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 to be reprehensible? We hear calls for civility and for tolerance as we strive to live with such differences. But, as Brooks points out, even if we succeed in this, it is a very low bar. It cannot be a basis for loving one’s enemies. Who, after all, wants to merely be tolerated?
So what can we do to seek the kind of love embodied in Jesus’ message? Where can we begin? As I have suggested, we must, first, search our own hearts and minds. As the hymn goes, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” How can I open my heart to those with whom I profoundly disagree, to those whose attitudes and actions are repulsive to me? Brooks argues, and I agree, that a key here is empathy, that distinctive human quality of literally sharing the feelings of another.
I make the assumption here that our experience and our actions are rooted in our emotions. Humans do have an amazing capacity for reason, rationality and logic. Yet, frequently, that reasoning is used to rationalize actions driven by feelings – feelings of contempt, anger, fear, hatred, and even embarrassment (for our own shortcomings). Once this occurs, we tend toward judgment as a means of distancing ourselves from the objects of those feelings.
Empathy has the power to transform our negative feelings toward sympathy even for those whom we would judge. And this can open our hearts to love, at least for That of God within the other. How, then, can we foster empathy? With an open heart and holding judgment in abeyance, we can reach out to those who would otherwise disgust us. We can listen to their stories (and we all have our own stories), trying to understand their experience and their perspective. Sometimes, life will offer us the opportunity to relate directly and personally with those with whom we are in deep disagreement (though I do not underestimate the challenge of doing this). But, even when we remain more distant, there are many sources of knowing another’s story. Our technologically-connected world offers numerous avenues for “listening” to those who are different if only we are open to such listening.
More often than we might imagine, we may find in such engagement some commonality with oneself, indeed, something of God with which we can connect, something to love in the other. This may not lead us to agree with the other person nor to affirm their actions toward others, but it may open the way for acceptance that, given their experience and their story, we can understand the basis for their attitudes, beliefs and actions. We can see that there is an internal logic that connects their experiences, feelings, thoughts and actions, dispelling our tendency to see them as “crazy” or “stupid” or “immoral.”
We can even come to forgiveness that can tame the turmoil in our own hearts.
I’d like to close with a personal story from the early days of my work at Earlham. I was serving half-time, along with my teaching, as associate dean of student development. One of my goals was to improve the relationship of athletes and non-athletes. In discussing this with the then head football coach, he said that I could be more effective in engaging with his players if I assumed the role of an insider with the team. As it happened (and I suspected that he had an agenda of his own here), he needed a game announcer for home football games. Playing that role would help to build a closer relationship with those athletes. I agreed with him and, thus, began to serve as football game announcer, which I continued for 37 years. Through that role, I came to know generations of Earlham football players.
One evening, as an outgrowth of my new position, I was leading a discussion group in Bundy Hall on the topic of athletics and the liberal arts. After the session, a couple of football players that I knew came up to me and shared that they had heard about another group meeting coming up that night at a college house nearby. That second meeting was sponsored by the (then newly-formed) Gay Peoples’ Union (GPU) on the topic of religion and homosexuality. These two young men were deeply evangelical Christians who had been taught that homosexuality was sin. They wanted to engage in dialogue with that group of gay males, but they were nervous about doing so on their own. So, they asked if I would accompany them to that meeting. With some trepidation, I agreed to do so.
We went to the GPU meeting and I was glad to see a respectful dialogue emerge. Both the GPU members and my football player friends shared that they took their Christian faith seriously but, not surprisingly, they pulled from that faith differing views of homosexuality. One GPU member indicated that he (these were all males) believed that Christian love should extend to all persons. One football player agreed with that, but held that homosexuality is a form of sin. Nonetheless, that player asserted, that does not need to separate those who are gay and those who are straight because all human beings are sinners in various ways. Thus, he said, there is a common bond connecting all of us. At the end of that evening, these two groups did not come to agreement, but they did come to a better understanding of each other and thought that more such dialogue was needed.
Walking back to the football players’ dorm, they asked if I might help arrange for some further discussions involving more of their teammates and the GPU. I did help to arrange some lunch meetings of these two groups (about six members of each group) upstairs in Runyan Center. Over a period of weeks, I was impressed at how these two groups of male students, differing in a variety of ways besides their sexual orientation, came to see that they shared some commonalities. Those included not only their maleness, but their Christianity and their feeling of not being fully respected on campus (which was more true at that time). In a few short weeks, these individuals had come to know one another and to appreciate each other as persons.
They wanted to take action to promote greater understanding of and respect for diversity on campus. We briefly discussed the idea of holding a panel discussion on this topic co-sponsored by the GPU and the football team (which would have been seen as an incongruous partnership by many at Earlham, but which might have created a learning experience for others)
As luck would have it, I had to miss the next week’s meeting. In their enthusiasm for living into their newfound partnership, the group decided not to do a panel discussion, but instead, to sponsor a social occasion, namely a pool party at the Weber Pool sponsored by the GPU and the football team. Alas, that did not work out so well. Specifically, when the other members of the football team, who had not had the opportunity to develop friendships with nor understanding of members of the GPU, found out about this idea, they were shocked and, indeed, outraged. The very idea of sharing a locker room with a group of gay males grievously offended them, generating fears and anger. They had not, of course, had the chance to develop as their peers in the weekly discussion group had. And, for their part, those who were part of the group had changed their feelings and thoughts, but it had happened so naturally that they were not even aware of how far they’d come.
The event did not happen. However, one more thing to mention is that some of the members of the lunch discussion group remained friends even beyond graduation. In an important way, attitudes and behaviors had changed. To be sure, such changes are not inevitable. But, this story does illustrate that good things can occur when we open ourselves to relationships with those for whom we might otherwise feel contempt.
Ultimately, we can choose to love one another, despite our differences. That is the essence of Christ’s message to us. And that will enable us to both be united with God’s spirit in all of us and to grow in unity with that spirit within ourselves.
New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
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