“Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” ~Abraham Lincoln
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
My daughter, Robin, often came home from school in tears because the kids in her class picked on her. I asked her to put in writing her experience, and here is what she wrote: “Doneta was one of the main bullies I had in the 3rd and 4th grade. She would tease me, call me Chink, even though she was also part Chinese. She hit me, called me other names and was part of the crew that would chase me home from school. She was one of the smarter kids in my grade. I remember her sitting across from me when mom brought me my first pair of glasses in the 4th grade. The teacher told me to put them on and as soon as I did, the entire class burst into laughter, and Doneta was the one right in front of me closest to me laughing at me. She made me feel so small and less than. Those experiences were the main reason I hadn’t been back to the reservation. I didn’t have any interest in running into those people again.”
As a father, it is very difficult to stand by and see your daughter suffer such hurt and abuse and rejection. No matter how I tried to comfort her and tried explaining to her why people treated others with such abuse, it was never enough. And, I was the pastor to the parents of her classmates. Both of us wanted deep down to strike back, to get even. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…” We would love to have kept score.
But Jesus says to us: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…” I am more deeply tested by this command when I consider situations that are even more challenging, that are more devastating, as when someone takes away something that can never be given back—the life of a young person with a promising future snuffed out by a drunk driver or a random act of violence; children whose innocence is forever taken away by rape, torture, or abuse. Such wounds render most, if not all, of us incapable of acting with love. These days it is very, very difficult to follow this command of Jesus. A right-wing ideologue stages an invasion against the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, armed with a military assault weapon. Before that, a 21-year-old white supremacist murders 9 African American worshippers during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. How can we love such people? How does reconciliation or forgiveness happen? Making matters worse, well-meaning Christians have too often dangerously encouraged people to be silent about their pain, using the Bible as justification. This text has been employed to silence the victimized so that others are not inconvenienced or made uncomfortable by their difficult stories. The text has even been weaponized, using Jesus’ words to actively encourage vulnerable people to stay in abusive environments and relationships. Not only is the command seemingly impossible to practice, but it also has been exploited when applied to an existing abusive situation. Reconciliation or forgiveness is not something that a father, much less well-meaning bystanders, can legislate. If it is going to happen at all, the victims must discover for themselves that God can and will create something new out of their suffering.
A former president of the United States once said: “People react to fear, not love; they don’t teach that in Sunday School, but it’s true!” No president since has deployed fear quite like our current president. Whether it is the prospect of a crime wave at the border with Mexico, or nuclear war with North Korea, our president has persuaded his supporters that there is plenty to fear beyond fear itself. The Bible teaches us that “perfect love casts out fear”(1 John 4:18). And yet, today we hear more discourse shaped by fear and its close ally hatred than discourse shaped by love or a capacity to embrace suffering through the cross of Christ. These days, we have tried hard to conquer our fears through security measures—increasingly sophisticated monitoring devices, gated communities, border walls, a return to a nuclear arms race. But have these cast out our fears? Or have they only diminished our capacity for love? Jesus’ injunction to “love your enemies” is a recognition that the only way to cope with one’s fears faithfully is to learn to overcome those fears through suffering, costly love.
In the movie Gandhi which I first saw years ago, there is a scene that has been sealed forever into my memory. The partition of India and Pakistan had just taken place. Hindus and Muslims were locked in mortal combat. Murder and mayhem and fear ruled supreme. How to stop the killing? Gandhi walked into the city at the center of the violence. Seating himself on the ground, he began a hunger strike. By his action, he was saying to everyone, “I’m going to starve myself until the violence stops.” Fasting was his way of making an appeal to conscience. During his fast, a very distraught Hindu man came to Gandhi and confessed, “I am going to go to hell! I killed a Muslim boy”! Gandhi looked at him and replied calmly, “I can tell you how to find your way out of hell….Go out and find a homeless Muslim boy, take him into your home, and raise him a Muslim.”
The Golden Rule does not read: “Do to others as THEY do to you”. No, it reads, “Do to others as you WOULD HAVE THEM do to you”. The way to stop the cycle of hate and violence is to NOT react and retaliate with evil “...but to do good, to bless, to pray…to do to others as you would have them do to you.” We need to be reminded from time to time, of events in our lifetime which have demonstrated how Jesus’ teachings could provide a new way for us to live together: On February 13, 1945, British and American bombers set the city of Dresden, Germany, on fire, leaving it in ruins and killing an estimated 70,000 people. Dresden was a city famous for its palaces and architectural treasures. At the 50th anniversary of the destruction, hundreds of Americans, Britons, and Germans gathered in Dresden to remember the dead and to try to heal the lingering wounds. The German President told those present that it was a time of “remembering and mourning, not of revenge and hate”. And he said: “Bombardment could not be morally weighed against other acts of war. One life can’t be tallied up against another, pain can’t be tallied against pain, exile against exile, horror against horror. Human suffering cannot be balanced on a scale.” The German President’s words echoed the words of warning by Martin Luther King Jr.: “To meet hate with retaliatory hate would do nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Hate begets hate, violence begets violence, toughness begets toughness…the way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyer. But the way of love leads to redemption and creation of a beloved community.”
How does reconciliation and forgiveness happen? To be forgiven and to forgive are always gifts of grace that come from some place beyond ourselves. In the summer of 2017, 40 years after leaving the reservation, my family decided to return to the Northwest, to the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, for a family vacation. We were warmly received by our former congregation. And here is what my daughter, Robin, wrote about the trip, a trip she thought she would never make: “Our first night back on the reservation, we went to the cafe at the resort. Our waitress looked familiar, but I honestly didn’t really want to know if it was someone I went to school with. Later that night, my brothers texted me that our waitress was Doneta and they were drinking at the bar and I should join them. When I came down, Doneta came to our table and took our drink order. She introduced herself and said she remembered me. I smiled (sort of) and said I remembered her too. She told me a little of her life. Two kids, single mom. She had gotten off the reservation but ended up back there to be close to family. She gave me a big hug and said it was nice to see me again. I had a shift inside as a result. I realized that I was carrying around resentment for 40 years for a kid who made kid choices. I realized that it wasn’t doing me any good to keep carrying that around. We are 50 years old and have much more interesting things to care about. It let me release those icky inside feelings and instead feel compassion for her and her life.”
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because God first loved us.” (1 John 4:18-19)