Can We Love Our Enemies?
The Rev. Steven Paulikas
September 9, 2018
All Saints’ Church
The message from Holy Scripture this morning is crystal clear: God shows no partiality to any person, and neither should we. As we can tell from these lessons, people of faith have struggled with this teaching for two and a half thousand years. In all that time, somehow we still haven’t gotten it right. By grace, God doesn’t seem to have gotten tired of trying to teach us. But it’s up to us this morning to try to learn.
The passage we read this morning in the Book of Proverbs proclaims that the Lord is the maker of all. It warns that those who sow injustice will fall—and especially those who are unjust against the poor.
Chapter 2 of James’ epistle begins with the rhetorical question: do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? Echoing Proverbs, it seems that the Christians James was speaking to preferred to welcome the rich into their assembly over the poor. I hate to say it, but I understand why. The rich can donate money to the church. They are usually well-connected in society. Sometimes it feels when you’re with a rich person that some of their glamor can rub off on you, too. The poor, on the other hand, have nothing to offer the church…but their souls. James reminds us that no amount of silver or gold can add up to the value of a human soul. When we follow Jesus, we are in the business of souls. Everyone has one, and no one’s is worth more than anyone else’s. If only we treated one another equally in light of this truth.
Then we arrive at the Gospel of Mark and the story of the healing of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter. Up to this point, Jesus’ ministry has been exclusively with Jews like himself, not with gentiles like her. Jesus ignores her first request to help the little girl. You see, even Jesus isn’t immune to the temptation to treat some with favor. But her argument and her faith prevail, and in the process, she is able to teach even our Lord a lesson.
So there we have it: two ancient truths. First, that the God of all people demands that we treat one another as equals. This rule holds regardless of status, wealth, or even religion. And the second truth is the sadder one: that this lesson has fallen on deaf ears throughout the generations. And yet, if you want to know God, truly, deeply, you must show impartiality toward none and welcome and love toward all.
This lesson has a special meaning this time of year as we approach the anniversary of that terrible day seventeen years ago in this city. Perhaps you remember that on Friday, September 14, 2001, Americans observed a National Day of Prayer. President Bush’s proclamation establishing the day cites Matthew 5:4, “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” I remember the comforting effect of a nation gathering to grieve, as vigils and prayer services were held from the National Cathedral to the one I attended at my home parish. At the same time, because I was freshly graduated from college and exploring a call to ordained ministry, I was deeply curious about what faith leaders would say at such a horrible time. I was happy, of course, to hear healing words of sympathy for the victims and their families and reassurances of God’s presence in our times of need. And yet there was a key message missing back then that I fear we are still suffering from a lack of. I thought Christians would proclaim the message of impartiality that we hear this morning, a call to love all people regardless of who they are. Sadly, I barely heard this truth.
A few verses deeper into Matthew 5, Jesus says, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This is one of the most difficult of spiritual teachings, and yet 17 years after the tragedy of 9/11, it is time to ask: would we be better off today had we sought to love our enemies and not destroy them? How would our society today be different had we channeled our grief and anger into a spiritual effort to treat all people with equal dignity and respect as we are commanded to do in Scripture?
Even with almost two decades of hindsight, it is still arguable whether the tremendous suffering inflicted by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started in response to 9/11 have made the world a safer place or bolstered domestic security. Yet the clearer impact of wars abroad may be in plain sight at home. The unrelenting mentality of entrenched conflict against a permanent perceived enemy has infected American domestic life and is at least in part responsible for the bitter political and cultural divide in Western society today. If this is indeed the case, then the only way out of our current dark chapter of common life is to strive for reconciliation rather than retribution. It is not too late to learn to love our enemies—in fact, I believe it may be our only hope for a peaceable future at home.
Showing partiality toward none is not the same as excusing the actions of those who hurt you. The attacks on 9/11 were a terrible sin. The sacrifice of the victims that day was a slaughter of the innocents, and almost two decades later, Americans must give thanks that nothing like it has happened on U.S. soil since. Some of the smartest and bravest people among us work tirelessly in the military, the intelligence services, and elsewhere to prevent a future tragedy. This week is an appropriate time to offer them our personal gratitude.
But in spite of trillions of dollars spent and the massive mobilization of the U.S. government, we have yet to see the ultimate victory of the “war on terror,” and it should now be clear that we never will. This war on a concept rather than a traditional adversary was launched on the premise that the defeat of sets of external enemies would be both retributive justice and prevention of future threat. This has always been a war that could only yield suffering without the hope of victory, waged at the cost of, among other things, almost 200,000 civilian lives who could hardly be called enemies. This is hardly the picture of a people committed to equality and dignity among all.
What has gone overlooked in this prolonged season of war is the spiritual illness with which it has infected the culture that pursued it. Over time, we have watched as the thirst for retribution that took hold shortly after 9/11 has entrenched itself within American society to the point that we are convinced of the presence of the enemy within. It is truly striking to me how domestic politics have replaced enemies abroad as the target of the rhetoric of punishment. That Russia--an historic American adversary--actually intervened in the 2016 election with only mixed public outcry is but a symptom of the degree to which American voters have internalized the notion that the democratic process itself is a form of political and cultural warfare between enemies more dangerous than any beyond their borders. As New Yorkers head to the polls this week for the primary election—and you better get out there and vote!
If we are still suffering from an unwise response to 9/11, how do we right the ethical wrongs of the past? The answer is not simple and will require hard work—but nothing more difficult or painful than the heart-rending loss of life and human suffering that has masqueraded as a solution for the past 17 years. We have become entitled in this century to demand neat solutions to deep problems, slogans and soundbites that soothe and seduce. What will be necessary instead is what the St. Paul called “metanoia,” or a full conversion of the heart. The root forces driving the current crisis in our national life are moral and spiritual ones; it is only moral and spiritual remedies that will quell them. We must be converted to a real and true love of all people, beginning with those who are most difficult to love.
We must believe there is still more we have to learn from the tragedy of the 9/11 victims. Our sympathy for them must extend to the suffering of those who are not our own. We must strive to find a basic common understanding with those opposed to us--not in order to condone their actions or opinions, but to witness to the oneness of humanity. We must pray for our enemies, knowing—even if they don’t—that our fates are inexorably linked. We must be as concerned for the children of the countries we have invaded or the counties that vote against our preferred party as we are for our own. Otherwise, those same children will perpetuate our own failures and miss the precious opportunity to love one another as we have so ostentatiously done.
Seventeen years ago, I was a young man. I have lived my entire adulthood in the unrelenting climate of hatred and violence our society has chosen to perpetuate since then. Today, as we approach this sad anniversary, I choose a different path—a path of peace, healing, and sanity. Wars will rage and rulers will come and go. But none of this can ever prevent me from loving my enemy. None of it can prevent me from striving to treat all people with dignity. Nor need it prevent you.
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