“Disruptive Love: The Best of Enemies”
Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean
Christ Church, Summit
February 19th, 2017
A reading from Matthew Chapter 5:38-48
“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not oppose an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give them your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
‘You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Everybody does that! And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Be perfect, be whole, like your God in heaven.
Let us pray: God of Love, may our hearts be still, may we know your love, this day may we find your peace & grace we pray – Amen.
The Message Translation says “Love your enemies, let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.” But what does it mean to love your enemy? Does it mean to “Go the extra mile,” to overextend yourself & be really polite. That’s what it meant for me in the south growing up – “don’t just set the table, assist the host until the last dish is put away at the end of the night” – that is “going the extra mile.” But is that really what Jesus means when he says “love your enemy” to show up at their house and do the dishes?
Do we love our enemies by “turning the other cheek?” Seriously, how does it bring out the best in a person to invite an enemy’s continued physical abuse? This seems like a particularly senseless strategy for women & children who are facing domestic violence. And it feels downright callous, if not offensive, to preach this as “good news” to communities who are struggling in cycles of oppression, poverty, unequal access to education, food & water, and life threatening treatment in our criminal justice system. You have heard it said, “be humble, roll over and take it, and while you are at it be really nice about it.” And somehow becoming a doormat, that will make you more like God. (PROP: Doormat on Top Step) This is of course a gross misreading of scripture. And it is a dangerously disempowering and even abusive way to orient one’s life, both for the safety of loved ones and for our own health and wholeness.
That being said there are time when we need a break from it all. And so I believe that God has grace when we duck under a conflict every now and again or need to turn inward instead of standing up for what is right all of the time.
But let’s try another reading. Maybe Jesus is only talking about “turning the other cheek” in personal relationships. Maybe this just applies to communities who are committed to practicing a Christian or religious way? Maybe out in the “real world” or the secular world “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is an understandable practice. We have to go to war every now and again, and we need justice systems to punish people, right? “Fervent critics of nonviolence, argue that violence is a necessary accompaniment to revolutionary change or that the right to self-defense is fundamental.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonviolence#Criticism) And so maybe if being a “doormat” is a bad option when trying to love our enemies, taking up the sword or the stick at least in certain scenarios, is actually the most effective method to reach a more just & peaceful world? (PROP: Stick on the Top Step)
And again I know that there are communities around our country and around our world who have been bathed in cycles of war or violence. And who am I to say that self-defense or even a violent response to try to achieve peace is wrong all of the time?
But the problem with this reading is that it lets us off the hook a bit too easily. Who is to say when being violent is righteous and when it is reactive, and indeed creates more harm, even to the one who has resorted to violence? Does an eye for an eye really work? Or in the end as the parable goes “do we all end up blind?“ Secondly, Jesus is most certainly NOT addressing only our personal relationships or religious communities. In Jesus’ time the Greco-Roman powers that be, oppressed and persecuted the Jewish people. These teachings were not only about in-fighting they were about the empirical power, indeed they were political!
I was listening recently to a This American Life podcast recently entitled “Kid Logic.”
On this podcast, a dad explains that there was this one Christmas when his 4 year old daughter got really into the story of Jesus. He read her Jesus stories in her “Kid Bible” every night. She learned that Jesus’ main teaching was “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And one day when they drove by a big crucifix and her dad explained that Jesus’ teaching was so offensive to the Roman authorities that they decided that Jesus needed to be killed.
“A month later the Dad & daughter came across a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in the paper. “And she said, who’s that? And the dad said, that’s Martin Luther King, this is the day we celebrate his life. And she said, so who was he? The dad said, well, he was a preacher. And she looks up at him and says, “for Jesus?” And the dad said yeah. Actually he was, but there was another thing that he was really famous for, which is that he had a message.
The dad went on and said “Dr. King said that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like.” The daughter thought about that for a minute, and she said, “well, that’s what Jesus said.”
And the dad said, yeah, I guess it is. You know, I never thought of it that way, but yeah. And that is sort of like do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And she thought for a minute and looked at the dad and said, “did they kill him, too?”
Jesus and Dr. King’s teachings have a lot to teach us about nonviolence in our personal and communal lives – but here is a truth they did not get killed because of their radical views on interpersonal relationships, they got killed because they spoke truth to power, because the powers were threatened by how their teachings empowered the vulnerable & the marginalized. And so the point is that Jesus was not simply talking about being nonviolent SOMETIMES (even though surely he knew that we would struggle & need a break). And Jesus was most certainly teaching this as a mode of being for every forum. At least that is how he got killed – and so if this “Third Way” is worth Jesus’ life & Dr. King’s life then perhaps we should pay attention.
So what does it mean to love your enemy? Our passage today comes from Jesus’ longest sustained teaching in the Gospel of Matthew: “The Sermon on the Mount.” Just as Moses delivered the law from Mount Sinai, Jesus interprets the law in his own time, in a fresh & challenging way. He used examples that would immediately speak to his current context – “turning the other cheek” “going the extra mile” these are analogies that Jesus’ original disciples would immediately understand – but over time they lose meaning.
So let’s take a glimpse into the 1st century. And let’s begin with turning the other cheek. Imagine that a Roman soldier was offended by you & he slapped you on the cheek. He would have to use his right hand because in Jesus’ time a person’s left hand was unclean. And the way that a soldier would hit a person would be with the back of his hand to show domination & power. If he were to slap with an open hand or a fist – that signified that he was confronting you as an equal. And so by turning your other cheek you are forcing the soldier to hit you with an open hand declaring your worth, your equality.
Now imagine that same Roman Soldier, perhaps a bit angry at your display of resistance, proclaims that you must carry his pack for the next mile on his journey. You see that was a law under Roman rule. Entire towns or villages could be beckoned to haul an army’s supplies down the road for the next mile. However, it was strictly illegal for a Roman soldier to allow a citizen to carry his baggage for more than a mile – if caught subjecting citizens to such practices the soldier would have been punished. So imagine that at the end of your mile of service, you got a brilliant idea to keep going – you just keep on marching down the path “the extra mile.” Imagine the soldier chasing you down the road, pleading with you to stop! What a reversal, what a creative and empowering move and now the soldier is now in trouble, he is implicated in the oppressive system.
Lastly, imagine a creditor who is suing a poor person for her coat. During Jesus’ day the burdens of debt were blatantly unfair, the Romans taxed the people heavily to pay for their wars. The only way that a person would be sued for her coat is if she were extremely poor. But she came up a way to resist the creditor at the court that day. She decided to not only give up her coat, but her cloak as well, which Jesus’ audience knew would render her naked! And her nakedness was a display of rebellion, and also a way of naming, shining the light of the reality of her oppressed state, her naked vulnerability. And to top it off, the creditor would have been shamed by her nakedness because the shame “fell less on the naked party than on the person viewing or causing the nakedness (Genesis 9:20-27).” (Walter Wink’s article “Jesus’ Third Way”). So these acts are so much more than extending one’s self in extreme kindness, they are risky, radical and subversive.
And so what if there is a “Third Way” between responding to our enemies as a doormat or with a stick? What if there is a way to shine a light on your own humanity while also revealing the truth that oppressors are implicated in this unjust system? (PROP: Lantern on the Top Step)
You see when Jesus asks us to “Turn the Other Cheek” he is asking us to proclaim our worth, our equality as a child of God. To hold up the light. In the novel & musical “The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker in a climactic scene when an abused wife finally comes to the end of her rope, Celie proclaims to her husband, before leaving him for good, “I may be poor, I may be black, I may be ugly, But I am here!” This is what it means to turn the other cheek. She is no longer passive, and she will not resort to the stick that has been used to degrade her, she chooses a third way, her own empowered resistance.
Celie teaches us that this “Third Way” is the best way to redeem our own pain, and anger and bitterness. Because we are choosing our own path, we are not mirroring back the pain that was given to us. We are choosing a loving and yet radical resistance. We will not be your doormat and we will not resort to your way.
And perhaps, even more miraculously in “The Color Purple” we learn that this “Third Way” can enable even the pain and bitterness of our enemy to be healed. At the end of the novel Celie’s former husband repents and asks for forgiveness. Imagine the soldier, he has seen doormats and he has seen sticks, but maybe his heart is finally opened when he sees that man carrying his pack the extra mile. Maybe he can finally see his sister turning her cheek declaring, with courage, that she is his equal. Maybe this Third Way is the only way to truly love our enemy – because in this empowered resistance, there is space for the oppressor to soften, to become less of an enemy and perhaps even one day to help in the resistance.
And the truth is that it doesn’t work, most of the time. There are evil powers that Jesus & Dr. King faced that we still face. But the beauty of the Third Way is that when we can use it, we are refusing to become what we hate. We are refusing to let anger and pain define us. And sometimes, yes sometimes, it does have a healing affect beyond our own…
Here is an Excerpt from an article from Durham, North Carolina’s “News & Observer” June 20th 2016 (by Virginia Bridges)
“Civil rights activist Ann Atwater, a sharecropper’s daughter who helped shape Durham’s history, died Monday June 18th 2016 at Duke Hospital. She was 80.
Atwater helped organize poor African-Americans & give them a voice. She set up neighborhood councils, organized marches and stood up to politicians and Klansmen, who one night stood silently outside her apartment wearing white hoods.
Atwater is best known for becoming friends with Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis in the 1970s after they were appointed to lead community meetings on desegregating Durham schools.
Atwater shared how she had almost killed Ellis a couple of years before those meetings, pulling a knife from her handbag at an event downtown where he kept yelling (racial epithets).
“As soon as he got close to me, I was going to grab him and cut him from ear to ear,” she wrote. But her pastor, she said, grabbed her hand and said “Don’t give him them the satisfaction.”
During 10 days of “Save Our Schools” meetings, Atwater wrote, “The blinders came off and we both saw that our fighting one another wasn’t doing anything to help the children.
“We didn’t become friends because we wanted to. What happened, really, was we saw how much we had in common. Then we couldn’t imagine not being friends.”
On the last day of the meetings, Ellis ripped up his Klan membership card in front of a crowd.
“Ann was not only a great community organizer, she adopted people into her family and cared for them as she would care for her own children.”
Her home, was essentially a community center for people who lost their housing and needed work, furniture and food “Her phone was always ringing.”
Atwater would assure people that asking for help said nothing about their worth. And she’d give away anything if someone was in need. Atwater would get an honorarium from a university for giving a talk and give it away.”
Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/community/durham-news/article84815927.html#storylink=cpy
Jesus said, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
I met Ann when I was a first year at Duke’s Divinity School. In fact, I’m sure that one gentleman named Brantley Dean tagged along with me one Saturday to help Ann clean out her garage. Ann told us her story and I remember having the feeling that I have when I sit at the feet of Mirna in Nicaragua – Mirna runs a program that mentors street kids & orphans in Nicaragua’s poorest urban communities. Ann & Mirna – they have this gravity – this gritty self-less-ness. If you have five minute in their presence it is a five minutes that you do not forget. My memories of Ann are not extensive – we did some projects at her house, we brought her a meal after a surgery, visited with her when she would speak at Duke. But the thing that will always stick with me is how poor she was & how rich she was. She was poor in material wealth, because as her obituary so beautifully represents. She had so many children & adopted family members in need that she just gave everything away. She was so rich because she had this spiritual wisdom and wealth of a life marked by courage, faith and authentic struggle. She had a wealth of community & what an amazing impact she had on her beloved city. She was so rich & she was so poor — as I imagine Jesus was…
And I think that’s what Jesus means when he says be whole, like God. To Love with God’s love. Because Ann helps me to imagine how good and lovely God’s love is in my life – how God would give everything away for me. Ann’s life helps me to imagine how I might love with that kind of love. And Ann’s life quite honestly makes me pause and say – what is stopping me from lending to those in need? What is stopping me from resisting with disruptive compassion and empowered grit? What is stopping me from loving my enemy? Ann’s life is like a lantern – it shines a light on some of the ways that I am numb to the pain in this world and numb to my neighbor in pain…
And so beloved, what does the Third Way look like in your relationships – or do we take turns being a doormat and as stick? How can you hold up a lantern and say “Here I am” and “Here you are” and we are equal. What does the Third Way look like in our church? How can we practice & teach each other how to resist with gritty love and creative disruptive nonviolence? What does this look like in our wider world, in our nation?
Of course we will falter and need a break, and of course there will be times when our only option is to duck, hide or react, but Dear God send us lanterns to help us when we cannot see our own worth or the worth of our neighbor. Dear God send us light bearers to show us when we are complicit in systems that cause suffering. Forgive us oh God, and give us the strength to put ourselves at risk to honor the vulnerable. Dear God give us courage to “Love our enemies, as we let them bring out the best in us, not the worst” Amen.