SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Prayer of the Day: O Lord Jesus, make us instruments of your peace, that where there is hatred, we may sow love, where there is injury, pardon, and where there is despair, hope. Grant, O divine master, that we may seek to console, to understand, and to love in your name, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“But I say to you that listen: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6:27-31.
This is undoubtedly among the sayings most Christians of every persuasion secretly wish Jesus had never uttered. If you define love as broadly as possible, you can perhaps fudge love for enemies by characterizing what appears to be loveless behavior as “tough love.” But Jesus is not content to leave this open to interpretation. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek,” he says, “offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” Anyone daring to suggest that Jesus might actually mean to be taken literally here can expect to be showered with “what abouts.” What about the thug who sticks a gun in the face of your dear old granny? What about Hitler? What about the abused wife? Should I stand by passively as my grandma is murdered? Should the Jews have walked obediently into the gas chambers? Should a wife cheerfully submit to being beaten?
There are some serious concerns lurking under these objections. But their phrasing betrays a host of unexamined assumptions. First, these questions all assume an easy distinction among human beings, namely, a distinction between “good” and “evil.” So much of the violence woven into our American culture is based on our belief that all of life is a titanic battle between what is indisputably good and what is irredeemably evil. American entertainment reinforces this belief with any number of cop shows, westerns, courtroom dramas in which good people are victimized by crazed criminals and saved ultimately by men with guns employing violence to subdue them. Seldom are we given any insight into the motives, experiences and views of the criminals, terrorists and thugs gunned down for the cause of good. Neither do we see much about how the routine employment of violence dehumanizes the gun wielding heroes. Good and evil remain hermetically sealed and separated one from the other. Small wonder, then, that we find our politics, religion and everything else so thoroughly polarized.
As everyone who has ever done real police work or served in combat knows, this isn’t reality. Often it is not evident until the smoke clears who the “good” and “bad” actors were. A bullet can’t discern between the bank robber and a passerby who happens to be in the line of fire. When lethal force is used, there seldom are clear winners and losers. Even the so-called “bad” actor is likely a spouse, parent, sibling and friend whose death rips the fabric of a community. Long after formal hostilities between nations have ceased the scars of combat continue to plague devastated communities, grieving families and traumatized soldiers for generations to come. Abu Graib and My Lai remind us that the line between good and evil does not run neatly between our enemies and ourselves.
Let us be honest. When we assert that lethal force is sometimes a necessity, we are saying in the same breath that there are people whose lives are expendable. We are usurping the right to decide who lives and who dies. I am not convinced that we are capable of making decisions of this kind. For example, if I were a civil authority and learned that an angry mob was seeking to stone an innocent man, I might authorize the use of force necessary to disburse the mob. Certainly, it would be my preference that no one be killed. But in circumstances like this, there are likely to be hostile casualties and perhaps even some “collateral damage.” Let’s say the mission is a success. The stoning victim is rescued with only one hostile fatality. The dead man was not actually involved in the stoning himself, but he was facilitating it by watching the belongings of those doing the dirty deed and cheering them on. As those of you familiar with the Book of Acts know, I just prevented the martyrdom of Saint Stephen by killing Saint Paul. Our judgments about a person’s worth and rightful destiny are woefully short sighted. Just as we cannot know in an instant of time all that brought a person to the point where we have determined that s/he must die, so we cannot know all that will unfold in that life should it be spared. Good and evil, the separation of the wheat from the weeds, must await the end of the age. Only then and only to the final Judge will it become apparent what must be harvested and what must be burned.
Second, these “what about” scenarios all focus on the moment at which the use of force seems unavoidable-as though nothing happened before or after the moment of decision is thrust upon us. It is all so very reminiscent of the adulterous couple who cry remorsefully, “It was bigger than both of us.” At some point, that was probably true. It was not true, however, the first time they found themselves chatting in front of the water cooler for longer than they both knew was natural or appropriate. It was not true when they both found themselves working late on days when there really was no work that could not have kept until tomorrow. It was not even true when they arranged to be sent to the same professional conference in another city and…well, as I said: at some point it really did get out of hand. But it would not be fair or accurate to say that the affair was fated from the beginning. It could have been checked at a thousand points along the way.
In the same way, I think it is a little disingenuous to argue that bombing Germany was necessary to stop the Nazis when they could have been checked at the ballot box by the German people, restrained by a strong, united European/American diplomatic effort or thwarted altogether by a more just and evenhanded peace following the close of the First World War-which also could have been avoided at any number of points. So, too, I think it would be far more productive to focus on creating safe havens for women fearing domestic violence and programs to address pathological behaviors growing out of toxic masculinity among American men than to agonize over what to do when visited by the consequences of our gross neglect of these issues. While there might not be much you can do to keep deranged people from threatening granny, such persons would be a good deal less dangerous without guns in their hands and could therefore more likely be handled without resort to lethal force.
The truth is, the world is generally a peaceful place. The use of lethal force is neither inevitable nor is it as common as we are sometimes led to believe. On any given day, nations resolve their disputes without resort to military action; police officers go about their duties without taking their fire arms out of the holster; domestic abuse, school yard bullying and disputes between neighbors are dealt with peacefully by social workers, counselors and the courts. Resort to violence is the exception, not the rule. It represents not a necessary exercise of power to maintain peace, but a breakdown of peace resulting largely from the neglect of the social institutions that enable it.
That being said, we live in a world where the peace has broken down at many points. How, then, does a follower of Jesus live faithfully in a world where there exist angry people who are perhaps bent on harming us? How do we deal with enemies? By that I do not mean simply people who rub us the wrong way or don’t seem to like us. By enemy I mean what I believe Jesus means: people who might kill us if they could. First and foremost, Jesus commands his disciples to love them. By that he does not mean that we need to feel affection for them or that we should do whatever they wish or give them whatever they want. It does mean, however, that we treat them as we would wish to be treated. That is difficult because it means getting into their skin, trying to see the world as they see it and experiencing life as they do. It is scary, too, because seeing the world through the eyes of my enemy can open my own eyes to a lot about myself I would rather not confront. Yet once I understand my enemy’s animosity toward me and whatever responsibility I might carry for it, a breach is made in the wall between us. There now exists a way out of the vortex of retribution. My enemy is no longer the personification of evil, but a person like myself in need of redemption-a commodity for which we desperately need each other.
Sometimes love requires one to resist one’s enemies. Allowing abusive spouses or parents to continue their pathological behavior does not benefit them and it certainly has no salutary value for the victims! Nor should the church or the world turn a blind eye to genocide, ethnic cleansing or systemic injustice. But that is not to say that love requires the use of violence. There are many ways to resist but, for us disciples of Jesus, violent coercion is not an arrow in our quiver. We know or should know that “all who take the sword perish by the sword.” Adopting the enemy’s methods only transforms us into the image of all that we hate in the enemy. As tempting as it is to rationalize that the ends justify the means, we know that the means are the only reliable way we have of shaping the ends.
Love is hard. Love is costly. Love doesn’t deliver results in any way we can measure. But, as the following poem by Wendell Berry illustrates, it’s the only way there is to vanquish an enemy.
If you are not to become a monster,
you must care what they think.
If you care what they think,
how will you not hate them,
and so become a monster
of the opposite kind? From where then
is love to come—love for your enemy
that is the way of liberty?
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go
free of you, and you of them;
they are to you as sunlight
on a green branch. You must not
think of them again, except
as monsters like yourself,
pitiable because unforgiving.
Source: Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice (c. Wendell Berry, 1994; pub. by Norwood House Press, 2013). Wendell Berry (b. 1934) is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. He is an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a recipient of The National Humanities Medal and the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012. He is also a 2013 Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Berry was named the recipient of the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. On January 28, 2015, he became the first living writer to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. You can read more about Wendell Berry and sample more of his works at the Poetry Foundation website.
 Walter Wink, professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary, points out that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount represents not passive submission to evil, but a “third way” of actively opposing injustice and hostility. Evil is to be actively resisted, though not on its own terms. The community of Jesus’ disciples is to be a counter cultural community whose very existence and way of being represents a challenge to imperial oppression. Though some of Professor Wink’s interpretations of particular texts strike me as speculative and fanciful, on the whole, I think his analysis is on target. See Wink, Walter, The Powers that Be, (c. 1998 by Augsburg Press) pp. 98-111.