Feb. 24, 2019
Why should we love our enemies? After 20 years in ministry and a lifetime of being a Christian, it surprises me that that’s my question this time around with this passage. Why do it?! Maybe I’ve always assumed that we should because Jesus said so. It is right because that is what Jesus tells us to do.
I think that in the past the question of “how” has been the more pressing one for me. How do we love those who have mistreat us? How do we muster the strength to pray for our abusers, to bless those who curse us, to turn the other cheek to those who strike us?
I haven’t turned to the “why” question because I have great answers to the “how” question. Who could possibly be good at that stuff? My successful moments at forgiveness, as I think about them, have all relied upon grace; of that I am sure, which is to say that the only way that I know of to answer the “how” is to ask for the help of a God who can do what I cannot.
But, why should we do it in the first place? Why love our enemies? Why not dismiss them? Why not avoid them? Why not kill them? Which, on a personal level is a ridiculous question, but broadened way out to public policy and the philosophies that govern nations, it isn’t ridiculous at all. I remember listening to a particularly hawkish politician justifying the use of military force saying, “We kill our enemies because once they are all dead we no longer have to worry about them.” I remember thinking, “Yes, but can you kill all of your enemies without creating more of them in the process?”
In other words, the politician’s argument wasn’t as tidy as he made it out to be, but neither was it completely off base in our world. On a balance between loving your enemies and destroying them, on which side do you think the nations of the world end up? Then, from that answer if we zoom back in to a more personal perspective it’s not so hard to see how our approaches to those who slight us are cut from the same violent cloth.
In contrast, a scene that’s made a permanent impression in my mind from a time I don’t remember all that clearly comes from a 1990’s West End production of Les Miserables, Jean ValJean is on the run, haven stolen silverware from the priest who kindly hosted him for the night. The police capture him and drag him back to the priest who covers for the fugitive and gives him his candlesticks as well, saying something like, “Oh, in your haste to forgot that I had given you these also.”
The surprise of the moment has stayed we me all these years, and it has served as something of a reminder of Christ’s words today. “If someone takes from you your coat, do not withhold even your shirt.” But again, why? Is it because we trust that this is God’s way of changing people? Is it more effective than punishment? In Jean Valjean’s case, yes absolutely! The grace afforded him by the priest changed the course of his life forever.
Still, I don’t think that’s the sole answer to the question “why?” A colleague of mine shared with me a scholar’s depiction of what an early worship service in the Roman empire would have been like. He described a man making his way though city streets at 4 in the morning before the shops opened and the busy world awoke. After a series of twists and turns down dark alleys the man came to the back door of a home where he was greeted by another who granted entrance only after inspection. Once in the home the man placed his small loaf on an altar table with the other loaves, which a bishop quietly consecrated. Once the elements were prepared each secret Christian ate bread and drank from the cup, proclaiming Christ as Lord in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The part of the picture that stands out is the end when each communicant receives from the bishop the remaining crumbs of the sacrament to carry with them in a small box, the same box for which a member of their church was publicly hanged only weeks prior.
It’s one thing to tell us to love our enemies. It’s another thing for the same message to be heard, shared, repeated, and lived-by in this type of a setting. I can’t believe the point here was to change the world as a minority group living in secret and in fear. They didn’t love their enemies in order to convert the empire. That actually happened later through an act that looked much more like force than love.
So, again, why? Why would the Christians love those who persecuted them when they had no reason to believe that it would make an ounce of difference in the world around them? Why would we?! (Though, I’d bet that our acts of mercy very often do have an impact at least on some level)
The answer I’ve been discerning lately is this: The Christians should act like Christ because it is no longer they who live, but Christ who lives in them. They should express the Spirit of Christ because the Spirit of Christ has fallen upon them and breathed his breath within them. They should love generously because they have been so loved and because to live any other way would be a denial of who they have become because of the Christ within them.
As I say this I’m concerned that talk such as this invites daydreaming. It sounds too “bibely,” or theological or mystical or something. Many of us have learned to think of Jesus as a messenger from God whose stories teach us right from wrong, or as the one whose sacrifice on the cross forgives our sins. Either he does something for us or he teaches something to us. But, that’s not the message of the apostles’ church. Christ was primarily the one from God who does something in us. And this means that the life of faith isn’t about accepting a ticket to heaven, nor is it about living by a certain morality. It’s about something much less manageable than that. It’s about letting the old self die and rising anew with Christ. It’s about less of me and more of Jesus. It’s ultimately about the kind of transformation we know as the mystery of a boundless God of endless love becomes more and more the persons we know ourselves to be because the risen Christ is alive within us.
This is harder to wrap our minds around than less miraculous versions of our faith, but that’s not a reason to give up on it or to seek something less than the transformation that Christ offers. It is, however a reason to recognize that we need to do some disentangling of ourselves from the dominant messages we adopt about what makes us who we are, what gives us value, and what guides our living. On the one hand, that’s hard work, work that may last a lifetime. Rowan Williams says, “It means letting go of the images we are used to, moving beyond ideas and pictures of God that belong in our comfort zone. It means letting go of the emotions that we’d like to have, letting go of what we think makes us happy – not to cultivate misery but to get used to the idea that real joy might be so strange and overwhelming that we’d fail to recognize it unless we had put some distance between us and our usual comforts and re-assurances.”
Imagine that. Imagine that our expectations and aspirations are so off the mark that we can’t apprehend what it is that God is giving. On the one, hand some pretty dramatic work must be done. Though Williams wouldn’t deny the work of it, his instructions are simple enough. In essence, he says, pray! Pray in such a way as to stand before God without the need to posture or prove yourself. Release yourself to God and discover more and more what that release will mean.
Interestingly, I’ve recently begun a book on this very topic. If my sabbatical plans get funded by the Lilly Foundation I’m going to buy copies for all of us. The premise is that “Christlikeness,” “Christ-fullness,” is possible for us all and not as hard as it may sound or feel. It’s just that we haven’t known how to do it. We’ve played and replayed unhelpful narratives about God over and over again in our heads, and so we’ve only come so far. And, even if we’ve changed those narratives to healthy ones we haven’t, in our busy and distracted lives, found ways to exercise them and train our bodies and minds to adopt them.
Each chapter of the book is followed by a mini chapter, which offers practices, about which we are invited to journal. Guess what the first practice is? I was expecting it to be hard – something radical and new. It was this: get some sleep. It was so obvious and easy I considered scrapping the book all together. The author says to go to be at the same time every night. Make that a priority. Don’t do anything to stimulate the brain for an hour before bed. No screens, no tv. I’ve heard that before actually, but I’ve always ignored it because I like my shows. It doesn’t sound especially Christian, either. I think that both Oprah and Dr. Oz have advised the same thing. My first thought was, this is so easy I probably won’t do it. I think I’ll jump to the next chapter and see if there is something a bit more hard-core. But, do you know what the next one is? It’s be quiet.
So, #1: Get some sleep. #2: Be quiet – 5 mins a day of quieting your mind and your body. Again, it’s too easy. That is, until you start thinking about actually doing it, actually making the little adjustments that you need to make in order to fulfill the assignment. We can do these things. Right? That’s not the question. The question is will we, which is all to say that maybe what Christ is offering really isn’t all that out of reach after all. It’s not about ability. The practices are there for us. Ultimately, it is about desire.
Do we want to share in the risen life of Christ? De we want God’s Spirit? Do we want something as different and free as divine love to take over our lives? Or, do we want something a bit more manageable than that?
Part of the Good News as I see it is that even when we aren’t sure what we want there is a God who still wants us, a God who loves those who reject him, a God who is merciful even to those who work against her purposes. The Good News is that this God knows us, and calls us to God’s self, and nothing we do will make God stop.
 Tokens of Trust, page 156.