When Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of Heaven, he was saying that, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, God is alive. He was saying that God’s revealed vision of a community shaped by the laws of God to be like God, a community of justice, generosity, compassion, integrity, and love, was his vision, and that he was acting to realize it decisively. He called anyone who would listen to embark on the journey to a new life of God-likeness. And he gave them a way to follow that would lead them to that life, when he summed up the whole of the Jewish law and the prophets in a simple statement: “Love the Lord your God will all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and all your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” But the way of Jesus went further. In his teaching, and in all he did up to and, especially, his death, he urged us to the greatest love of all, the love that is ardent as the sun and indiscriminate as the rain, the love that is perfect like the love of God. Jesus said, “love your enemies.”
In this teaching, Jesus confirms the message of the great Hebrew prophets who said that God is patient, merciful, and kind not just to Israel but to every nation, that every human being is a child of God, with the promise of a place at the table in God’s Kingdom. And Jesus insists that this commandment is not for some future day. It is not a utopian ideal, waiting for the world to change so it can go into effect. The world begins to change now, says Jesus, because we, in our present circumstances, begin to love as God loves.
And what were the present circumstances of Jesus’ audience when he said to them, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”? They were the daily realities of foreign occupation and colonization, of economic globalization, of mounting inequality and social control enforced by military rule. It was a world where your superiors would strike you across the cheek with the back of the hand to humiliate and put you in their place; where crushing taxation and exorbitant rates of interest were pushing you into destitution, and a creditor could bring a poor man to court and demand his coat as security for repayment of a loan. It was a world where a Roman soldier had the right to impress anyone on the road into service, to carry his 85 pounds of gear the distance of one mile.
And what did Jesus advise them to do under these circumstances? Well, he told them not to have any illusions, but to recognize evil when they saw it. But he also told them not to oppose this evil with violence. When Jesus says “do not resist an evildoer” the word translated “resist” is a military term, meaning to form ranks for battle opposite the enemies’ line. Jesus wanted his listeners to remember that the persons who carried out the daily rituals of their oppression were also beloved children of God, and not to repay one evil with another.
So if he strikes you with the backhand, offer the other cheek; if he wants to strike you again, he’ll have to use his forehand, like he would with an equal. Or if he stands in court demanding your coat, give him your undergarment as well; he’ll see you naked, a source of shame for him and a vivid demonstration of where your debt is leading you. Or if he makes you carry his pack one mile, carry it for two, an act of voluntary friendliness that might just make him wonder if you really are a beast of burden.* Jesus does not teach the crowd to passively accept abuse, but to disrupt the smooth operation of the machinery of evil with creative non-violent action. Acting to reclaim the image of God in oneself, even while suffering evil, offers the doer of evil the chance to rediscover that image in himself.
When Jesus said to love your enemies, he wasn’t being sentimental. He was speaking to people on the verge of erupting into revolutionary violence, of slipping over the edge into suicidal despair. And he said there is a way back from the brink. It won’t be easy. It will involve risk, and require great courage, and patience, and willingness to suffer. It will demand unshakeable faith in God’s love, and its power to break down the most stoutly defended walls between people. It calls for invincible hope in the coming of God’s Kingdom, hope even when it seems that the rule of violence will never end, even when it is clear that the struggle to break it will cost you your life.
On the night that Barack Obama was re-elected I listened to his victory speech. And as he addressed a large and enthusiastic crowd of supporters in Chicago, he returned to the theme of “hope” that got him elected the first time. He began to lay out his vision of hope for America’s future, and even though I hadn’t voted for him this time, I felt just a little moved. There even came a point when he appeared to suggest that he might do something about the real problems facing the nation: “We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt,” he said, “that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” And then he went on, in the very next sentence, to say: “We want to pass on a nation that is defended by the strongest military on Earth—but also a country that moves with confidence beyond this time of war to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being.”
And I remember thinking, “there it was. That was the moment where the hope died.” Because global military domination, even by America, will never move us to the time of peace, let alone the promise of freedom and dignity. It’s a practical impossibility, for a whole host of reasons, economic, historical, social and political. But the reason it concerns me, as a preacher of the Gospel, is that it’s hopeless. Jesus knew this. He knew the Roman imperial propaganda, with its claim to be the divine instrument of world peace, and he saw what the new world order looked like where the boots met the ground. And he perceived that the entire project masked a deep despair. Because the premise at the heart of all such endeavors is that there is no hope—no hope that we will ever learn to love our enemies, or that loving them will do any good; it’s hopeless, so it isn’t worth the risk or the effort.
It’s uncomfortable for me to say this. It may be uncomfortable for you to hear it. I may even seem to be your enemy, or worse, to be rallying you for battle. But I’m willing to take that risk, because this year you are supposed to whether to call me as your rector, so it’s important that you know what I really think. What’s more, if you do call me, it will be for the purpose of renewing the church. And that is going to require love, and I don’t mean the love that is the tacit agreement not to talk about certain subjects. I don’t mean love for our friends, or our families, or our neighbors. I don’t mean love for our country, or even love for undocumented immigrants or the homeless people in our streets. People can find those without this [gesture around at the church building].
What will renew the church is that people find a kind of love here they can’t find anywhere else, love that is perfect, like God’s--the love of our enemies. They are going to come here because here they find the way that leads the whole world back from the brink, towards health and salvation. If I’m elected Rector I’m going to do what I can to find that way. Just in case you’re worried, that doesn’t mean that every Sunday sermon will be like this one. This is only one plank of my platform. But we will work on loving each other enough to say what we think and feel about the things that really matter, and where we have real disagreements, like foreign policy and what hymns we like to sing on Sunday morning. We will work on loving each other enough to listen. Not all the time—that would be exhausting. But steadily, patiently, with faith, and hope, and love—most of all, with love.