Updated: Sep 23, 2022
Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 17th of Seventh Month, 2022
Speaker: Nelson Bingham
Scripture: Matthew 5:43-48
“You have heard that it was 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 he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Last Sunday, Tom Hamm offered thoughts on the story of Saul, with particular attention to the vengeful God of the Old Testament. At the conclusion, Tom contrasted that image of God with the New Testament expectation that we should love our enemies. In a sense, my message today might be seen as a sequel to Tom’s, scrutinizing Jesus’ commandment in the Sermon on the Mount to embrace our enemies with love.
Unfortunately, while the words Jesus spoke are very clear, the standard they set can be confusing to us. In some ways, this was one of the most radical stances expressed in the Gospel. It seems to run against our very nature as human beings. How can such love for those who embody many qualities that are antithetical to Christian beliefs fit with our commitment to compassion and to justice?
Today, the world is a place where tragedy is all too common. Violence is so much a part of everyday life. Division pervades our life together. There is so much fear and anger and hatred. It is as if a cloud of toxic smoke covers us all. While these negative experiences are widespread and embedded in the systems and structures of our society, they also are found all too often in our personal lives and relationships.
In the time of Christ, there were no guns, no automobiles, no internet. And yet, there was violence, there was hatred, there was division.
It is not difficult to see the timelessness of Christ’s message.
If it was important 2000 years ago to love one’s enemies, how much more important is it in today’s world where our interconnectedness expedites and amplifies our awareness and our consequent emotions?
Love your enemies. How do we understand this? How can we live in the spirit of this? The words on the front of today’s bulletin express our feelings. “Christ, your words of love confound us.” I want to begin with an exploration of two questions -- Who are our enemies? And, what does “love” mean in this context?
It feels easy to think of “the usual suspects” as our enemies. There are far too many individuals and groups who come to mind – criminals who do violence (whether physical or emotional) against others, those who act to oppress others, those who exploit those without the capacity to stand up for themselves. Pulling back the lens a bit leads us to see structures and systems that create and perpetuate offenses against the humanity of persons. Embedded in these systems are our political foes, members of other cultures or sub-cultures, passionate believers in religions so different from our own and many others. Alas, the differences that are associated with such beliefs and group identities increasingly pervade our personal relationships of community, friendships and family. The resulting feelings of anger or even hatred may drive us to conflict with or isolation from those we would hold most dear. In the sense that Jesus meant it, they become our enemies. In our starkly divided world, these others become “Them,” fundamentally separated from the “Us” that we embrace.
What, then, does it mean to “love” our enemies? First, it does not mean affirming the actions, thoughts and feelings that we find repugnant in those persons. Moreover, in loving them, we do not assume responsibility for that which they do. When Jesus on the cross said with reference to those who were crucifying him, “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” He did not, thereby, become responsible himself for their actions; He did not corrupt his own soul by feeling compassion for them.
What love does mean in this context is a positive feeling about some part of the other person.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that, “To love is to will the good of the other.” George Fox’s idea of “That of God in every person” which is at the heart of our Quaker faith, provides a basis for loving every other person. This is not a “starry-eyed” idealism! All persons are not wholly good; indeed, no one is wholly good.
What does it mean to say that each person embodies That of God? First, it refers to oneself – I must seek that of God in myself and seek to nurture that spirit in myself. In Matthew 7:5 we are told to “First take the log our of your own eye and then you will be able to see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” It is inherent in our human condition to struggle to be our best self. It is that struggle that reflects our common humanity; our potential for being good.
When we give in to the siren call of “the dark side,” allowing feelings of disgust about others to dominate our hearts, with the resulting feelings of anger and hatred, we thereby experience greater brokenness from God whose Light is present in every person. By participating in that brokenness, not only do we do violence (actual or in our minds) to those we consider enemies, but we also corrupt our own spirit by separating ourselves from That of God in those others and in ourselves.
Let us now fast-forward 350 years to the contemporary U.S. How can we work on loving our enemies? Here, I want to speak a bit about a best-selling book by Arthur Brooks entitled “Love Your Enemies.” Examining the growing divisions (notably associated with political affiliations), Brooks describes people today as living in a culture of contempt, feeling disgust at the attitudes and behaviors of those who disagree with us and convinced that those others are essentially worthless and unworthy of our respect. Hence, we do not take those others seriously as human beings. When Hilary Clinton referred to many of Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” she was, perhaps unconsciously, displaying a particularly pernicious form of the contempt that pervades our society today and she paid a political price for that attitude.
How can we love those whom we judge