There was a famous bumper sticker, a couple decades ago now that said simply: “When Jesus said Love your enemies, I think he probably meant don’t kill them.” Do you remember that bumper sticker? Popular during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was provocative.
The bumper sticker was provocative for the time, but it provoked by pointing out the timelessness of Jesus’ provocation: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. Turn the other cheek.” If those words were difficult in the 90s and early 2000s, how much more so now.
Love your enemies. Remember these words come as the second movement in Luke’s sermon on the plain. This sermon is the center of Jesus’ teaching in Luke’s Gospel. Love your enemies comes right on the heels of Jesus’ primary teaching: blessed are the poor. Last week, preaching that part of Jesus’ sermon, I quoted a poster to you. The poster said simply, “fight poverty not the poor.” Fight poverty, not the poor. I wish those words were less radical.
Dr. King on “Love your Enemies”
In 1957 Dr. King took the idea a step further as he preached in the Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel at Howard University. He said, in part,
“There is another thing you must do to love your enemy. When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy…you must not do it…You work to defeat evil systems, but not individuals who are caught up in those systems.”
There’s that old phrase “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I think too often we often imagine sin in such a small way as something personal and private. Dr. King helped us to see the concept of sin has societal stakes. Dr. King endeavored to love the sinner, even while he worked against the sin of racism. He fought against the sin of oppression. He campaigned against the sin of white-supremacy. He saw the effects of these great sins and sought to love his opponents. Dr. King, even as he sought to point out the sin, sought to draw out the humanity of his enemies. He believed they were capable of better.
Dr. King, in the sermon, continues, “I am very happy [Jesus] did not say like your enemies. There are some people who are pretty difficult to like. There are many Southern politicians that I just do not like. I do not like what they are saying. I do not like what they are doing here in Washington in Congress. I do not like their attitudes. I do not like what they say about me and my people. But Jesus says, love them.” Dr. King chose to believe even his bitter opponents were capable of better. He chose not to give up, even on those who despised him. He would not give up on them. That is love.
The uses and abuses of polarization
We live in days which are fiercely divided. Social scientists tell us that we are more polarized today than we perhaps have ever been as a country.
Some of you know that before I was ordained, I trained as a Community Organizer. Saul Alinsky, the founder of organizing, argued that there are times you have to polarize. In order to make change, in order to work for justice, you have to polarize.
Right now, there are issues which must be polarized. Just this week in Missouri, a Senator introduced a ban on transgender student athletes. That same senator introduced a ban on all Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion curricula in schools. Polarizing against these proposals is critical. Polarizing means saying clearly, these amendments are wrong, and, if passed they would hurt kids in our schools.
Saul Alinsky taught that you have to polarize, you have to work to raise awareness, to turn public opinion against policies that perpetuate injustice. In order to win an issue, you have to polarize the issue.
Polarize the issue. There is a big difference between polarizing against a policy and polarizing against a person or a party. The same Saul Alinsky taught that those who were working in public life for justice had to learn that there are “no permanent allies and no permanent enemies.” You may disagree with the Governor of Missouri on all sorts of issues, but if you agree with the governor on his proposal to raise the minimum wage for state government workers to at least $15, you should be able to be allies on that issue. Our politics today makes this sort of ally-ship difficult. State workers making less than $15 an hour would argue, it’s worth the difficulty. Work it out.
If you think we live in difficult divisive times, the times of Jesus were worse. We sometimes hear the words “identity politics” used critically in today’s America. We don’t hold a candle to the identity politics of first century Palestine. Jesus got in trouble for spending time with Samaritan women and with Roman Soldiers. One of Jesus’ disciples was a zealot, a group which believed in violently overthrowing the government. In John’s story of the call of the disciples, Philip first tells Nathanael about Jesus, and Nathanael asks, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” In Jesus’ day everyone was divided against everyone else. Lines were drawn geographically, politically, based on tribe, gender, and religion. Against the backdrop of all this division Jesus says, “love your enemies.”
Love is a practice, and so is hate.
Why would you ever love your enemies? Jesus answers, “you will be acting the way children of the Most High act…[God] is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. Be compassionate, just as [God] is compassionate.” Our presiding bishop Michael Curry, doesn’t often talk about Christianity as a system of belief. He doesn’t. He is more interested in talking about our faith as a way of life. He actually often talks about it as a “way of love.” Jesus’ way is so distinctive in this world, it can be called just that, a “way of love.”
The way of love is a practice, but friends, the reality is that hate is also practice. People practice hate all the time. How many of us regularly practice the angry speech we’d like to give our boss, our co-worker, our family member? How many times have we run through that anger in our head? We can find ourselves, pretty naturally, rehearsing our hatred, busy repeating it to ourselves. Watch that inner monologue, especially about the people with whom you disagree.
Jesus says this so simply, but we all know it isn’t simple. Love takes practice. How many times do you suppose Joseph had to rehearse to himself exactly what he would say when he saw his brothers again? Remember these brothers, jealous over his relationship with his dad, stole his coat and then sold him into slavery in Egypt. How many times do you think Joseph had to rehearse what he says here in Genesis. Scripture doesn’t tell us, but I bet it took practice to steady his nerves. I bet it took years to decide to surprise them with love and forgiveness like this. Love like Joseph’s takes practice.
Why love your enemies? Because practicing love, in the end costs you less than practicing hate. Hate consumes us. Hate embitters. Spending your energy practicing hate will not help you to grow as a person. Hate shrinks.
Dr. King, of course, said it better, “Hate tears down and destroys. That is the purpose of hate. But love builds up. It creates and redeems. An individual may hate you, a race of people may hate you, but just keep on loving, and eventually through the power of your love you will break them down.” Now notice, Dr. King doesn’t say, “kill them with kindness.” Dr. King wasn’t about just being nice to people.
Love isn’t avoidance. Love isn’t just about being nice. Sometimes love means standing in opposition. Sometimes loving means sitting at a lunch counter, means standing in a picket line. Love always asks us to work for transformation, and sometimes the short term results aren’t nice.
Across the centuries many have tried to transform the world through violence. Many have used violence as a way to try and win freedom. Making change through violence invites ongoing violence. That is why Dr. King and the Civil Right Movements decision to choose nonviolence was so radical. Loving your enemies remains a radical call. It’s not easy. It takes practice, and patience.
That old bumper sticker, like all good bumper stickers, it was meant to catch your attention. The words were meant to be an interruption. It is easy to fall into patterns of hate in this world. In our bitter times, it is easy to get caught up in the way of bitterness. Jesus’ words today are meant as an interruption.
Love your enemies. You certainly don’t have to agree with them. You don’t have to vote with them. You don’t even have to like them. In the end, love enlarges your soul, hate diminishes. Loving more makes you more loving. Hating more just makes you more hateful.
There are enough people out there who believe that God wants them to hate. Do we have the courage to love, even when it is hard, even when it is complicated? What love, what lasting love isn’t complicated? Do we have the courage to love even when love asks us to relax our comfortable orthodoxies? Do we have the courage to try and love even our enemies?