One of my favorite ‘love your enemy’ stories comes from an author and blogger named Rachel Held Evans. She is a Christian writer who identifies as evangelical but who is often pushing the boundaries of the evangelical world. Because she is a public figure with some measure of popularity in certain circles, she gets a lot of feedback on her writing. Particularly for her blogging, where people comment and email with all manner of support, question, critique and even hate.
As you might imagine, regularly receiving nasty feedback to the things you have spent time, energy, blood, sweat, tears and prayer to create is not a very pleasant feeling. Rachel shared some of the hateful emails and comments – I followed her blog for a while and saw some of them myself – and they were over the top ugly, nasty, hateful things. She was called names, banished to hell, and declared unchristian, among many much, much worse things.
A few years ago, Rachel decided after a season of prayer and discernment to find some sort of practice that would help her hold all the nasty comments in some sort of transformative way. She didn’t want to ignore all of them, but she also didn’t want to internalize them. She needed a way to receive the hatred and do something to transform it. Inspired by a Christian community who was literally changing weaponry into farm equipment, she decided to try to practice loving her enemies by printing out their emails and comments and folding them into origami peace cranes, sailboats, and pigeons.
She spent the entire season of Lent folding those nasty words into tiny shapes. Transforming her enemies’ hatred into signs and symbols of reconciliation and peace, and, in the process, softening her own heart.
One of the reasons I like this story so much is because of how simple and mundane it is. When we hear this banner statement from Jesus: LOVE YOUR ENEMIES, it can feel way, way, way too huge for anything we might be able to accomplish. It feels like Jesus might be asking us to infiltrate the Pentagon and convince all those hardened generals to send care packages instead of bombs to the Middle East.
Or, even if we scale down and think about our own, very personal enemies – the people who have hurt us so deeply, the abusers or dismissers, the ones who insulted us in the way we can’t seem to forget, the friend who ended up betraying us, the partner who hurt us in such an intimate way that we can barely talk about it…well, these things also feel pretty close to impossible.
How in the world, Jesus, are we supposed to LOVE these people, when we can barely articulate the depth of the pain that they have caused us?
And that – the near-impossible feeling of it – is why this, with so much else in the Sermon on the Mount, gets relegated so often by preachers and teachers to an aspirational suggestion from Jesus and not an actual, practical way of life for his followers. It’s because it feels huge. It feels like something that is not just hard but something that might, in fact, be impossible.
That feeling doesn’t really get alleviated much by the way the passage in the Sermon on the Mount gets translated there at the end. Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, so that we can be children of our Father in heaven. And if we only love the people who love us, well, what good is that? Be perfect, this little passage ends, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Well, Jesus, way to set a high bar, there.
Come on, man. We know where that train goes. Perfectionism, that feeling of never being enough, never doing enough, never quite living up to the standard…that’s no way to live.
Is that really what Jesus is teaching? That we should love our enemies because loving enemies is the way to perfection? Is Jesus setting up impossible standards and then telling us that meeting them is the only way to be loved by God?
I really, really hope not. Because I am not perfect, I’m not so great at loving my enemies, but I DO want to be a child of God. I DO want to work my way toward being a more compassionate, more loving and forgiving person who shares God’s transformative grace.
This verse has bugged me for a long, long time.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
But in working with these texts and reading people who know Greek a lot better than I do, I found a really helpful reading.
The Greek word for ‘perfection’ in this passage is teleios. It’s related to the Hebrew word ‘tamim’ and both of these words could also be translated as ‘whole,’ ‘undivided’ or ‘complete.’
Be complete, therefore, as your heavenly Father is complete.
Hmmmm…in the context of love and who we love and how we love, this begins to make a little more sense.
Be complete in your love, therefore, as your heavenly Father is complete.
Be undivided in your love, therefore, as your heavenly Father is undivided.
Clarence Jordan, whose work on the Sermon on the Mount we’ve explored several times during these weeks, says that in this passage, Jesus is actually offering the fourth of four possibilities for how and who we choose to love.
These are what Jordan calls ‘stages’ of the law of retaliation. He traces the law through history and scripture. The first way was the way of unlimited retaliation: if someone hurt you, say they knocked out one of your eyes, you had carte blanche to do to them what they had done to you and then some. No limits to revenge. Might makes right, and whoever is in possession of the most might and power gets to have the upper hand.
The second stage is what Jordan calls limited retaliation – he traces this to the law in Exodus and Deuteronomy, and it’s what Jesus is quoting: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. If someone hurts you, you get to do the same back to them. Get even. Get ‘justice.’
The third stage is ‘limited love.’ Jesus is citing this stage, too, from Leviticus, when he says ‘you have heard it said love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ Stage three creates boundaries around who deserves forgiveness and who does not – if the one who hurt you is part of your family or your neighborhood or your culture…or your race, then they deserve forgiveness. But if the one who hurt you is from outside any of those groups, well…bring in the bombers.
Jesus is doing that tri-fold riffing we talked about last week again. He’s recognizing the old traditional righteousness, describing the cycle of violence that it was meant to address, and offering a transformative solution to end the cycle.
These stages, says Jordan, were meant to curb anger, violence and retribution. But following the letter of the law – an eye for an eye or revenge only when your enemy isn’t a part of the in-group – fails to recognize the difficult cycle of violence behind the law.
So, Jesus says: let your love be unlimited. Like God, who makes rain fall on the just and the unjust, who loves sinners and saints, who offers new birth to people like us and people very unlike us, let your love be undivided. Love your family, and your friends, and your neighbors AND ALSO all those people you thought you had permission not to love. Nope, those people are included in the sphere of love, too, as hard as it might be to imagine.
I like this four-fold process from Clarence Jordan. I like that it implies that an undivided love is not the starting point of how humans can understand God’s mercy, but that it takes us mortals a really long time – collectively as well as personally – to get there. It’s hard for us, this idea of undivided love. We want to keep ourselves safe by giving ourselves permission to hate those people who are far away, who are different, who we don’t understand, the ones we are scared of because we fear that they might hurt us.
But we just don’t get to do that. We don’t get to decide, as humans, who is and who is not worthy of love – either the love we share or the love God showers on us all. We don’t get to decide that. Jesus says: love your enemies. Do this so that your love will be as whole and undivided and complete as God’s love is.
At the end of her lenten origami practice, Rachel Held Evans reflected on the six weeks of folding hatred into signs of peace. She expected the practice to be a solitary and silent one, but she found that it became a catalyst for community. Friends sent her origami instruction books, her husband decided to learn and fold with her, friends came over to see the progress, and even her enemies – the ones who had spewed hatred on her blog and through her inbox – became a part of the process of transformation. Here’s what she said:
And in a sense, even the people who continue to hate me and call me names are a part of this beautiful process. Their words, carelessly spoken, spent the last 40 days in my home— getting creased and folded, worked over, brushed aside to make room for dinner, stepped on by a toddler, read by my sister, stained with coffee, shoved into a closet when guests arrive, blacked out, thrown away, turned into poems, and folded into sailboats and cranes and pigeons that now sit smiling at me from my office window.
Because I am a real human being, living a very real life, with a very real capacity to be hurt, to be loved, to heal, and to forgive.
And so are my enemies.
And there’s the rub, isn’t it?
If we start putting boundaries around who is worthy of love – either our own or the love of the God who created us all – well, things start to get tricky really quickly.
Am I worthy of love?
Is my family worthy of love?
Are my neighbors worthy of love?
Are Cleveland Indians fans, even though they lost the World Series, worthy of love?
(I went to the VT/Duke Football game yesterday) Are Duke fans worthy of love?
Are those people who think crazy things about politics and culture worthy of love?
Is the irresponsible driver who cut me off on I-40 this morning worthy of love?
Is the guy on my block who plays spanish-language death metal to all hours of the night worthy of love?
Is the friend who betrayed me and hurt me deeply worthy of love?
Are the churches who don’t think I should be in ministry because I’m a woman – and told me so – worthy of love?
Is the woman wearing the t-shirt that says Hillary for Prison worthy of love?
Is the man wearing the hat that calls Donald Trump a nasty, nasty name worthy of love?
Is the man who killed two Des Moines police officers in a horrific, ambush-style killing this week worthy of love?
Are the members of Boko Haram, who abducted our sister Gloria and kidnapped, killed and displaced so many others, worthy of love?
We might learn from our sisters and brothers in Nigeria, who have said and continue to say explicitly that they are praying for Boko Haram. After a trauma healing workshop this summer, one girl who had been kidnapped said: “When we fled from Boko Haram, I prayed that God would never forgive them. Now I will pray that God will forgive Boko Haram.”
“You have heard it said,” Jesus preaches, that there can be limits to love. You have heard it said that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is a sensible way to live, and indeed, it works out okay when we are able to limit our retaliation and institute some sense of justice.
But I say to you: God’s love is without borders, without divisions, without limits.
So, you who have received this whole, complete, undivided kind of love: love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Give to anyone who begs of you. Recognize that even the one who hurt you, even the one of whom you are deeply afraid, even the one who seems irredeemable and completely lost: even these are not outside the realm of worthiness.
Let your love be whole. Be my children. Love without limits.
God whose love is larger than we can imagine,
Be near to us this morning, near to us in our joy and near to us in our pain. You know the shape of our lives, the broad strokes and the smallest details, and you love us thoroughly. Open our hearts to that immense love.
These are days of disagreement and contention, God of Love. Our country is struggling to practice its own politics with grace, struggling to hear and listen to the experiences of people who are not like us, struggling to find a way forward where everyone might find paths to an abundant, flourishing kind of life.
It is easy to lose ourselves in the vitriol, in the polling statistics, in the campaign rhetoric. Open our ears to your word, God of Love. Help us to hear, above the din of argument and anger, your call for our own love to be as undivided as yours. Help us to heed your instruction to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to give to any who ask of us.
Rearrange our brain chemistry, God, so that we might see each of your beloved children not as Democrat or Republican, not as nasty women or deplorable beings, not as percentages or demographics, not as enemy or ally, but as a precious being, a sister or brother, a whole human with a story as whole and complicated as our own, created by you, sustained by your living breath, and worthy of care, attention, respect and yes, even love.
If we are your children, we are entrusted with this great gift: to be a living example of your huge, whole, all-encompassing and boundary-defying love. Give us the humility and the courage to be who we are, God of undivided love.
There are many among us who are in need of that huge love this morning, God, and we lift them up and hold them in the light of your care:
And, there is much to celebrate this morning, too, and these we lift up to you with equal care:
All of this we pray in the name of Jesus, the one who taught us that ‘enemy’ is a false category and that it is your love that demolishes all divisions, Amen.