“So, when felled by sniper’s bullet he could cry, ‘Thank God Almighty, I am free; I’m free at last!’” What an odd view of life to ring forth on this January morning in 2017. As odd as the words of another prophet: “Blessed are you poor, blessed are you who are hungry now, blessed are you who weep now.” The speaker of those words sings with us, “blessed are you, Martin, pastor, prophet.”
This afternoon 600+ Lutherans and Episcopalians will gather under the theme, “Living the Dream of God Now;” an obvious reference to King’s, “I have a Dream.” When Jesus spoke to his disciples on the eve of his assassination, he said, “Greater things than this will you do.” Martin Luther King, Monsignor Romero and other modern prophets have uttered similar words to their followers. We must go both wider and deeper than any prophet past in order to be faithful today.
Today’s Gospel helps us do that. One of King’s most enduring messages is the call to love enemies. Months before his death he said, I've seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.... But be assured that we'll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.
Jesus had just finished speaking the beatitudes, including “woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full now, woe to you who are laughing now, woe to you when all speak well of you.” He continues, “now, to those of you who are still listening, let me say a few more things.” Jesus knew that those who couldn’t hear good news in this litany of blessings and woes had stopped listening. So he limits his remarks to those who are: “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” While everyone struggles with loving enemies, Jesus is primarily addressing those who were hated by others, who have experienced being slapped, hated, despised and defamed.
During the presidential campaign and transition we have heard many calls to do the opposite of what Jesus says here. We are to exclude those we consider enemies, register potential enemies, build walls against those who want what we have, label as fake those we disagree with, and justify abuse because “boys will be boys.” The message comes through new technology like Twitter and new behaviors in press conferences. King saw this same pattern and told the powerful: “Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll still love you.” Jesus addressed the victims of that propaganda war. The ones who couldn’t get their hearts and minds around a world where the poor are blessed and those who laugh now will weep and mourn were not going to understand enemy love. So he wasn’t talking to them.
Enemy love is the height of following the way of Jesus. It distinguished both Jesus and King. Extraordinary power flows from it; everything else is within the bounds of normal human experience. Jesus said, “if you just love people you like, nothing changes.” Christian singer Bruce Cockburn sang: the trouble with normal is it always gets worse. Enemy love is even more transforming than miracles. It’s important to Jesus and Dr. King because people who have been loved by enemies are changed forever.
Loving enemies has been misunderstood as an excuse for wimps – people who can’t stand up to their enemies. Let’s look at Jesus’ statement that, “if anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” Jesus isn’t telling us to lie down and play dead when someone hurts us. Enemy love is not doormat love. When Jesus was struck on the cheek by a soldier at his trial, he rebuked the man: “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me? (Jn 18:23) Jesus didn’t strike back, but not did he let him get away with it. Enemy love is pro-active. It doesn’t always feel good, either to the lover or the loved.
When God used Moses to free the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, neither group was happy. The Hebrew slaves resisted starting their freedom march at the ungodly hour of midnight, and didn’t like what was on the menu in the desert. The Egyptians told Moses during the nine plagues, “You can tell your god where to go.” After the tenth they said, “Get out of here and take your god with you.” God’s love is definitely not doormat love.
Everything in us resists enemy love – until we see it. When we see someone loving enemies, the good wakes up in us and responds. When we see someone voluntarily accept the hatred and blows of another without returning them, something awakens in us and responds with goodness. Enemy love can’t be taught in a sermon or classroom. It is learned on the picket line, in the middle of a demonstration, in prison or the courtroom, or in the family. Oh it can be reinforced by sermons and lectures, but it is more caught than taught: in a relationship that is hard for us, in the testimony of one whose life experience taught him enemy love.
I saw it last week when I watched the movie, Hidden Figures. I strongly encourage everyone to see that film. It tells a story that was hidden for far too long about a group of African American women whose mathematical skills contributed to the space program in ways that only shock us because we have been programmed not to expect it. The images of tough enemy love pervade the entire story.
Dr. King learned and practiced the same thing. In 1961 he said, “One seeks to defeat the unjust system rather than individuals who are caught in that system… the important thing is to get rid of the evil system and not the individual who happens to be misguided, who happens to be misled, who was taught wrong.” People who heard Dr. King’s words 50 and 60 years ago were either empowered or enraged. They either shouted AMEN or they shouted Go to Hell. But they were shouting! We honor Dr. King and Jesus when we take the spirit of their words and allow it to give voice to concerns that make us shout today. Our voice will also hear both AMEN and Go to Hell.
There are many struggles that call us to raise our voices. May the spirit of Martin Luther King empower us to answer those calls and give us the courage to speak and act in radical love for enemies and companions