Sunday, February 23, 2014

Eight Words

Here's today's homily, posted later than usual (and without links) because I'm buried under grading and have to get ready for classes tomorrow.  I may or may not put in links at some future date, but the stories and quotations I use here are easy to find via Google.

I also couldn't find a good image for this post.  The Gospel is Matthew 5:38-48, the one about loving our enemies.


When I was a volunteer chaplain at the hospital, patients sometimes said, “I don’t think you want to talk to me.  I’m not Christian.”

My response was always, “I’m trained to talk to everyone.”   When I wasn’t familiar with a particular faith tradition, I’d ask for information.  “Tell me about that.”

During the seven years I volunteered, I visited (and often prayed with) Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, and atheists.  And I met a handful of patients – always cheerful young men, clean-cut and polite -- who said, “Oh, you don’t want to talk to me.  I’m a Satanist.”

“Really?  Tell me about that.”  For one thing, I wanted to show them that I wasn’t shocked.  For another, I was genuinely curious.

All of them -- every single one -- said the same thing, in the same words:  eight words, to be precise.  It turns out that, at least for the young men I met, the definition of Satanism is very simple.  It doesn’t involve pentagrams, upside-down crosses, or conjuring tentacled demons.  It’s much more ordinary than that, and much more frightening.

“Christians believe in love,” the Satanists told me.  “We believe in vengeance.”

By that definition, I know a lot of Satanists.  So do you.  Many of them go to church.

Vengeance is everywhere in our national landscape:   in military rhetoric, in sports competitions, and in the violent fantasies of popular entertainment, where a personal loss at the hands of an adversary grants the survivors license to go on a hunting spree with guns blazing and explosives detonating.  We cheer for Vin Diesel, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis when they get the bad guys.  We’re happy when the bad guys suffer.  We scarf down our popcorn, confident that justice has been served.

And that brings us to today’s Gospel, which can also be summarized in eight words.  “Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you.”

This is, hands down, the hardest commandment in the Bible.  Sometimes it feels impossible.  It always requires thought, prayer, and imagination.  It’s a discipline, a task of discernment, and it takes different forms in different situations.  Here are three.

In 2006, a man named Charles Roberts entered an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania and shot ten young girls, killing five of them, before killing himself.   The Amish community responded by visiting Roberts’ grieving family to comfort them.  They set up a charitable fund for his widow Marie, who was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of their children.  Thirty of them attended his funeral.   One Amish father said, "He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he's standing before a just God."

Some observers criticized the Amish approach.  How could they forgive someone who had expressed no remorse?  Didn’t forgiveness deny the existence of evil?  But people familiar with Amish culture explained that this emphasis on forgoing vengeance doesn’t undo the tragedy.  It doesn’t pardon the wrong.  Instead, it represents a first step toward a more hopeful future.

Well, sure, I find myself saying, but Roberts himself was dead.  It was easy to be compassionate to his family.  They weren’t the killer.  What do you do when the killer’s still alive?  How can you possibly love that person?  What does loving that person even look like?

In 1995, fourteen-year-old gang member Tony Hicks shot and killed twenty-year-old college student Tariq Khamisa, who was delivering pizzas in San Diego.  Tariq’s grieving father Azim, a Sufi Muslim, turned to his faith.  For several weeks after Tariq’s death, he says, “I survived through prayer and was quickly given the blessing of forgiveness, reaching the conclusion that there were victims at both ends of the gun. . . . I decided to become an enemy not of my son’s killer, but of the forces that put a young boy on a dark street, holding a handgun.”  Azim reached out to Tony’s grandfather, and the two of them worked together on programs to teach children that there is an alternative to violence. Azim says, “Tony has helped us deliver this message through letters and messages he sends from prison. We use these letters in our programs and they are having a positive effect on other kids. Think of how many kids he may save.”

Well, sure, I find myself saying, but Tony’s in prison.  He was the first minor in California to be tried as an adult.  He’s locked up for twenty-five years.  Justice was served.  What do you do when your enemy is right in front of you?  What do you do when your enemy is hurting you right now, and you have no guarantee that there will ever be justice?

In 1942, while serving as the captain of a Scottish military regiment in WWII, Ernest Gordon was captured by the Japanese and marched with other British prisoners into the jungle to build the infamous bridge over the River Kwai.  As a prisoner of war, he endured both physical and psychological torture.  He watched many of his friends die.  He was expected to die himself.

Years later, after Gordon had been ordained in the Church of Scotland and had become Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University, an interviewer asked how he had survived.  Gordon said, “I practiced the discipline of remaking the face of each torturer into the face his mother had seen cuddling him in her arms.  It is very difficult to be swallowed in bitterness when you can do that, and it is the bitterness that would have killed me, even had I lived.”

Gordon’s story recalls the words of novelist Anne Lamott, who writes that “not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”  Our vengeance ultimately hurts us the most.   The extraordinary stories of Ernest Gordon, Azim Khamisa, and the Amish community in Pennsylvania show that it is possible to avoid maiming our own souls this way.

And yet I often find it difficult to love even ordinary, everyday enemies:  the former friend who has betrayed me; the co-worker who slights me; myself when I’ve done something wrong or acted against my own best interests.  The urge to punish and belittle, to seek revenge and payback, can be very strong.  Those messages are all around us.

And, certainly, we must remember what loving our enemy doesn’t mean.  It doesn’t mean looking the other way, condoning terrible behavior, or shortchanging justice.  It doesn’t even require us to like our enemy. But it does demand that we see the enemy as human, as a fellow child of God.  It forbids us to wish our enemy pain or to delight in our enemy’s suffering.

I’ve often heard that it is presumptuous for Christ’s followers to call themselves “Christian.” We can’t claim that label ourselves; it can only be given to us by others who observe our behavior and recognize it as Christ-like.  Perhaps the only person who can ultimately make this call is Christ himself.  “Hey, I know you!” he might say.  “You’re one of mine!”

Whenever I hear about yet another hideous tragedy -- another shooting or bombing or act of inexplicable cruelty -- I picture everyone in some vast spiritual version of a high-school gym, waiting to be chosen for the softball team.  In one corner is a scruffy guy in sandals and a robe, who says softly, “Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you.”  ln the other corner is a polite, clean-shaven young man who calls out, “Hate your enemies!  Curse them and seek revenge!”

Which eight words will I respond to?  More importantly, which team will I be on?  Which of these two figures will say, “Hey, you’re one of mine!”                                        


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