The gentle words of today’s gospel, of loving those who hate you, of praying for one’s enemies; these words, as famous as they are, are probably the among the most ignored that were ever uttered.
I don’t need to make reference to current events to demonstrate this to be true; too many of us have disconnected from the Christian foundation of this country and its institutions. The Revised Common Lectionary is used by most of the mainline churches as well as the Catholic Church, so week to week, we’re all on the same page literally, offering a common message of love, blessing, forgiveness and generosity of spirit—who’s listening? We need to get people back to Christ, to listening to him; as in the words of Abraham Lincoln, we need to listen “to the better angels of our nature,” – our nature having been redeemed in Christ and made generous in grace.
If I were to try and update the gospel’s language into something more modern yet faithful, I think I’d quote the 19th century preacher, Charles Spurgeon, who said:
“For us to hate those who are in error, or to talk of them with contempt or wish them ill, or to do them wrong, is not according to the Spirit of Christ. You cannot cast out Satan by Satan, or correct error by violence, or overcome hate by hate. The conquering weapon of the Christian is love.”
In my remarks last week, I said that what increasingly is the weapon of choice in our society is power, and not love.
Now, we can understand love as a power: “the power of love” is the countervailing force against this worldly power that seeks domination. It has “power” but the nature of that power is very different, expresses itself very differently, is experienced differently. The power of this world is something that is horded, and those who have it look to make it scarce among rivals. Those who live by love look to see it spread and to be enjoyed abundantly by all.
So, we can speak of contending powers. Love that seeks the good of the other; worldly power is the antithesis of love. This power is the ability to compel people to do things, against their will, their conscience, and against their interest. It is the violation of another, but most often it is simply the threat of that violation. Fear keeps everyone in line.
Those who live in accord with this worldly power live in fear: fear of others, fear of stranger, fear that their neighbour is one of these fearsome others, fear that members of their family are also; fear of rivals. Whether it is oneself who holds power, or looks to someone of worldly power for protection, it becomes impossible to contemplate giving up this power, because to do so is to make oneself vulnerable to threats and to violence.
In a more positive understanding, to have and exercise worldly power is to ensure that the truth is respected and not violated. This person thinks of themselves as heroic, a valiant defender of all that is right and good. So why would that person ever give power to those who disagree with them? That would be to act as an enemy of truth!
The conceit then is that enemies aren’t so much those who do physical violence to us; the common criminal for all that he does that violates others is not the “enemy”. Rather, it is those who deny or oppose the truth. They are in error, and stubbornly so. Indeed, the suspicion is that they know they are in error and yet thrill to defy the truth. They are in error because they wish to confound and dominate. They are evil then, and they want power over everyone else. It is only those who possess the truth who have the right to have and exercise power.
This is prideful presumption, it is hubris. No one but God has the whole of the truth; we all have a bit of it, written on our hearts, as St. Paul says. In community we bring those pieces together and try to fit them into what will always be a partial picture – like a fragment of an ancient church mosaic that we nonetheless can see is the image of our Lord.
So, when we hear speech that is dismissive, that attributes the lowest of motives to those with whom there is a disagreement, that is where this is coming from: a mindset that regards disagreement as breaking faith, attacking the community, and so those who do this are enemies who must be stopped at all costs.
This is a real change from my experience as a Canadian. I think I’ve said before that at different points in my life I have worked and volunteered for each of the major political parties within English-speaking Canada; for a time in Ottawa, I was quite involved in local politics that in the national capital has dimensions beyond the local – you got to know people in provincial and national politics.
As much as there was disagreement, there was still an underlying consensus as to how we were to be toward each other even when we thought the other person’s ideas were impractical, or simply wrong. I never thought to look at the other candidates, or the activists in the community and thought they must be stopped at all costs.
One of the most insidious aspects of the transformation of our culture in recent years has been this reversion to a social dynamic based on power; the pursuit of power. This is the fiction that the essential dynamic in human relations is power and that power must be wrested from some and given to others. Between men and women, men and men, women and women, between races, between communities, between nations, it’s all nothing but power. And if we make that mistaken assumption based on a superficial reading of the situation, we will indeed transform relationships of love, friendship, trust, mutual benefit, and corrupt them, turning them into rivalries built on suspicion, envy and treachery.
We forget what the temptation in the famous story of the garden was, that the fall of Adam and Eve wasn’t in the breaking of a rule against picking fruit, it was in trying to take hold of power, to be equal to God, and so, no longer having need of God. Motivated by a lack of trust in God’s care; fueled by the fear that arises from that, they grabbed the fruit believing in that power they would have safety, be freed from fear. But if Adam and Eve wanted that, why pass up the fruit of the tree of life? Why did the tree of life not have the greater appeal?
Because it doesn’t appeal. It is not appetizing.
Think about the story of David we hear today: David having King Saul in his power does not use it – he could kill Saul, but he doesn’t. Rather, as love is what motivates him; and we will recall the Christian definition of love: to will the good of the other, David has no choice but to let Saul go in the hope that he will regain his sanity and cease his irrational persecution. He takes a terrible risk, one that could end his life and leave a tyrant alive.
If you know the whole of the story, that was for the best. David becomes king, but not through treachery, not through regicide; but through being ready to take up the crown in service of Israel and God when Saul at last falls.
Those of you who are devotees of J.R.R. Tolkien will know the from the Lord of the Rings how the hero Frodo Baggins shows mercy to the loathsome creature Gollum. Gollum was once a happy hobbit like Frodo, but he fell under the influence of evil in the form of the famous ring. It’s turned him into a vile monster; and in the book, and many of you may have seen the movies, Gollum is nothing but treacherous toward Frodo. Yet Frodo does not harm Gollum. Instead, he spares the creature. He is even kind to him. And that, in the end, is what saves Frodo and his quest to destroy the evil ring. Frodo felt for Gollum and hoped that by showing him kindness, Gollum would be kind in return. Of course, Gollum was too far gone. Yet Frodo was kind anyway. And that is, perhaps, what the story wants to get across: be kind, even to those who make life difficult; one never knows what part they might play in one’s life for good.
Jesus as the incarnation of God, the God who is love, shows us how love is greater. We have stories that describe the enormity of his capabilities: he calms storms, he feeds thousands, he casts out demons, raises the dead. When his disciples, offended by a village that will not receive them, asks Jesus if they could call down fire on those who had insulted him; he declines. He declines because he is intent on getting to Jerusalem where he will surrender himself, set aside power, die out of love for us all, and by that same love be raised to show us the truth of things.
Love isn’t simply forgiveness, or kindness, or care – it is all these things, and more, and always in abundance. Love is generous because it is inexhaustible: give and will be given unto you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over… The image is of a bountiful harvest shared out among all who’ve labored in the fields, grain flowing like a river, wheat enough for bread enough for everyone to share in the feast.
We must not be of this world, this earth, merely dust to return to dust; but by love bear the image of the one of heaven, be one with the one who is from heaven, and so make heaven our home and leave the dust and dirt behind.