By Rev. Joan Kessler
If I were to give a pen and a piece of paper with the writing prompt, “Enemy”, what would you have to say about that? Have you had an enemy? Was it a playground bully, a difficult co-worker or supervisor? Perhaps you have lived through war and know firsthand what it means to live under occupation and the enemy as close as the other side of your door. A few years back, The Christian Century magazine asked readers to share a personal essay on their experience of “enemy”. They received many compelling reflections and I want to share two of these short essays with you:
In my elementary school days, I liked to think of myself as a bully slayer. The school seemed to have a high ratio of bullies. As I became physically stronger, I found myself toe to toe with the bullies on a regular basis. One of them was Justin Anders.
Justin and I never saw eye to eye. He was at least a year older than I and was in eighth grade when I was in seventh. He was dating a friend of mine who had an affinity for bad boys, and I was envious. That dose of jealousy combined with a hunger for revenge led me to fight him at recess. Soon the two of us were sitting outside the principal’s office glaring at each other, me with a venomous stare and him with a swollen eye and a fractured eye socket. I didn’t feel any pity for him.
Years later, I think about the enmity that I had for Justin. I’m fully aware that I was far from innocent. Justin didn’t have an easy life. His parents were divorced, his dad didn’t have much to do with him, his mother was mentally unstable, and his stepdad had accidentally killed Justin’s sister in a tractor accident. I see now how rough life was for him.
There are a lot of things in my life that I would do over. If I came across another Justin Anders, I know I’d probably be angry and quick to judge at first. But I’d do things better. I’d extend an open hand of peace toward him instead of a clenched fist of hate. I’d take his hand in mine, look him in the eye, and say, “Yeah, life sucks sometimes, brother. But it gets better when we face it together.”
In 1983 I was an observer at the Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Vancouver, British Columbia. One afternoon a resolution was brought to the floor calling for an end to the practice of apartheid in South Africa. Before a vote could be taken, a diminutive man wearing a magenta clerical shirt stepped quickly up to a floor microphone. Following protocol, he introduced himself. “My name is Desmond Tutu,” he said. He lauded the motion and thanked the resolutions committee for its work.
Then in a soft-spoken voice he said (here I paraphrase): “I have only one concern about the declaration. I note the absence of any expression of love for our white South African brothers and sisters, even those who support the existing unjust policy that’s so destructive to my people and our nation. We, of course, want change; indeed, we must have change. But we want our oppressors to know that though we oppose their policies, we wish them no ill. Fairness and just treatment for all people in South Africa is all that we want, and when this policy is eventually overturned, we want to work side by side with all South Africans toward peace and reconciliation in our nation.”
It was an electric moment. A hush fell over the assembly, and we sensed the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Bishop Tutu moved that the resolution be sent back to committee for the inclusion of these sentiments. The motion received unanimous approval.
Two very different experiences of an enemy… one, a local playground bully… the other, systemic racism lived out through apartheid policies of South Africa. Both stories saw a changing of perspective on the part of the writer. The person, the system they were to be angry with and vengeful towards changed by their willingness to go further and see beyond the hate. Maybe you are recalling right now an enemy you have experienced. When I consider my enemy, I can’t think of one. That's not to say that I am not someone else’s enemy. That is always a possibility, but I hope that is not the case. If anything, I am usually my own worst enemy. I make choices that I regret, I say things that I shouldn’t, and I keep silent when I should have spoken up.
Today’s reading from Luke continues Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain which we began last week, and he makes some difficult, counter-cultural, table-turning statements that peel away what it means to be in relationship with another. True love, according to Jesus, goes above and beyond the confines of what his society would normally expect. He is suggesting more than just “love your neighbor” kind of sentiment. No, Jesus wants his listeners to look at the relationships that are really hard and love further.
However, I take exception with Jesus’ suggestion we turn the other cheek and somehow subjugate relationships that are emotionally and/or physically abusive. I don’t know why Jesus included such suggestions that we abhor today… but we do know that people experience domestic violence every day and the hard work of forgiveness. True love acts to end abuse, for the sake of the abused but also for that of the abuser, who harms himself as well as his victim. Removing oneself from violence to safety and holding abusers accountable are not only consistent with “loving our enemies” they are also expressions of it. And I believe Jesus would agree.
The ancient world of the Middle East saw every transaction as a reciprocal agreement… you didn’t enter into debt with another… everything was to be paid up, fair and square. Jesus is suggesting anything but in his economic model. This is not a simple quid pro quo exchange. Jesus challenges his listeners that in their interactions with one another, they should expect nothing in return… a radical concept indeed! He suggests not to love as a strategy for personal gain or reciprocity, but rather for the sake of love itself, or better, for the sake of the beloved.
The closing verses of our reading this morning are some of my favorite in all of scripture because they provide an ethic for living today just as they did two millennia ago. This is the Golden Rule to me:
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
We wonder how the fabric of our society will be mended in light of all the protests and angry feelings about the actions and inactions of others. But could the healing begin when we consider the measure, we give is the measure we give back? These are Jesus’ guiding principles for living in relationship and community. Just imagine it… a good measure of love and forgiveness and mercy, paying the debts of others, all mixed together, pressed down, shaken together, just running all over the place… and the measure you give is the measure you will get back. What a beautiful hot mess it is! This isn’t doctrine or dusty dogma… it’s real, it’s challenging, it’s life lived out to its fullest, overflowing potential. This is God’s love, God’s model of a new heart-focused economy.
I have the privilege of sharing a story Don told at the funeral of his brother Bob this past week. As kids do, Don and Bob had had a sibling dispute about something, and their Mum’s intervention was to have them wash the kitchen window… she gave them each a bucket of water and a cloth and had them each clean one side of the pane. They couldn’t avoid looking at one another and as the window was washed, the anger gave way to smiles and then to laughter; the hard feelings dissipated, and they resumed being brothers again. I have thought of this story often this past week in light of the protest situation in Ottawa. Don’s Mum was obviously a wise woman who loved her children and maybe knew something about world diplomacy that no one else did. Maybe healing our rifts is as easy as seeing into the eyes of another, seeing their experience, their pain, without judgment. Nothing is more challenging than to love someone who has hurt you.
Such abundance…. such grace… just running all over the place, so much it cannot, will not be contained. What a wonderful ethic to live by. Love like this friends, the world needs this and it needs you.
Peace be with you.