Expanding Boundaries

February 24th, 2011 by PBarth

February 20, 2011; Matthew 5:38-48

“You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer’” Mt. 5:38

I considered titling this sermon, “Doormats for Jesus.” But, no. Not a good idea.

Actually, I’ve read that this law of retribution found in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures was designed to decrease violence, not increase it, by limiting revenge to only the equivalent of what was lost, instead of escalating the hostility to a flat-out blood feud that involved killing . “Do not resist an evildoer.” Or as Eugene Peterson phrases it in The Message, “Don’t hit back at all.”
If someone hits you on one cheek, turn the other one.

Or if someone spits at you, just wipe it off as lawyer Atticus Finch did in the book, To Kill a Mockingbird. You may remember that he was spit on by a white man angry that he was defending a black man in Alabama in the 30’s. Rather than respond with a fist, or have him charged with assault, Atticus simply said, “I wish Bob Ewell didn’t chew tobacco.”

Non-retaliation.

“You’ve heard it said, but I say to you…”

By the way this passage is structured, it implies that Jesus is coming up with something radically new. But Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher of Jesus’ time, wrote that “the best way to humiliate the offending party – and so to take a refined type of revenge- is to treat the offender as unworthy of the time and effort needed to take revenge” . Another example is found in Proverbs 25:21-22: “If the one who hates you is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. For you will heap burning coals upon his head…” Paul also used that proverb in the letter to the Romans.

Turning the other cheek; carrying a soldier’s pack an extra mile—It’s easy to see how the turning of the second cheek would shame the slapper and end the violence. Roman soldiers were legally entitled to have a member of the subject people carry their pack for a mile; but more than that, and they were probably running after them, saying “give me back my pack!” Or perhaps the soldier would get in trouble for exceeding the law.

“If someone wants your coat, give him your cloak as well.” In occupied Judea, as in poor countries today, this meant all the clothes on your back and in your possession as well. Shame your accuser with your nakedness.

Ordinary women in Liberia brought an end to war through just these kind of tactics. Christian and Muslim women gathered for prayer across from the presidential palace. Day after day, “armed” with nothing but white T-shirts. Finally the different factions came together in Ghana for talks. After weeks and weeks, still no peace. The women sat in the halls and in front of the doors, keeping the men in, but still no settlement. The authorities threatened the women with forcible eviction. The women had no way to stop them, they had nothing but their clothes, so they said they would strip them off if forced to leave. Ashamed at the thought of their mothers, grandmothers and aunts naked in public, a peace agreement was finally achieved, leading to the election of the first woman president of Liberia, Ellen Sirleaf. There is a film about this called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell, ” and it’s cobbled together of home videos, since news stations refused to send camera crews, thinking, “Oh, it’s just a bunch of women, what can they do.”

Nonviolent resistance. We’ve seen it work dramatically in Egypt this month; in India through Gandhi’s work, and in our own country in the Civil Rights movement. It’s what the Mennonites call “the third way.” One way is the way of violence, the way of the occupiers, the despots. Violence that begets violence. The second way is being a victim; accepting abuse and violence to yourself. This is also a way of violence, only you do not perpetrate it intentionally. But the violence continues, and its aftermath, as MLK said, is bitterness . The third way is nonviolent resistance. You try to stop the violence by nonviolent means. You also receive violence to yourself, but in such a way as to hold the abuser up to shame. As MLK said in “The Power of Nonviolence,” the end is reconciliation…and redemption. ”

Nonviolence works, but the leaders of such movements are often martyred. Powerful despots can’t stand hearing truth from nonviolent leaders, and sooner or later, they are usually assassinated like Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nonviolent resistance must be peaceful by definition, but it need not be loving. Look at the earlier examples: Seneca talked about humiliating his adversary; and the writer in Proverbs enjoyed the image of “heaping burning coals on his enemy’s head.” Whether that image refers to embarrassment, or actual coals, I don’t know…but in any case it is not a loving image. Nonviolent resistance can be a strategy for expressing hatred.

This is where Jesus’ message differed radically from the received wisdom of his time and ours. We are not only to refrain from violence against our enemy, and pray for him or her, but we are to LOVE our enemy. Ouch! That’s hard to do, isn’t it? Why does that matter?

I was helped in this by one of Dr. King’s sermons given in 1957 in Montgomery, Alabama . It was his custom to preach on this text once each year, adding new insights he had gained and new examples he had experienced. This year, he said, “The words of this text glitter in our eyes with a new urgency.” The Supreme Court had ruled against school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education just 2 ½ years before; and two months before this sermon, President Eisenhower had to send the National Guard to Little Rock Arkansas so that nine black young people could enroll in Central High School. The country was in ferment, and much hatred was being expressed against people of color by systems of the South. Vigilantes had murdered fourteen-year-old Emmitt Till just two years before, for the supposed crime of whistling at a white woman, and the murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury .

In this heated environment, Dr. King said we need not like all people, but we must love them. He preached agape love. “Agape love,” he said, “is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.”

He goes on, “Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”

And “Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you. Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”

We are to love our enemies for God’s sake, because Jesus told us to. We need to love all who hate us for the sake of ourselves—because hatred festers and grows and poisons our own souls. And we are to love our enemies for the sake of the world, because love brings redemption and reconciliation instead of bitterness and violence. Hatred narrows our circle, drawing tight boundaries and a sense of separation between Us and Them; but Love expands our boundaries, bringing all within the reach of God’s loving embrace.

But how can we do this? It’s so difficult!

A UCC pastor and writer, Donna Schaper, asked for prayers on Facebook the other day. She said she needs to write about the upcoming rally for women’s rights in New York, and she is “spitting and hating” instead of writing. Many people, Republicans at different levels of government, are trying to take away women’s rights today .

My own version of “spitting and hating” is the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Kansas, led by Fred Phelps and his family. This is the group that carries signs that say, “God Hates Fags,” and they are known for picketing  funerals, claiming that God kills soldiers, children and celebrities, to wake America up. They say we are going to hell because we “embrace fags. ”

Even writing that last paragraph made me snarl. But Jesus says we are to love people that make us spit and snarl and hate, and American University did just that . When the Westboro Church announced their plans to picket AU, the Methodist chaplain decided to welcome them with open arms. On a cold day in winter, everyone was offered cocoa and cookies. The virulent flyers passed out by the Phelps were altered with a black marker, in a process called “God Loves Poetry.” You see, when all the hateful words are blocked out, what is left can have a different message entirely. The student Democratic Club organized a counter-rally and invited everyone to attend “… only to show love and acceptance. As Democrats at both the most politically active AND accepting school in the US, we should respond to this show of hatred with a peaceful demonstration honoring civility and equality. If we respond with hate, WBC  just gets the response they so crave. ”

Loving your enemies. It can be done. It’s hard, but we can even do it on a personal level. I read of a man who lost his teaching job at a private school due to a letter-writing campaign started by one parent. He was angry and depressed. But then he decided to pray for her. He began praying, “May __be healthy, may she be happy, may she have her heart’s desire.” Over and over, holding her in the light. Soon, when he ran into her in the market, he could great her with love instead of hate. She was amazed by his warm reception, and her heart softened, too. Now they are friends.

Jennifer Thompson-Cannnino was raped, and she picked Ronald Cotton out of a line-up, and he was convicted and sentenced to prison. Eleven years later, DNA evidence exonerated Cotton. He went to prison very angry, knowing he was innocent, but then realized that the anger would destroy him, so he worked on letting go. “…That kind of emotion was keeping me a prisoner in my own private jail. I had to let the hate go, and learn to live and forgive.”

Every day for eleven years, Thompson-Cannino prayed for Cotton’s death. When she found he was innocent, she was overcome with guilt. Together, they helped each other heal. Cotton’s forgiveness freed her from her guilt as well as her prison of vengeance.  Each released from their prisons, physical and mental, they have written a book together entitled Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption.

“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” We can do this because of God’s amazing, unconditional love. We can let go of our fear, anger and hatred so that we may be freed by Love. God loves us; we take that love into our hearts, loving ourselves, and then we share that love with others.

Eastern religions teach us yet another way to love our enemies. In Buddhism, and some branches of Hinduism, the world is viewed as “nondual.” In other words, there is no separation. The Divine Spark that created the world lives inside each one of us. My True Nature, and your True Nature, is God. We are all One.

Where there is no separation, there can be no hatred, and no enemies.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

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