by Michael UseyMatthew 5.38-48, NRSVUE
In Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, Jayber is a barber in Port William, Kentucky, who interacts with a variety of people as they come to his barbershop. He struggles to get along with Troy Chatham, an acquisitive agribusinessman whom Jayber thinks is destroying the land in their county. To make matters worse, Troy has married Mattie, the woman whom Jayber has secretly admired for several years.
It’s the late 1960s, and divisions in America over civil rights and the Vietnam war have emerged in Port William. Troy is a fierce supporter of the U.S. government’s policies, including the war. One evening in the barbershop, Troy starts talking about how much he hates the war protesters.
“They ought to round up every one of them sons of bitches and put them right in front of the damned communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.” There was a little pause after that. Nobody wanted to try to top it. It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.” Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. “Where did you get that crap?” I said, “Jesus Christ.” And Troy said, “Oh.” It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.
In the past few months I have thought a lot about Jesus’ injunction to “love your enemies.” I thought about how issues of war and peace are shaped by reflection on the call to love our enemies, and about Jonah’s haunting tale, which presses the question of whether we really want our enemies to repent. But I began to focus on a different aspect of Jesus’ injunction—the one reflected in Jayber’s admission that he doesn’t love Troy.
People on both sides of current political debates have engaged in inexcusable behavior toward those with whom they disagree. Some years ago, Dale Petroskey, then president of the Baseball HoF, canceled a celebration of the movie Bull Durham with Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins because he believed that the two actors’ opposition to the Iraq war would politicize the event and somehow put U.S. troops in jeopardy. A leftist woman at Duke recently accosted a military chaplain studying on that campus and angrily charged him with being “one of those responsible for all of the killings.”
It is far easier to love enemies in the abstract than to love the people with whom we deal on a day-to-day basis. This is as true of those “enemies” who explicitly intend us physical harm as it is of those who are “enemies” because of fundamental disagreements. But it is only in those flesh-and-blood relationships with the Troys of our lives that we learn the habits and practices we need for loving our enemies. Such schooling is necessary if we are to make commitments to love enemies in ways that display moral fiber rather than empty rhetoric.
James 1.19 says, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” We’re challenged to learn the patience required for loving enemies by developing a readiness to listen and a reticence to speak. This does not suggest that we give up our judgments and convictions; it does require that we listen carefully to the judgments and convictions that our enemies hold. Such willingness to listen may even cause us, or our enemies, to modify convictions. At the very least, it will likely lead to more respectful and meaningful disagreements, and a deeper appreciation of the costliness of loving one’s enemies.
These days James’s injunction to be slow to anger becomes more difficult, yet also more crucial. It does not say that we are never to be angry—only that we should be careful because of its destructive potential for ourselves and others. Anger can be a sign of life, a passion that stirs prophetic indignation. But it can also tear away at the fabric of our souls, undermine trust and fragment relationships. Some of the anger that has been directed at enemies near and far will be difficult to overcome.
You’ve heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy”. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for them who persecute you.” Then he gave the simple theological reason: Because this is what God is like: “for God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). Here is the impartial goodness of God beyond all our moral categories. God’s blessing falls on all. God’s grace is given to all. Because now we know that God is not our enemy, then we no longer need to be enemies of our enemies.
This text is the climactic heart of the sermon on the mount, and is Jesus’ highest ethic. The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is the largely universal schedule of bible texts to be read and preached on every Sunday for all mainline churches around the world. Catholics, Episcopals, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists as well as many Baptists use the RCL to choose their Sunday scripture on a 3 year schedule. But the RCL only includes it once every three years, and on a Sunday that is very likely to be cut, Epiphany 7A, a benchwarmer Sunday. Most years we do not get that deep into the Epiphany season before Lent begins, so this pivotal text is rarely heard or preached in the millions of mainline churches worldwide that follow the RCL. In fact, it never popped up in the 10 years after 9/11, and has only come twice in the last twenty years. How neglectful of a seminal part of following Jesus!
Each culture defines for us our enemy, and drills into our heads and hearts. Do you remember this song from the musical South Pacific?
- You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear /You’ve got to be taught from year to year/ It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear/ You’ve got to be carefully taught.
- You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/ Of people whose eyes are oddly made/ And people whose skin is a different shade/ You’ve got to be carefully taught.
- You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late/ Before you are six, or seven or eight/ To hate all the people your relatives hate/ You’ve got to be carefully taught. [And here’s a new verse—which my friend Steve Shoemaker added]:
- You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/ Of people with different DNA/ And people not born in the U.S. of A./ You’ve got to be carefully taught.
The song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” is unremarkable; lyrically it is simplistic and didactic. Friends of Rodgers and Hammerstein urged that the song be cut—for its explosive political content, not for its artistic limitations. In this musical, Joe tells the French plantation owner that white American children aren’t born harboring prejudice; prejudice is instilled in them by parents and relatives who teach them to hate and fear “people whose eyes are oddly made, people whose skin is a diff’rent shade.” Rodgers and Hammerstein wouldn’t budge, and the song was not cut.
Today elements of South Pacific itself appear racist to us, particularly its one-dimensional characterizations of Polynesian individuals as primitive and exotic. But at the time the show packed a powerful punch, taking direct aim at an American culture in which racism was still undisguised and racial segregation—legal, social, and economic—very much the norm. In 1953, soon after a road show version of the play completed a successful two-week run in Atlanta, two outraged Georgia state legislators denounced it as propaganda and vowed to introduce bills outlawing the showing of “movies, plays, musicals or other theatricals which have an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.” One of them pointed directly to the lyrics of “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” In his eyes it was an endorsement of interracial marriage, which remained illegal in several southern states until the Supreme Court’s landmark Loving v. Virginia decision in 1967. Prejudice is built on race, class, nation, religion, sexual orientation and gender. Jesus will have none of it. The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth moves the definition of enemy into the most personal dimension possible: Your enemy is anyone who tempts you to return evil for evil. That enemy can be as close as across the dinner table, at the next desk, across the political aisle. Who tempts you to strike back? Love them instead, pray for them.
This is the heart of Jesus’ sermon, and to his major theme: God is gracious and kind; how then shall we live? Jesus starts at the hardest part: Love your enemies Do good to those who curse you Pray for those who kick you around. “Love your enemies!” If churches put Enemy Love in their church covenants, who would join? What does this look like?
First, non-retaliation. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” Don’t get hung up on the literal-ness of the example of cheek turning. It means, Don’t strike back or pay back. Who is our enemy? Anyone who tempts you to return evil for evil. Who has tempted you to do this in your life? Who is tempting you now?
Those who led the Civil Rights movement took these verses seriously. It’s why they adopted non-violence as their way as they resisted the injustice and evil of their day. When people harmed them, they took it and did not strike back, and suffered bodily harm. Gandhi following the precepts of Jesus had led a nonviolent revolution in India that took down an empire. MLK, Jr., inspired by Gandhi, channeled that non-violent resistance to the racism baked into American laws and culture, and against all odds, it won the day. And it all came from a few words in a little sermon preached by a poor itinerant preacher in an occupied country in the corner of the Roman Empire.
But love of one’s enemy is more than non-retaliation; it is also active goodwill. “Do good to them, bless them, pray for them.” They are all, we are all, children of God. Martin Luther King was asked once how he could love those who were planning and doing him harm. He said it was because he believed that “There is something of the best in the worst of us and something of the worst in the best of us.”
Hating enemies is a common human experience, not a Hebrew Bible teaching. Nowhere does the Hebrew Bible or the Talmud teach hate for enemies. But Enemy love is a radical new injunction Jesus brought to the table. Enemy love is not a feeling or a sentiment. Love means action, deeds, initiatives. Love also means understanding and affirming your enemies’ valid interests. This does not mean that we affirm all the enemy does; Jesus and Paul both confronted their enemies directly when they did wrong. But starting with affirming our adversaries’ valid interests is a key first step in conflict resolution. Christian Wolf calls this de-enemizing love.
So, did anyone pop into your mind as I’ve been speaking? Maybe your stomach began to twist. You don’t have to like them. Liking may come later, or it may never come. Pray for them. If there’s something to praise about them, praise them. If possible, do some secret nice thing for them.
Like most people, I have a deep hatred of bullies. With my Navy dad, I moved around often in my childhood, and being a stocky smart-ass kid, I encountered bullies in every new school I attended. My father urged me never to back down, so I didn’t, and I got in lots of fights the first month when I matriculated into a new school. I still hate bullies; I bet most of you do too. Which is one of my motivations for being a clinic escort at Women’s Choice clinic of Greensboro. It doesn’t seem right or proper to me that a group of conservative white Christians should be yelling at young women on a most difficult day of those women’s lives. I see some scared, often shamed, women in cars as they enter; it is still upsetting to watch. Yet I do try to pray for my “enemies” as I travel to the clinic, and for myself, not to hate them.
I know a doctor who decided he would pray for people he didn’t like every time he washed his hands during his work day—which was, as a doctor, many times. He told me it made his life better; it made him better. And why do we live like this? Love like this? Because that’s who God is. For God is kind to the ungrateful and selfish, to the ungrateful and wicked. Our God is generous and kind, and to be offspring of God means to be generous and kind. Jesus sums it up with the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or as farmer, writer Wendell Berry put it: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do to you.” Most all religions have some version of the golden rule.
We need to school ourselves in patterns of loving enemies day to day in matters of less dramatic controversy or wrongdoing. Only then can we shape habits that equip us to cope with more difficult issues and times. If we think of churches as little schools for learning love for strangers, friends and enemies, then we might be better prepared to produce great and small moments in the history of Christianity. Who knows, we might even learn to love Troy?
“You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,'” God’s Beloved taught. “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.” In this economy, there is one sun in heaven that shines on everyone and everything—no matter who is good or bad, no matter if they are kind or unkind, no matter what they have done or left undone. They still all get sun. In the same way, when the rain comes down, everyone and everything gets refreshed—those who deserve it right along with those who do not. That is just the way God is with God’s creatures. We are here because God made us, and if God made us, we live by love. Sure, some of us give God headaches and others break God’s heart, but we do not get to make distinctions. We are here to preside over the dominion of love. Made in the divine image, we are here to love as God loves. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.