Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Enemies No More

Enemies No More
Matthew 5:38-48[1]
We as a people seem to have a “terrible love of violence.”[2] Many of us have grown up watching TV programs and movies that are essentially based on the premise that there are “good guys” and “bad guys” in the world. And the natural instinct is that we want the “good guys” to win—even if it means using violence. We have been taught to believe in what one scholar has called the “Myth of Redemptive Violence.”[3] We’ve seen the story played out hundreds of times: the “bad guys” threaten innocent people; the “good guys” confront them; the “good guys” overcome the “bad guys” through some kind of violence; and the innocent people can live their lives in peace as a result.
This idea is something that is so ingrained in us that we believe it with the fervor of religious faith: when our safety is threatened, it takes some kind of violence to restore it. Whether that violence may take the form of war, or execution, or the excessive use of force, we believe it is the only way to ensure our safety. And yet the truth that has been repeated to our deaf ears throughout the ages is that violence can never overcome violence.[4] It’s like a virus: when we use violence of any kind it only breeds more violence. If we want to know the source of the violence in our society, I think we have to look at the hostility in our own hearts.
Our lesson from the Sermon on the Mount for today is the central text that has inspired a completely different way of being and living with our fellow human beings. Instead of dividing up our world into “us” and “them,” Jesus challenges us to approach the differences between us from the perspective of a basic recognition that we all are children of God. When we look at it from that perspective, there are no more “friends” and “enemies,” but only brothers and sisters in the one human family.
This section of the Sermon on the Mount continues Jesus’ call to those who would follow him to embrace the values reflected in God’s ways and purposes. In our lesson for today, he continues to teach us that obedience comes from the heart. It might seem initially that Jesus contradicts the teaching that said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But actually, he’s following the same pattern as before. We can see this when we realize that “an eye for an eye” did not require retribution, it actually limited the extent of vengeance that was considered appropriate. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” meant that you were not allowed to execute someone for taking an eye. If you did take revenge, its extent was to be limited by the extent of the injury.
The way in which Jesus goes to the heart of this matter is to teach those who would follow him not to take revenge at all. He says it this way, “Do not resist an evildoer” (Matt. 5:39). That might seem confusing on the surface of things. How can we not “resist an evildoer”? If we see someone committing a crime, or endangering a life, surely we have a responsibility to prevent it. But that’s not the kind of “resistance” Jesus was talking about. As the examples he uses make clear, he was talking about not retaliating against those who insult or humiliate or attack us personally. We’re not to take revenge against those who treat us wrongfully.
Many have debated whether Jesus’ surprising instructions here are actually practical enough to follow in real life. I would say it’s simple enough to “turn the other cheek”—in principle at least. But how can we give in to an unjust lawsuit or outright abuse by authorities? I think the answer lies in that Jesus was, to some extent, speaking ironically. The strategies he proposes are meant to shame and even ridicule the one who is in the wrong. This can be seen with the lawsuit over garments. What we may not realize is that to literally do what Jesus recommends would leave a man standing naked in court. But the point was that such an action would shame the person who failed to recognize the dignity of a brother by taking advantage of him in the first place.
All of this leads up to what Jesus has to say about the great commandment, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We find many ways to limit the concept of our “neighbor” to those who are like us. But Jesus makes it clear that truly following this commandment means loving those who are different. It even means loving those whom we may consider our “enemies.” The most important reason for this is that it’s the way God treats people.[5] We’re to love others in the same way as our heavenly Father, without making distinctions between “us” and “them,” or “friends” and “enemies.”[6]
One consequence of our belief in violence as a means of ensuring our safety is that we tend to see the world in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys,” “friends” and “enemies.” Unfortunately, when we do that we fail to recognize that approaching our world in that way leaves us not with more safety, but with less. I think one of the easiest ways to reveal the error in that mindset is by asking “Whom would Jesus consider an ‘enemy’?” As Jesus pointed out, God pours out the blessings of his love on all people equally. As people who seek to follow Jesus, we can do no less. At the heart of his challenging teaching is the call to “see that every human face is the face of a neighbor.”[7] When we really take that challenge to heart, we can only respond to others as friends, with love. When we follow Jesus, we can be “enemies” no more.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/19/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] I adapted this phrase from James Hillman’s A Terrible Love of War.
[3] Cf. Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, 42-43, where he describes the “Myth of Redemptive Violence” as “the dominant religion in our society today”! Cf. ibid., 39, where he describes the “domination system” it is intended to support: “unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all.”
[4] Cf. Wink, Powers that Be, 134: “violence can never stop violence” because its very success only breeds more violence. See further, Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? , 67: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Cf. also Dhammapada 5: “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.”
[5] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 562, where they say, “To obey Jesus words ... is, therefore, to love utterly: no more can be asked.”  They further observe (p. 563) that “The motivation for being ‘perfect’ in love is grounded in the Father’s ‘perfect’ love, in his giving without measure.”  See further ibid., 560, where they suggest that what actually lies behind the “be perfect” of Mt. 5:48 is the command to “be holy” in Lev. 19:2.
[6] Cf. Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics, 128, where he quotes the 1981 Declaration of Peace by the Society of Protestant Theology: “There are no conflicts of our life, neither personal nor political, which are not embraced by God’s will for peace with human beings and his whole creation. There are no enemies, neither personal nor political, for whom God’s will for peace does not apply.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Ethics of Hope, 202: “We are not the enemies of our enemies; we are ‘the children of our Father in heaven’, ... . If we do not react to enmity with enmity, we creatively make it possible for our enemies to turn away from their enmity and to enter into the life we share.”
[7] Cf. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 41: “compassion … breaks through the boundaries between languages and countries, rich and poor, educated and illiterate. This compassion pulls people away from the fearful clique and into the large world where they can see that every human face is the face of a neighbor.”

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