Sunday, 24 February 2019

Who is my enemy? Do I really have to love them?

Sermon preached on 24 February 2019 at Duston United Reformed Church. Text: Luke 6:27-38.

Image: Pulpit Fiction
Let’s imagine a parable – or at least a variation on a well-known one. Jesus had been preaching all day on a to a large crowd, teaching about God’s mercy and how we should show love for our enemies. A man came to him that evening at the house where he was saying, and asked him “Teacher, who is my enemy?”. And Jesus replied: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was set upon by thieves, passed by people who should know better, and helped by someone his people had been in conflict with for centuries. Now, who do you think was that man’s enemy?”. And alas, the man’s answer was not recorded in the parable. But perhaps we might guess it for ourselves.

And that’s my question for today. Who are our enemies? And alongside that, do we really have to love them? And what does it really mean to have an enemy? It’s tempting to domesticate this passage, to bring it to the equal of petty disputes with neighbours or at work, but the biblical scholars tell us that the word translated as enemy means people who pose you and your tribe a real threat, or the people that your tribe poses a real threat to. Armies at the town gates, terrible persecution, long history of rivalry and dispute, that kind of thing.

For much of my life I was rather sceptical about this teaching. I believed it strongly enough but also thought it didn’t really apply to me. I’ve spent my whole life as a pacifist, and never really identified with the various wars my country has fought. In my lifetime, British soldiers have been at war in the Falklands, twice in Iraq, in Afghanistan, as well as lower-key involvement in lots of other places. Then there was the Cold War, and terrorist attacks from Northern Ireland and more recently from Islamic extremists. But they always felt like other people’s battles, and I have seldom been convinced that the British response was appropriate or proportionate. I don’t say this to make a case for my politics, and I recognise that others feel quite differently about this subject. But it made me uncertain who I really could call my enemy.

Now some of this is due to privilege. I’ve experienced little sense of persecution in my life. I’m white, male, middle-class – all thoroughly privileged groups. And the wars I mentioned were far away, and although I was afraid as a teenager of nuclear war like many of my generation, these things were complicated and mostly happening somewhere else. So I’ve had little sense of persecution or threat, no real sense of enemies facing me.

And yet I’ve gradually come to realise that I do have enemies. There are people who would hate me enough to kill me because of where I live and my background, and who don’t care about the nuances of one British person against another. There are people who hold my opinions to be reprehensible and would like to see them weeded out. And there are opinions, groups, that I also find reprehensible; and I might not hate the people individually who hold them, but I certainly see myself as the enemy of their opinions and would like to see those come to an end.

Plenty of other people are in a similar position. I don’t really want to use the B-word, but political debate has become more and more heated in this country since the Brexit referendum was called. Whatever your opinion about the right outcome, the discussion has become dangerously polarised, with positions becoming harder and more extreme. Our two main political parties are dominated by the edges of their political traditions, not their centres. So many people see the other side as their enemy. We haven’t had much political violence in this country, apart from the murder of the MP Jo Cox, but MPs and activists get all sorts of abuse, online and in person.

When Jesus talked about enemies, he was speaking from a far worse context of powerlessness and persecution. The Jewish people had been marginalised and persecuted for centuries, most recently by the Roman occupation. We were on Hadrian’s Wall this week, and had a real sense of the power and ruthlessness of the Roman empire. They built their forts on an identical plan, from Britain to Germany to Palestine, they co-opted local leaders, and they expected total compliance with Roman authority in a whole range of ways. They taxed highly, suppressed local religions, and crucified rebels. And by the time Luke wrote his gospel, the temple at Jerusalem had been destroyed, the Jewish people scattered, and the great split between Christians and Jews had occurred and was becoming irrevocable, but not yet recognised by the Romans. This meant that Christians were persecuted both by the Romans as a Jewish sect and by Jewish authorities as heretics, and it’s in that context that Luke put together his gospel and chose to quote Jesus’ words in this way.

So Jesus, and Luke after him, had a lot of reason to think about people who hated them, abused them, cursed them and so on. And that’s why the passage assumes that the listeners are victims, not victimizers – these people may have enemies but they’re not the ones doing the persecution, they’re not the ones with the armies, they’re not subjecting people to abuse on Twitter.

And of course there are so many people today who are genuinely persecuted, across the world. People who are subject to abuse for their gender, or their race, or their religion, or their sexuality, or their disability, or their age – there are so many ways to persecute. And so many powerful groups treat these people as enemies. I’m sorry to say that this includes church groups, past and present – so many churches have marginalised women, or people of colour, or gay people, or disabled people, or foreigners. Too many people have awful experiences at the hands of Christians. In these places the church has turned itself into an enemy of the people of God, and it’s shameful.

But in the face of this kind of persecution, Jesus doesn’t say, meet violence with violence, meet curses with curses. He says: do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. This might sound passive but it’s incredibly radical. He doesn’t say that persecuted people should ignore their persecution, should let their enemies off the hook. He says, acknowledge that you’ve been hurt, but don’t let them think that they’ve got the better of you. They’re wrong and you’re right. But also: you’re better than they are. Their violence doesn’t need to be met with further violence, because that only makes things worse.

And then he goes further, to advise persecuted people that they should confront those who hurt them, and turn their negative experiences upon their persecutors. You may well know that there was context behind these sayings – that turning the other cheek after being struck with the right hand meant someone would either have to strike you with the back of the hand or the less-favoured left hand. Likewise if someone takes away your cloak, which for many people in Jesus’ time would be their only outer garment, then they’re depriving that person of so much protection that they might as well be stripped naked – which is basically Jesus’ advice. Because turning the other cheek doesn’t mean to be a doormat; it means radically to face down the persecutor and confront them with the consequences of their actions, not allowing them to damage you and then let it go. These are deeply subversive acts.

A good recent example of this pattern of behaviour is the #MeToo movement, where women who had been assaulted by powerful men came together to stand up to those men, to show them that their behaviour was unacceptable. They didn’t fight the men, they brought the truth into the open, showed the extent to which these men had not only behaved unacceptably, but thought they were too powerful to be challenged. And these brave women, many of them perfectly ordinary people as well as a small handful of celebrities, stood up and told of their experiences. Recounting the story of their abuse must have hurt, had to take a lot of courage. And very often their courage has stopped powerful people from continuing their abuse, frequently requiring them at last to face the justice they’d avoided for a long time. Sometimes it wasn’t enough – I’m thinking of the extraordinary testimony of Christine Blasey Ford in front of the US Senate last year, confronting the past abuse done to her by a would-be judge. In that case, politics won the day, but her voice was powerful and the judge and his political supporters left damaged by it.

This kind of active non-violence has been practiced by peaceful but assertive liberation movements on many occasions. It was the method used by Mahatma Gandhi in India, by Martin Luther King in the United States, by Desmond Tutu and others in South Africa. But it’s an old tradition, and goes back to Jesus’ call to love your enemies, to break cycles of violence and persecution through being better than them.

And being better than your enemy has spiritual value as well as being practically effective. As well as his involvement in the anti-apartheid struggles, Archbishop Desmond Tutu led the amazing Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. He became deeply aware of issues of forgiveness, and has written and spoken at length on why forgiving others is a radical act. He wrote the following:
Forgiveness is not dependent on the actions of others. Yes, it is certainly easier to offer forgiveness when the perpetrator expresses remorse and offers some sort of reparation or restitution. Then, you can feel as if you have been paid back in some way. …  We don't forgive to help the other person. We don't forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves. Forgiveness, in other words, is the best form of self-interest.
This is put in a slightly different way towards the end of the passage by Jesus himself, when he says “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”. Because ultimately this is about how we live our lives, and it’s about the model we take for our lives. And mercy is absolutely at the heart of the gospel of Luke, the heart of the good news that Jesus brings us. God is love, God’s mercy is absolute. The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims is not one where people’s wrong-doings are counted up and weighed against them. It’s one that says that God loves us all, with a rich and deep love so great that it’s like measuring out flour, or some liquid, and keeping on pouring and pouring until it flows everywhere. It’s a love, a merciful love, that desires wholeness and peace for everyone, with more generosity than you can possibly imagine. But it’s also a demanding love, because it says that if that’s the nature of God’s love, then it needs to be the nature of our love too. The only possible response to that level of love is to share it with others, to always be on the side of the downtrodden, never to side with the persecutors or the powerful, and always to respond to violence and abuse with still more love.

That’s a tough call, and there’s one more thing to say. Some of this passage, like the Joseph story, is a bit dangerous. Ideas like turning the other cheek can be misused by the powerful to try to shut up persecuted people. Nobody has a right to do this. If people who have suffered harm choose to stand up to their abuser in this kind of way, then that is their right, and it serve them well. But this is the invitation of Jesus, not his commandment, and it can never be used to silence or tell the downtrodden what to do.

And lastly, as so often, Martin Luther King puts it beautifully. Dr King was in jail for his activism and was accused by public opinion of being an extremist. And he wrote the following, with this passage today in mind:
Was not Jesus an extremist for love… So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
May we all love our enemies, and in that way be extremists for love. Amen.