Sermon - 25th March 2012
Lent 5 - Loving enemies
Scripture - Matthew 5:38-48
Rev Andy Braunston
The film clip we saw earlier dramatizes a key scene in Hugo’s Les Miserables. The elderly bishop redeems the newly released Jean Valjean by giving him a new start and returns violence and theft with love and generosity. Yet the bishop is no fool; he acts with a purpose and clearly sees something to redeem in Valjean who has been brutalised after 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. The rest of the book shows how Valjean repays the trust the bishop had in him but, at this point, he has been an enemy of the bishop. The bishop took him in, fed him and gave him a bed for the night and Valjean betrayed this trust with theft and violence.
We don’t like to think that we have enemies but the recent debate on gay marriage has seen some nasty homophobia come out. Many who are against marriage being opened to same sex couples are careful to phrase their objections clearly and are praising civil partnerships and making sure they can’t be portrayed as homophobic. Others, however, haven’t been as temperate and we’re seeing some nastiness on the edges. People are still threatened by us and the churches, in the main, still have real problems with accepting those of us who are LGB or T as equals with heterosexuals.
As a nation we don’t really think about enemies most of the time. Since the end of the Cold War we don’t think of Russia in quite the way that we did when I was a kid and worried about a nuclear war. Although Sir Humphrey, in Yes Prime Minister, was convinced the French were the national enemy and said the only reason the UK joined the Common Market was to keep the French and Germans loathing each other!
The wars we involve ourselves in now are carefully called “conflicts” or “deployments” rather than wars. The rhetoric of war has been overdone too in recent years – from Nixon’s “war on drugs” to Bush’s “war on terror” it’s been difficult to visualise, or personalise an enemy. Those who were enemies of the UK in Ireland are now UK government ministers there as a result of the peace process.
We may have enemies in our own lives, however. Office or work politics can be bitter, those involved in actual politics may have enemies – often not their political opponents but their colleagues in their own parties! And some of us may find some relatives treat us more like enemies rather than family members.
Jesus’ challenge to love enemies is hard to follow; but not because it’s making us into doormats but because his words force us to confront our enemies and shame them in non-violence and loving ways.
The Biblical Context
The law of retaliation which Jesus refers to “you heard that it was said….” was an attempt to enact fair justice among the people of ancient Israel. Wherever harm is committed—whether intentional or not —the judges of ancient Israel were expected to authorize the law of retaliation (an eye for an eye). The law was to ensure that justice prevailed and that punishments fitted the crime. But the punishment was just that – no attempt to understand or rehabilitate – just to punish and deter. Jesus, however, tells us not to use violence to oppose the evil doer. His strategy is to overcome evil with good and, I think his goal is to overcome humiliation by shaming those in power. Over the next couple of weeks we will be turning to the Passion narrative as we enter Holy Week. In that Jesus doesn’t dignify his abusers with many answers, doesn’t repay blows with curses and even convinces the centurion that he was a son of God.
Jesus tell us to give even more than asked from those in need. For the poor, the loss of one's "cloak" in addition to one's "coat" would have meant a cold night of sleep since the cloak was normally the evening blanket as well. If he has the poor in mind in a court of law, it may have been an act of shame to hand over one's cloak and coat as a symbol of one's debt. The nakedness of the one in debt may have brought shame on all parties involved in the system. Turning the other cheek is so difficult, but so powerful and, again, shames the one offering violence by not resisting and by not losing one’s own dignity. Similarly “going the extra mile” shames the oppressors. The Romans had the right to conscript labour to help soldiers for up to a mile. We see this in the dreadful long journey to Calvary where Simon of Cyrene helps carries Jesus’ cross. To go the extra mile shames the person demanding the forced labour.
By the end of the first Century it seems that Christians took Jesus’ words literally and this pattern of non-violence continued until Constantine’s conversation when the demands of being in-power started to bring about some rethinking and compromise.
The hardest part of this passage, for me, is the command to love one’s enemies. I think it’s part of this same strategy of shaming the oppressor and that may make the action a bit easier – but it’s still difficult and requires a life of prayer to gain the strength to truly love. Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies and in the Lord’s prayer that we link our own forgiveness from God with our ability to forgive others.
Loving, praying for, and forgiving one's enemy is an extension of Jesus' broader teaching about the Kingdom of God.
So What does Loving Enemies involve?
I think the logic of Jesus’ words show us three things which are involved in loving one’s enemies. None of these things are about our feelings – but love in this sense isn’t about our feelings – it’s about an act of our will.
Keeping one’s dignity
First, I think we’re told to keep our dignity. The whole sense of Jesus’ words are about keeping dignity, and a measure of control, in a situation where the violence and oppression is designed to rob us of dignity and control. The centurion who demanded forced labour humiliates the person being forced, the thug who hits the weaker person is seeking to control and bully, the person who seeks to financially rip off another wants to keep them poor and dependent. Valjean tried to humiliate the Bishop by violence in the clip, even though as a much younger, and stronger, man he would have had no difficulty in simply walking off with the silver. All of Jesus’ examples – of going the extra mile, of giving the cloak as well as the coat and of turning the other cheek - are about the underdog in each situation regaining control. But they do so without resorting to the behaviours that, in fact, diminish one. The Bishop, even on the floor in his night shirt has a dignity that Valjean doesn’t. It’s incredibly difficult but the first step in loving one’s enemy is to keep one’s own dignity.
Telling the truth
And then I think it is Jesus’ logic is to tell the truth. Later on in Matthew the Rich Young Man wants to follow Jesus and he tells him to, first, give away all that he has to the poor and then come back. Jesus knew that we can be trapped by wealth and possessions and that it is only in giving some of them away that we become truly free. This is always a challenge. But keeping dignity and loving enemies requires telling the truth. Pilate lorded it over Jesus and reminded him that he was in charge, yet Jesus, rather disarmingly tells Pilate that he would have no power unless it was given to him from above. To tell the truth to power can be dangerous but is very necessary for those who have power. Telling the truth to an enemy is necessary as it keeps one’s dignity and allows the points of conflict to be clear. A few months ago I heard Aung San Suu Kyi give a series of lectures for the BBC which were deeply moving. She remains committed to non-violence but is utterly clear that the Generals who run Burma need to hear the truth about their crimes. The faceless generals have no dignity, the Lady has it all.
Seeking to understand
Love always seeks to understand the other. To understand may not excuse but it may often explain. In understanding the other point of view –no matter how vile – we challenge ourselves to see things from a different perspective. In court I have often very firm, and dim, views of some defendants but a lot can change when we understand a bit more about them through interaction with them and through reports. The understanding doesn’t excuse but it can help me explain and tailor a more suitable punishment which also seeks to rehabilitate. When people hurt us or act as if they are our enemies, it can help if we understand what motivates them.
It is from Jesus' words (and his exposure to the practices of Mahatma Gandhi) that Martin Luther King developed the practice of non-violence as a means of effective protest. Just as Jesus reinterpreted the Biblical laws for his day, King put into practice their relevance for his own day. For King and others, Jesus' words were meant to be taken literally. Though not all Christians have responded in this way, a plan to retaliate evil with love was central to King's mission and should be central to ours when we are faced with oppression and injustice. Similarly, Aung San Suu Chi, from a very different religious tradition seeks to understand and love her enemies in seeking to shame them into change. In our own lives we can learn much from these non-violent and loving approaches to enemies and, when we encounter people who act as if they are our enemies we can learn to love them by refusing to lose our dignity, to tell the truth to them and by seeking to understand their perspective. In this we follow the example of our Lord who showed us the power of love which overcomes all that is evil.