Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Be merciful, just as God is merciful.” Amen.
What are we to make of this business about loving our enemies? I get the idea of loving God and loving my neighbor – at least, I’d like to think I’m trying to get it most of the time – but loving my enemies? Doesn’t that seem just a little bit excessive?
Many of the leading biblical scholars and theologians of the last century seemed to think so. The scholarly consensus was that what we have here is an impossible ethical ideal, a standard so high that its only practical value could be to demonstrate the shortcomings of all human moral and political systems. While some individuals may attain the status of sainthood, most of us – and certainly our religious and political communities as a whole – will necessarily fall short of this ideal of a love so encompassing as to embrace even our enemies.
Some have even argued that if this ideal were to be taken literally the result would be a kind of moral cowardice, the adoption of a stance of passive acceptance of evil. “Turning the other cheek” may be acceptable when the consequences of doing so affects no one other than myself, but surely it is a act of moral turpitude if the consequences involve grave risks to others. What could it mean to turn the other cheek when priests sexually abuse children? What could it mean to turn the other cheek when husbands beat their wives? What could it mean to turn the other cheek when terrorists murder hundreds or even thousands of innocent bystanders? Surely this is an impossible, even dangerous ideal. Perhaps it is best reserved for the saints in light, not for those of us walking in the darkness of this world.
The arguments of intellectuals not withstanding, can we really dispense with the teaching to love our enemies so easily? I have a nagging suspicion that the Church hasn’t understood very well what Jesus is saying to us in today’s Gospel. The Jesus I meet in the Gospels wasn’t much given to philosophical abstractions, and he certainly wasn’t one to lay impossible moral burdens on people. His ministry was largely one of freeing people from their burdens, healing and forgiving and accepting all who came to him. So what is really going on here?
The difficulty, I think, is that the distance between Jesus’ circumstances and our own is so great that it obscures our understanding. If I’m really honest with myself, I have to confess that my desire to dispense with the need to love my enemies springs mainly from the place of relative affluence that I occupy, from my sense of invulnerability to the social and economic realities that victimize so many in our world. If you were to ask me to name my enemies, being the good middle-class liberal that I am, I would be hard pressed to identify any. At least, not any whom I feel are an immediate threat to me. To a great extent, I have the privilege of living in a world without enemies, or so I’d like to believe.
Jesus did not occupy such a place of privilege. The blessings and woes he pronounces are a response to concrete social and economic realties. For Jesus, poverty and privilege were not abstractions. He clearly identifies the poor as those who are hungry; those who weep; those who are excluded, reviled, and defamed. All of these images are ways of describing a readily identifiable group of people. Poverty is not an abstraction, but a soul – grinding struggle for bread, for joy, and for dignity each and every day.
When one is engaged in such a struggle, the identity of one’s enemies isn’t an abstraction either. The enemy is those who exploit the misfortune of the poor for their own gain. Jesus lived in a time when the wealthy were expropriating the land of heavily indebted peasants, a time when widows, orphans and those with debilitating illness could fall below even of a subsistence standard of living through commonplace misfortunes, with no social safety net to catch them. He confronts a situation of injustice and pronounces the victims blessed while declaring woe to the perpetrators. Jesus declares that the kingdom of God is about restoring these poor to the dignity that is rightfully theirs in virtue of their being human, and he identifies himself totally with their plight. The enemy is those who refuse to join Jesus in bringing about justice and dignity for people who are poor.
While we readily recognize the victims in our world, it is often harder for us to identify the enemies, perhaps because our own privilege is secured by their existence. If we bring ourselves to recognize them, then we, too, find ourselves in the predicament of the poor. We, too, must then respond to these enemies of human dignity, of justice, of life itself: And woe to us, if we do not.
It is here, in his instructions on how to respond to enemies, that we find the true spiritual genius of Jesus. The blessings and woes, taken out of context, would seem to place us in an untenable position, an insurmountable conflict between good and evil from which we can flee or else join in the fight. Flight or fight, these are our instinctive responses to our enemies. In his holy, and practical, wisdom, Jesus teaches us a third way – the path of nonviolent resistance.
Jesus provides some very concrete examples of how to love the enemy in his own day. The examples have become well known: turn the other cheek, give away your undergarment as well as your coat, and give to everyone who begs. These have generally been interpreted as a stance of passivity, of nonresistance to evil, becoming “a doormat for Jesus,” but there is a more fruitful way to understand these examples.
Let’s look first at the example of the being stricken on the cheek and offering the other cheek in response. Here, Matthew’s version is more explicit, for he reports the example as a slap on the right cheek. Now, one of the cultural norms at that time was to reserve using the left hand only for unclean tasks. Thus, a slap on the right cheek would necessarily be a backhanded slap using the right hand to put an inferior in his or her place: the kind of slap that a Roman would use on a Jew, a master on a slave, a husband on his wife and children. A direct slap would only be used to challenge an equal. Thus, offering the other cheek is an assertion of one’s humanity and a refusal to be humiliated, forcing the perpetrator either to acknowledge his behavior as inappropriate or strike back in such a way as to implicitly recognize the other’s equality.
Giving away one’s undershirt as well as coat: under Jewish law, a poor person’s coat was taken as a pledge of debt repayment (but returned at night). Remember we are talking about deeply indebted peasants who are losing their land as a result of imperial taxes and exploitative interest rates on debt. The counsel to give one’s undershirt as well as coat, would mean literally going into court naked to shame one’s debtor. It is a symbolic and even humorous way of calling attention to truly scandalous behavior – not public nakedness, but public exploitation of the poor. Similarly, the counsel to practice radical sharing, giving to all who ask and refusing to demand anything in return (much less returned with interest), is a way to alleviate the impoverishment of the peasant class even in the midst of unjust expropriation of their land. It is a call to find ways to support poor people even as one struggles to challenge a social and economic system that creates poverty.
What we have here are not commands, but examples of creative, unrepeatable strategies to resist evil nonviolently, in such a way as to restore human dignity and defend victims. The point in our own day is to find imaginative ways to keep the enemies of human life and human dignity off balance, and to shame them into justice. Loving enemies is not about cultivating a sentimental feeling toward them, much less refusing to hold them accountable for injustice. It is about striving for their conversion, even resorting to coercion when necessary, but never to violent coercion, for that is the only real hope for breaking the cycle of violence that perpetuates and sustains injustice.
Loving enemies is not an impossible ideal that we can easily dismiss. It is a practical moral and spiritual alternative to violence as a means to remedy injustice. It requires us to make creative use of our anger toward enemies in ways that seek their conversion as a means to establish justice. Destroying enemies, however demonstrably evil they may be, simply sows the seeds of future injustice and violence. We need only observe the continuing disintegration of Iraq to realize the truth of this teaching. If we would reap peace with justice, we must instead sow
the seeds of love, a love that refuses to cooperate with humiliation at the hands of enemies while at the same time always respecting their humanity and seeking their good as well as our own.
The way of nonviolent resistance is exemplified by all the great saints of our tradition: from the martyrs of the early church who refused to acknowledge the Emperor as Lord, to St. Francis who preached peace to Christians and Muslims during the Crusades, to Dr. Martin Luther King and Archbishop Oscar Romero in our own day, who challenged the enemies of the poor and condemned the imperial ambitions of the United States in Vietnam and Central America. They are our models, and they are meant to be imitated as well as admired.
As our Presiding Bishop, Katharine, reminded us yesterday in her sermon at the National Cathedral, “This church has said that our larger vision will be framed and shaped in the coming years by the vision of shalom embedded in the Millennium Development Goals – a world where the hungry are fed, the ill are healed, the young educated, women and men treated equally, and where all have access to clean water and adequate sanitation, basic health care, and the promise of development that does not endanger the rest of creation. That vision of abundant life is achievable in our own day, but only with the passionate commitment of each and every one of us. It is God's vision of homecoming for all humanity.”
On this Feast of All Saints, we must ask ourselves the difficult question that has faced the saints of every age: who are the enemies of the poor, and how do we respond to them? One way to respond is to find creative ways as individuals, and more importantly, as a community, to engage the Millennium Development Goals as a framework for addressing global human suffering. To that end, I will convene a meeting after mass on December 10 of all those who are interested in strengthening our parish’s commitment to global and local mission using the MDGs as a template for discernment. This is the work of the saints, and it demands the best of us in terms of creativity and commitment.
Another means of nonviolent response that is immediately available to most of us is the ballot box. The conversion of the enemies of the poor can begin on Tuesday, November 7. Exercising our right to vote, informed by truly Christian values, is one way to live out our baptismal promise to resist evil while striving for justice and peace among all people.
We need all of the saints, all of us, to renew our commitment to the passionate but nonviolent, creative and sometimes satirical but never cynical, work of mending the world. Love your enemies. Be merciful as God is merciful. Change the world. Amen.