Matthew 5: 38 – 48 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 19, 2017
If someone had told Christian Picciolini when he was a young man that he should love the very people he hated, he might’ve said derisively, “As if”. He’s the son of Italian immigrants, born and raised in Blue Island, Illinois, just south of Chicago. As a skinhead he found what we’re all looking for: community and purpose. He was the leader of a white supremacist punk band called White American Youth or WAY and then a hate rock band called Final Solution. When he was 20, he opened a record store called Chaos Records that sold mostly white power music. But at the age of 22 he gave it all up. Here’s his story:
When Jesus preached to those world-weary, oppressed Jewish peasants to turn the other cheek when a Roman soldier struck them, they might’ve sneered, “As if”.
When Jesus instructed that same crowd, who were probably wearing the only clothes they had, to not only give up their cloak when it was demanded but their tunic as a free gift, which would leave them practically naked, they might’ve lifted a fist and said “As if”.
When Jesus sounded harsher than a taskmaster forcing one mile by telling his listeners to go two miles instead, they might’ve stomped off, hurling an angry “As if” over their shoulders as they went.
Then came the last straw for those who stayed for the final denouement: Love your enemies. Not only that, but pray for them. When you think about it, it’s amazing that the difficult-to-hear Sermon on the Mount survived in the form we have, on the part of the author of Matthew and the scribes who copied and translated it. The early church that would have read and heard these words were living in a new exile, after the Romans had destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Love those who destroyed your home and who now seek your life. As if.
When faced with such utter upheaval and destruction, retribution seems like the inevitable response. When confronted with injustice, we want the satisfaction of swift justice. That long moral arc of the universe bends so slowly we wonder if we will ever see that promised land, the Beloved Community. Jesus’ words may be galling, but they come from deep within the Jewish tradition. He may have been remembering some verses from the book of Proverbs (25: 21-22): “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
Burning coals signify a ritual for purification; when Isaiah answered God’s call to be a prophet, one of God’s servants touched Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal that he could then speak God’s truth with clean lips. When we offer our enemies the love we think they don’t deserve, we offer another kind of alternative facts; instead of supposed fake news, we offer good news: the searing love of God that can remove the barriers between our enemies and God’s grace and by doing so, between us and God’s grace. To love our enemies is to desire right relationship between them and God, to hold them in the same light we stand in, for that is how we will have right relationship with God.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his book Strength to Love called it a “double victory”. In his quest for equal rights for black Americans he was not satisfied with pressuring white Americans into giving in; he wanted more than mere retribution. He wrote,
“We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”
“Wear you down by our capacity to suffer.” Isn’t it the other way around? Our capacity for suffering wears us down, let alone anyone else. But it’s not a martyrdom of suffering that’s called for. It isn’t “woe is me, notice me, and how you’re hurting me”, hoping they’ll quit whatever hurtful thing they’re doing. Nor is it tolerating meanness, abuse or torture, injustice or oppressive systems.
Our capacity to love is linked to our capacity to suffer. It all comes from the same heart. Who hasn’t suffered for someone we love? Sometimes, for our own survival and sanity, we let go of a hurtful relationship. But we can still love that person or family or group from a distance. Love in the sense that we want healing for them, for their life to be made whole. Love that helps us let go of hate and pain, allows us to forgive, and sets all of us free.
We can be fond of saying “Love wins”, but only after there has been a win—when we can see it, when it is finished, when the victory comes. But what if we lived and loved as if love has already won? Is not that the power of the resurrection? This is what it means to practice resurrection. If we can’t imagine loving our enemies, what if we behaved as if we loved them? Love that desires their freedom, their wholeness as much as we desire our freedom, our wholeness.
During the worst, most violent days of apartheid, the South African government tried to shut down the opposition by canceling a political rally. In response, Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared that he would hold a church service instead. They gathered at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, filling the entire church. Outside the cathedral hundreds of police assembled as a show of force to intimidate the worshippers. As Tutu was preaching, the police, armed to the teeth, entered the Cathedral and lined the walls. They took out notebooks and wrote down the bishop’s words.
But Tutu would not be intimidated. He preached against the evils of apartheid, declaring it could not endure. At one point he turned and addressed the police directly: “You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you’ve already lost, since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!” With that the congregation erupted in dance and song. The police didn’t know what to do. A few actually put down their weapons and joined in the dancing and singing! Their attempts at intimidation had failed, overcome by the archbishop’s confidence that God and goodness would triumph over evil. It was but a matter of time, when love would win.
Love cannot win if we do not love our enemies, for then our enemies have won.
This is what complete love is—love for one’s enemies as much as for those who love us. And it is this complete love that casts out fear.
Love your enemies and pray for them.