It has been a difficult week, no question. After a difficult spring, a difficult and spectacularly hot summer, and a difficult, if beautiful, fall (at least where I live).
“Difficult” may not even really cover what we’ve all been through. It has the sense of something being a bit problematic, as in, “She won’t call to get the copier fixed. She says the copies are fine with a black line across the middle. She’s being really difficult.” What we are going through is a bit more than that, but since we all know what we’re going through, I don’t think I need to get graphic about it. It’s difficult, to say the least.
Listening to the best theologians
And this has me returning to the best theology I know, seeking out my favorite theologians. Jesus is my top favorite, and here is what he said to a bunch of people living in “difficult” times:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
How often have we heard those words said in some large room with candles and banners all around it? How often has someone boomed to a crowd, “We are called to love our enemies!” It is among the list of what I like to refer to as “The Adorable Sayings of Jesus.”
That list of sayings is comprised of all the things Jesus said that we hear and, somewhere in our reptilian brains, we respond with the thought: “That Jesus is adorable. How sweet that he thinks we’re going to do this.”
I had the same thoughts about Marie Kondo and her quest to get Americans to organize and throw things away. “She is too cute,” I thought. “So optimistic. She has no idea that Americans are only capable of attending to the life she wants us to have for about five minutes until Amazon has a Prime Day.”
In my 57 years of life — approximately 42 of which I have spent genuinely attending to the people of faith around me — I have observed us treating these words of Jesus with this same condescending attitude.
It’s like the line in Ken Medema’s master work, “Moses,” where Moses says to God, “Lord, you have not been here very long/Lord, you’ve got the whole thing wrong!” We say to Jesus, “That is so sweet. I love that you think we should do that. What you don’t realize is that everything about this guy I’m talking about sets my teeth on edge. He is pure, straight-up evil. He’s going to ruin everything. Surely, he is the exception.”
‘Loving Bush: Day 2’
I remember, in 2003, reading Anne Lamott’s stunning and challenging essay, “Loving Bush: Day 2.” Anne Lamott is another of my favorite theologians. I fangirled her hard after reading her book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.
In 2003, our country had declared war on countries whose military capabilities paled in comparison to our own, with shaky evidence and the anger of a country looking to make someone pay for our hurt. We made them our enemies, claiming the right to do anything we wanted to them.
“We’ve been fed this narrative for a long time, that it’s OK to do whatever we want to someone who is our enemy.”
We’ve been fed this narrative for a long time, that it’s OK to do whatever we want to someone who is our enemy. This is Hollywood’s favorite storyline, and we lap it up as if it were a chocolate lava cake made just for us.
Lamott begins her essay waxing eloquent, as she does with great skill, about the fall and about the untangling of chains. She has shared, very openly, how she found her little church in the streets of San Francisco, and how she deeply loves her church and her pastor. In this essay, she writes about making her way to church, feeling herself in tangles, like one of the necklaces she used to fidget with when she was younger. Here is what she says of the sermon she heard that day:
… and then the pastor said the most stunning thing I’ve ever heard her say: “When someone is acting butt-ugly, God loves them just the same as God loves the innocent. They are still just as loved by God.” I was shocked. I thought, Boy, are you going to get it when Mom finds out. Also, I thought she was talking about the White House, but then she kept on preaching, about Jesus, and Dr. King, and — if you read between the lines — the people in my church. All of us — and there are some exquisitely good people in this church. It was outrageous. She said you don’t have to support people’s political agenda, but you did have to love them, if you want to follow Jesus. She said you could tell if people were following Jesus, instead of following the people who follow Jesus, because they are feeding the poor, sharing their wealth, and making sure everyone has medical insurance. Then I zoned out.
How Jesus loves
We reject this call to love our enemies. We reject it all the time, primarily because we have not paid attention to how Jesus loves. We forget that Jesus loved the Pharisees and the Sadducees. That he had been hanging out in synagogues with them all his life. When we see him excoriate their behavior and call them to justice, call them to equality and openness and inclusion, we think, “Yeah, get ‘em, Jesus. Those are the bad guys.”
This is not accurate. Jesus loves these people. Jesus loves the Temple. This is how Jesus loves. We fail to notice that Jesus has little or nothing to say to his actual enemies — or about them, really. There are no speeches to Rome, no tirades against the policies of Rome. As far as Jesus is concerned, Rome is not his problem. What does Jesus do when a Roman asks for his help, though? He gives it.
“The love of Jesus is a salty thing — it is sometimes pointy and hard.”
The love of Jesus is a salty thing — it is sometimes pointy and hard. The love of Jesus demands that we see others through his eyes, through God’s eyes. So, the demoniac who has been so problematic that he must be chained outside of town is beloved to Jesus, and he heals him. So, the servant of a Roman soldier is beloved to Jesus and, when asked to do so, he heals him. So, a little girl of no status or wealth or real value is beloved of Jesus, and he brings her back from the very doorway of death with perhaps the most gentle words in all of Scripture: “Talitha, cumi,” which is Aramaic for, “Little girl, get up.”
The sacred rule of Jesus
All this vitriol being thrown around right now, all this demonizing of others, breaks the sacred rule set down from the very lips of Jesus, our Christ: “Love your enemies,” he said. “Pray for those who persecute you.”
He did not say, “Let them abuse you.” He did not say, “Let them get away with murder.” He did not say, “Kowtow and be a patsy and let them walk all over you.” But he also did not say, “All’s fair in war.” We said that.
Jesus did not say, “It’s fine for you to do and say anything you want to about your enemies; they are fair game because they’re bad.” The love Jesus requires is the one Jesus modeled: speak truth and heal; give food and justice; see others through the eyes of God.”
“Jesus knew what C. S. Lewis called the ‘deep magic’ that is behind the world.”
Jesus knew what C. S. Lewis called the “deep magic” that is behind the world — that God owns it all and God makes all the rules. We can break them if we wish to, but God also controls the consequences. No amount of our pretending that we control each other or that we are the arbiters of justice changes that.
What love truly is
It’s time for us to grow up and work toward understanding what love truly is. We don’t love our spouses by allowing them to treat us poorly; we also don’t love our spouses by calling them names or demonizing their every failure or mistake. We love our spouses by sharing what we have, by wishing the best for them, by holding their feet to the fire if we have to, by understanding that they will fail sometimes and having compassion when they do.
The reason that we love our spouses that way is because we need them to love us that way as well — we all need compassion some days. My particular spouse is often compassionate with me when he senses that my hackles are raised, that I am about to spiral into anger and rant like a mad woman. He brings me chocolate and turns on the television and says, “Let’s watch something stupid.” And we do. And it helps.
We don’t love our children by allowing them to behave any old way, hurting others, throwing things, bringing dirt into the house and tracking it across the living room rug, leaving their dirty socks on the living room table. And we also don’t love them by calling them names, making them feel shame all the time, denying them access to our approval by letting them know that nothing they could do would give them a true place in the family. We call our children to their best selves, modeling responsible adulthood as best we can, giving them a vision of how to live among all kinds of people, including people who disagree with them, if we are truly responsible parents.
Day 2 or Day 0?
Anne Lamott gave herself credit for being on Day 2 — by her own confession, it was all a work in progress. I was a new minister when I read the article and posted it on social media, bright-eyed and optimistic about sharing a message I thought of as positive. You can imagine how well that went and the things I was accused of.
I have learned since then. It was a good lesson. I went back to my favorite theologian (Jesus), and watched how he dealt with politicians. It looks to me like Jesus gave the politicians of his day less than 1% of his time, and a great deal of that happened when they arrested him and dragged him to one kangaroo court after another. As we say today, Jesus put them in the category of “not his monkey, not his circus.”
Governments do what they do. If they are functioning well, they build good roads and provide health care and education and are good stewards of the environment and the resources they have at their disposal. Mostly, they don’t function all that well, but that could change. However well they do their jobs, Jesus would indicate that our job is a different one. No matter whose tuchus is in what chair, our job is to help make sure they sit there uncomfortably until they do justice to the beloved people of God.
“We need to show compassion when we speak about each other because we need our neighbors — and our enemies — to be compassionate when they talk about us.”
We need to love each other. We need to show compassion when we speak about each other because we need our neighbors — and our enemies — to be compassionate when they talk about us.
“But they won’t be!” we say. “They’re awful! They’ll never treat us the way they should!” To which Jesus replies: “Don’t be such a baby. Stand up for yourself. I told you to be salt, not sugar. You don’t have to be violent or vitriolic to have some self-esteem. I told you there would be snakes and wolves. You saw what happened to me. Remember who your God is, and be strong and courageous. Love your enemies with strength, love them with compassion, offer food and healing and inclusion.”
God says, in the book of Malachi, chapter 3: “Why don’t you at least try doing things like I showed you? Run the experiment of treating people around you justly, no matter what you think of them. See if I, the Lord of all the universe, don’t reward you with good things. Just try it.”
We are on Day 0. For all our sakes, we should pray that the next dawn brings Day 1.
Martha Dixon Kearse serves as pastor of Peakland Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. She earned the master of divinity degree and doctor of ministry degree from Gardner-Webb University.