pressed to carry it any further.
But Jesus said go a second mile. In the second mile you were no longer the powerless victim of oppression. Instead, your actions were that of a free human being exercising your ability to choose. Who knows how such a free act may have touched the heart of a hardened soldier.
Anyway, back in Atlanta, much has been made about a book Ashley read to Nichols while a hostage, as if it was the book that turned Nichols around. But the book was just a prop. Ashley could have read from any page in the Bible or even from Dear Abby. It was not what she read, it was what she did—she went the second mile.
It takes courage to engage evil with goodness. It’s actually easier to meet evil with evil, violence with violence. Had Ashley pulled a pistol from her purse and shot Nichols, she would still be a hero in our culture. But that is not what she did. Instead, Ashley turned her weakness into strength. She turned away the wrath of a desperate killer with a kind word, and in doing so overcame his evil with her good.
Now if we could only get the rest of the world to learn such wisdom and act with such courage.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.