Last week, the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column entitled America is Falling Apart at the Seams. He notes “a long-term loss of solidarity, a long-term rise in estrangement and hostility” and observes “there must be some spiritual or moral problem at the core of this. Over the past several years, and over a wide range of different behaviors, Americans have been acting in fewer pro-social and relational ways and in more antisocial and self-destructive ways.” He states that, as a columnist, he believes that he should have some answers, which he doesn’t. And he’s just talking about the U.S.
In 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a sermon, “I think of the fact that our world is in transition now.” While pundits (and some of our friends) bemoan the issues of the day, Dr. King challenges his congregation to look to Jesus for a path forward. For his birthday, I read the text of that sermon of his, which was based on Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
I like to think that I don’t have any real enemies, and that I don’t truly hate anyone, but that might be a cop-out from the greater need for people to actively make peace. To build bridges. To confront hate and disrespect.
Dr. King faced enormous hatred and resistance, but he stood with Jesus for his inspiration and sustenance. He says:
"Certainly these are great words, words lifted to cosmic proportions. And over the centuries, many persons have argued that this is an extremely difficult command. Many would go so far as to say that it just isn’t possible to move out into the actual practice of this glorious command. They would go on to say that this is just additional proof that Jesus was an impractical idealist who never quite came down to earth. But far from being an impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist. The words of this text glitter in our eyes with a new urgency. Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.
Now let me hasten to say that Jesus was very serious when he gave this command; he wasn’t playing. He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies. He realized that it’s difficult to love those persons who seek to defeat you, those persons who say evil things about you. He realized that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard. But he wasn’t playing.”
Dr. King continues with guidance on how to go about this loving, outlining several steps. The first is to analyze oneself. While there are obvious, often trivial reasons why someone might dislike us, we need to face the fact that, even if something is unconscious or unintended, “There might be something within you that arouses the tragic hate response in the other individual.” And he broadens this to communities and nations.
Secondly, in order to love, one must “discover the element of good in the enemy, and every time you begin to hate that person and think of hating that person, realize that there is some good there and look at those good points which will over-balance the bad points.” Pope Francis puts it this way: “Although the life of a person is in a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.” I think that praying for those who persecute us – or offend us, or advocate unjust causes, etc. – might be an expression of that trust. And might help us to trust more.
Continuing, Dr. King says, “Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. . . In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”
He turns to the Greek language, which has several words for love, concluding that Agape is the love to which Jesus refers. “Agape is something of the understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all [people]. It is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of [people]. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love [people], not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every [person], and you love [them] because you know God loves [them]. And it might be the worst person you’ve ever seen."
He ends with three reasons why, in addition to Jesus’ command, we should love our enemies:
“hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. . . [Hate] only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.”
“There’s another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. . . when you start hating anybody, it destroys the very center of your creative response to life and the universe. . . So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.”
And, lastly, love because “love has within it a redemptive power. . . if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So “love your enemies.”
There’s a lot of hostility going around in our troubled world. It’s tempting to throw up our hands in disgust, or to retreat – or to join the fight on one side or another. Our call is to find a way to unleash the redemptive power of love – from the smallest of interactions with those near us to our engagement with local, national or international issues.
One who is trying to encourage the conversation these days is Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, who just released a pastoral letter on nuclear disarmament, Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace. In it he observes,
"In the Garden of Gethsemane, as the soldiers arrive to arrest Jesus, we are told that Peter violently takes up the sword to defend Jesus. He thinks his violence is justified. As he goes to strike the soldiers, Jesus issues His final commandment: 'Put down the sword.' These are the last words of Jesus to His community, to the church, before He was killed; it is the last thing they heard Him say. Suddenly, they realize how serious Jesus is about nonviolence, and so they all abandon Him."
May we accompany rather than abandon – Jesus and all those who suffer from hate, whether hating or being hated.