Loving Enemies and Others

A sermon preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
February 20, 2022
Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany, Year C
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN

Love your enemies…Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Perhaps no other command in scripture is more important than these for upending the damaging ways of the world and initiating the realm of God we so desperately need and even occasionally desire. I would hazard that these commands, given today by Jesus in the context of his great Sermon on the Plain, are even more important than the Great Commandments: to love God and love neighbor as yourself. In a way, these teachings today amplify the Great Commandments. They put a cost on them. Loving God and loving neighbor have an abstract and even vague quality to them. Who is God really, invisible, ineffable, the greatest of mysteries? And, like Jesus’ response to the lawyer asking “who is my neighbor”, this particular passage reiterates that our neighbor is like the Samaritan, our sworn enemy, the “other”, the one who is apart and different from us in all ways, the one with whom we would be least likely to break bread or live down the street from (if we had our druthers), the one we’d least like to have to love.

Love your enemies…Do to others as you would have them do to you.

I say these might be the most important teachings Jesus has to offer, and yet, they are definitely the most difficult. When the world teaches us the rule of reciprocity – do to others as they have done to you – Jesus would ask us to do to others as we desire done to us. I confess that when I learned this week that the officer who shot and killed Daunte Wright would be sentenced to only two years in prison, I struggled to let go of my desire for reciprocity. I could feel it in my heart – she took a life, she deserved life in prison. Reciprocity. In our house, we have a saying to help our kids understand the nature of the seriousness of how our actions impact others. We say, “outcomes outweigh intents”. As the officer was sentenced the judge called on the public to have empathy for her, to understand how such a mistake might have occurred that caused Mr. Wright’s death, to, in essence, try to understand that the officer didn’t mean to kill Wright. But, aren’t outcomes supposed to outweigh intent? I confess my knowledge of jurisprudence is limited, and undoubtedly the judge who set down this sentence is a good and honorable judge, just as her title implies. And, truth be told, justice is far more than what happens in a courtroom. In many ways, the sentence that officer received was inflected by the very same mercy taught by Jesus today. But, what of the mercy needed in the world for black and brown lives, who are routinely dragged down to death and destruction by a system built by and for whiteness?

The uncomfortable and disturbing reality is that the officer who shot and killed Daunte Wright, or the one under whose knee George Floyd died, or the one who crucified Philando Castille in our own city, did so as a part of a system built to benefit me. In the story Jesus tells this morning, the police are not my sworn enemies, and the so-called “other” are the very bodies and lives policed by a system built for me and those who look like me. So, until we have done the work to dismantle this system, real justice, true mercy, can never exist.

Love your enemies…Do to others as you would have them do to you.

But, how? How do we do this seemingly impossible work?

I am grateful to our Associate Rector who, by his sermons and teaching, have introduced me to the work and writing of the Brazilian activist, scholar, philosopher, and teacher Paolo Freire, whose essential teachings in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, writes, that it will require those of us who are a part of the oppressor class, to “join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation” in essence “moving from one pole of the contradiction to the other”. But, here the work is tricky – I’m afraid of what might be asked of me, what it might cost to be a part of working for liberation and justice. I am already grieving what I had and what I anticipate letting go of to do this work. And, so I will desperately try to manage and control the process. But, as Freire again writes, this is precisely what I as a part of the oppressor class bring with me as I come to the side of the oppressed. He says,

“It happens, however, that as they cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators or simply the heirs of exploitation and move to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin: their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know. …[they] truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.”

Loving our enemies is difficult especially when you don’t believe you have enemies. But, when you awake to the reality that the world has built systems for preserving whiteness, systems that turn black and brown bodies into the enemy, then you come to understand that like it or not, the world has given you enemies. But, for those of us who benefit from a world created for whiteness we can still learn to love. And, as Freire writes, love looks like learning to trust the other, listening to the voices of the oppressed. Loving our enemies, particularly when seen through the lens of our complicity in oppression, means trusting our so-called enemies, that they will lead us not only to their liberation, but our own in the process. Such a liberation might find us standing, as Jesus does this morning, on a level place, where oppressor and oppressed find mutual love, a realized hope, and true justice. In short, this is the path to the realm proclaimed by Jesus, the kingdom and the kin-dom of God.

Jesus provides a lot of concrete, if somewhat counterintuitive, examples of what that place might look like in this morning’s gospel. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. When someone hits you on the cheek, turn and offer the other. When someone takes your coat, offer also your shirt. Don’t judge. Don’t condemn. Give abundantly. Forgive others.

Such teachings might seem like a recipe for a kind of spiritual masochism, or worst of all, acquiescence that leads to even further oppression. It is hard for me, as one who benefits from the systems of oppression, to stand up here and preach about turning the other cheek, or forgiveness. But, I am in need of forgiveness. We are in need of mercy. Desmond and Mpho Tutu in their profound work The Book on Forgiving write,

“forgiving does not mean forgetting the harm. It does not mean denying the harm. It does not mean pretending the harm did not happen or the injury was not as bad as it really was. Quite the opposite is true. The cycle of forgiveness can be activated and completed only in absolute truth and honesty.”

This is the profound and world changing truth bound up in these teachings of Jesus, whether I am the oppressor or the oppressed, our liberation is bound up in and only found in hearing the truth, understanding the totality of the harm, and in the giving and receiving of of forgiveness. In this both oppressor and oppressed are released. It is just such a way of being that moves us into seeing each other as God sees us.

Thomas Merton describes just such a vision in his work Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander. He writes:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream …[and] was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.

Love your enemies. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Love everyone. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In this way we are no longer enemies.

Poet Laureate and indigenous scholar, Joy Harjo writes beautifully,

And whom do I call my enemy?
An enemy must be worthy of engagement.
I turn in the direction of the sun and keep walking.
It’s the heart that asks the question, not my furious mind.
The heart is the smaller cousin of the sun.
It sees and knows everything.
It hears the gnashing even as it hears the blessing.
The door to the mind should only open from the heart.
An enemy who gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend.

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