~ Matthew 5:38-48/Deuteronomy 19:16-21/Leviticus 19:18 ~
My sermon title today can be said in two different ways. One is as a prayer: “Jesus, this is really hard to do.” The second as a profane exclamation: “Jesus, this is really hard to do!” For here we have two of Jesus’ most profound and difficult commands: “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.” These sayings are what sets Jesus apart from almost all other religious leaders. This is what Jesus is known for. And, it is really hard to do!
This morning I’d like to unpack these two commands a bit. In doing so I ask the question: “Who is my enemy?” That just might not be so obvious. Yes, we are familiar with the young lawyer’s question to Jesus that sets up the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel: “Who is my neighbor?” But today we consider the question: “Who is my enemy?” And, in doing so, consider the very difficult task of loving that enemy.
First, Jesus’ command to non-retaliation. He begins: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’“ This comes from the passage from Deuteronomy. Right off we have some unpacking to do. This principle of “an eye for eye, a tooth for a tooth” had a very specific legal application in ancient Israel. The main idea was to control retribution and revenge. You can’t go and kill somebody just because they hit you in the mouth or poked you in the eye. You take it to court and the court meets out justice, like for like. But there was an even more specific application of this principle. For ancient Israel, if you were taken to court by someone who testified falsely about what happened, then you, as the wronged party, can get justice. Specifically the person who sued you would receive the same punishment he was looking to get from you, life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc. Furthermore, the law said that this was required – “show no pity,” it says. Sadly, people of color who are accused and/or arrested on false testimony very rarely get such satisfaction.
So, this is the context to which Jesus speaks. Basically, Jesus says, if someone accuses you falsely, don’t seek revenge, don’t even take them to court. If someone strikes you on the right cheek….
Right here we have an interesting twist. To strike someone on the right cheek necessarily meant that the hitting was with the back of the hand (one always used the right hand, never the left). To be struck with the back of the hand was an act of insult. In essence, Jesus says, take the insult; don’t look to get retribution, in court or otherwise. Instead….
Well, let’s get to the really hard thing: “Turn the other cheek.” Even more, staying with the court setting, if someone sues you for your outer coat, give him also your inner shirt (which meant, for all practical purposes, being left naked). Also, in the law there was a provision to walk a mile with a person if they asked. Roman soldiers were said to take advantage of this law by making people carry their equipment for a mile. Jesus says, don’t just go the one mile, go the extra mile (even if they are a Roman soldier). Jesus then says, give to anyone who begs from you or asks for a loan. Enough already. Too much.
But he’s not finished. Again, he says, “you have heard it was said.” This time he repeats what we heard from Leviticus, “you shall love your neighbor.” And then adds, “and hate your enemy.” Now, these words are nowhere found in Hebrew scriptures. There is no direct command to hate your enemies. So we might ask: “What gives, Jesus?” Well, the consensus opinion of the day from scribes and rabbis was that if you love your neighbor, your friend, you must necessarily not love your non-neighbors, your enemies. You hate them. So was the understanding.
Jesus takes this understanding and turns it on its head. Instead of hating your enemies, you should love them, even pray for those who persecute you. It’s easy to love those who love you back, he says. Even despicable people, tax collectors and Gentiles, love their friends. You should do better. You should love those who don’t love you.
Yes, this is really hard to do (Have I said that yet?). It’s one thing to live out these norms amongst us, with people we know. How do we live it out there, in the world, where there are opposition and conflict and people who don’t care about you? How does turning the other cheek and loving your enemies work in the real world?
Historically, one of the biggest advocates for loving one’s enemy was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Love and non-violence were at the center of Martin’s strategy. In response to his critics, Martin once said, “I don’t think of love…as emotional ‘bosh’. I don’t think of love as a weak force, but I think of love as something strong and it organizes itself into powerful direct action…There is a great deal of difference between non-resistance to evil and nonviolent resistance to evil.” For Martin, love was the most powerful force on earth, and nonviolence was love expressed politically.
In 1957, Martin preached a sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, entitled “Loving Your Enemies.” In that sermon Martin said some would say,
that Jesus was an impractical idealist who never quite came down to earth…. But far from being an impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist. The words of this text glitter in our eyes with a new urgency. Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.
Given all that, I return to my question: “Who is my enemy?” In ancient Israel and in Jesus’ time, the enemy was pretty straight forward – non-Israelites. The lines were drawn by race, ethnicity, and religion. People who did not follow Yahweh – Gentiles. Or didn’t follow Yahweh the right way – Samaritans, although Jesus’ dispensed with that division quite famously with his Good Samaritan story.
Throughout history these same lines have divided people into neighbors and enemies – “us” vs “them.” Despite commands in scripture to welcome the stranger and the alien, people then and now, make “them” the enemy.
When I gave this sermon in New Zealand, I said that sadly, our country’s president caters to such divisions. He has made it the center of his appeal to name and go after perceived enemies – Muslims and immigrants from Mexico and refugees from Central America and gays and Democrats and… the list seems endless. He has his “enemies list,” anybody who opposes him or disagrees with him or even says unkind things about him are enemies. And they must be dealt with accordingly. And there are many who cheer him on. Hatred is in full swing.
We, who desire to be people of good will, who seek to welcome the “stranger,” who welcome the diversity that “the other” brings to our lives and our community, recoil in horror and lament to such blatant hatred. And, rather than regarding people who are different – racially, ethnically, and religiously – as enemies we do see them as neighbors.
Yet, might we who decry such hatred still have our own particular enemies. Indeed, might our enemies be the very people who express such hatred. Is our enemy the white supremacist, the alt-right devotee, the blatant racist bigot who spews racial hated? Or, closer to home, might our enemy be our co-religionist, our fellow Christian, who harbors such hateful attitudes? To put a finer point on it, as an open and inclusive Christian, is my enemy my closed and exclusionist Christian brother or sister, figuratively and literally? And, if so, how do I love them?
That is not a simple thing. As I see how many Christians express their faith these days in our country, disappointment and despair and even anger can overwhelm any notions of love. How could 81% of white Evangelicals vote for and continually support this hate agenda? I recently came across a song written by one of their own, Hymn for the 81%, with these lines:
Your fear had turned to hatred
But you baptized it with language
torn from the pages of the good book
You weaponized religion
And you wonder why I’m leaving
To find Jesus on the wrong side of your walls
It’s almost as if we have two different religions, doesn’t it? It does appear that maybe our “enemies” are our fellow Christian believers.
What should we do? How should we respond? Well, to take Jesus seriously, we shouldn’t seek revenge. Yet, I don’t think we should allow ourselves to be slapped around and wallow in victimhood either. Indeed, we might be called to stand firm against our fellow Christians, yet in love. Maybe the way we are to love these ‘enemies’ is to resist, albeit non-violently, their misguided and hurtful ideology. Maybe we are called to love them with tough love. Indeed, it is not a strategy for cowards.
This morning I would like to suggest a way to love our enemies. Specifically, how can we engage with people with whom we seriously disagree, be they Christian or not, in a way that fosters communication, in ways that when they walk away from the table they are still willing to continue the conversation. This is a method developed by a minister in North Carolina, David Campt, in the context of addressing structural racism. He calls it the R.A.C.E Method.
The first step is “R” – reflect. This is actually a pre-step, something you do in advance. Think about what you do believe. Know your story. Know what keeps you centered. And then in the moment of the encounter, you’ll be more able to “breathe empathetically,” as he says; to not get anxious. Being prepared by reflecting is the first step.
The second step is “A” – ask. Ask a question that gets to their experience. Try to get them to move from opinion (what they heard somewhere) to personal experience. “Tell me about an experience you’ve had that confirms that what you say is true.” In doing this, really be willing to listen. No “yeah, but….” The goal is to get them to talk about personal experience with the issue not just opinion.
The third step is “C” – connect. Tell a story of your own experience that has some degree of resonance with their experience. Maybe not the whole story, but some element of it. “Yes, I believe that hard work matters.” “Yeah, I used to think like that.” Find something, anything, to connect. Again, having thought about common concerns is most helpful. Be prepared to tell your story.
The fourth step is “E” – expand. Having made a connection with their story by speaking from your common experience, expand on your story. “Yes, I used to think that way…but here is what I’ve learned since.” “Yes, hard work does matter…but I’ve also learned that there are serious structural systems in our society that make it really hard for some people to thrive.” In a story-telling setting you’ve earned the right to tell your story because you’ve listened to their story.
So, tell your story. A story about your personal experience will be much more powerful and effective than marshaling a bunch of facts. People with deeply held opinions resist fact-based arguments. But, stories? Give it a try.
In his sermon, Martin concluded with these words (and with this I conclude my sermon):
I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, [people] of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us….Give us this strong determination. In the name and spirit of this Christ, we pray. Amen.