Once in a while, we find ourselves confronted with difficult readings on a Sunday. This is certainly the case today, as we have just heard this Gospel where Jesus commands his disciples, and therefore commands us, to: “Love [our] enemies, do good to those who hate [us], bless those who curse [us], pray for those who abuse [us]”.
It is a difficult Gospel for two main reasons:
– First of all, it’s not natural. As Jesus notices, we love our friends and those who do good to us. Love thrives in a circle of giving and receiving that increases mutual affection on both ends.
– But thinking about it, it is not the first time Jesus asks something “supernatural” of us so we might be able to fully grow into disciples: Leave your family, sell your possessions, be ready for persecutions…
– What makes this Gospel very difficult is that we know that love for the enemies can be dangerous, individually and as a nation: Should we leave the criminals unpunished? Not respond in case of military aggression? Let people hit us / hurt us?
Is this Gospel an invitation to maintain abusive relationships?
We know about cases of love for the enemies / for those who harm us that exist in human relationships, especially true for women and children (does not mean it does not happen to grown men as well): By a sort of a complicated coping strategy, we can get attached sentimentally or even romantically to those who hurt us: Family members, lovers, friends. Because they hurt us, we think we have done something wrong and so we try to “repair” by pleasing/ loving them even more, but of course the only thing that happens is that we only get hurt again and again. Ever been in that kind of dynamic?
So for all those reasons, when we have a text that promotes the “love for the enemies” and moreover a text understood as the word of God, we really need to be careful because it can lead to dangerous conclusions.
So how can we understand it?
Well, I was taught in school that when confronted to a difficult text there are different ways to deal with that: You can try to understand the culture of the time, you can try to look at the circumstances in which those words have been spoken, you can look up different translations, you can try to find other passages that would bring some perspective to the difficult one and so on…All of those tools to help us to make sense of the difficulties. I used to do flash cards about them, until I had a teacher who told us that the first thing we have to do to understand the Gospel is to understand how Jesus interpreted his words in his own life.
First thing we have to do is to understand how Jesus interpreted what he said with his own life / because when he calls us to be disciples he also calls us to play out, to interpret the Gospel with our own lives and so it can also be helpful to see how all those who have followed Jesus throughout the ages have themselves played out the Gospel with their own lives and, for this reason, I could not be more thankful that today we are invited to understand how MLK interpreted this Gospel with his own life.
The love for the enemies was a central Gospel in the life of MLK. He said he tried to preach this Gospel at least once a year and he would go back to his sermon over and over to bring more depths and perspective based on what he lived personally and in his ministry. And when we look at MLK we certainly don’t see somebody who was shy or weak or who thought you should not stand up for yourself and accept abusive situations! Quite the opposite, MLK is actually well known and beloved because he consecrated all his life fighting for civil rights, end racism and discrimination and bring social justice! Like Jesus, MLK was not afraid of anybody, he was never resigned, he resisted and he said exactly what he had to say to whomever he had to say it! And still, MLK told us over and over in his sermon that he did all of this in the love of his enemies and even more, out of love for his enemies, to redeem his enemies – which is a great mystery.
To explore that, maybe we need to have a look at the OT, and this passage where God calls Moses to deliver the people who are enslaved in Egypt. If you know the book of Exodus, you know that Moses, although a Hebrew, was raised in the house of Pharaoh and so he comes to discover later in life what’s going on with his people and how they are treated. It enrages him so much, that he kills the first taskmaster he sees mistreating one of his people. But then he gets afraid and flees to Midian, where he starts to live a simple life and it is much, much later that God calls him to go back to Egypt to set the people free.
Well, I think this lapse of time is about Moses’ transformation from the natural way of revenge / reciprocated violence to the love for the enemies, when he is finally able to let go of violence and instead talk with Pharaoh and stand firm in front of him. We are able to hear God and we are good leaders for the people when we renounce the cycle of violence. [Violence is not using force (to protect) it is using force to hurt and destroy] MLK said violence does not solve anything. “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, 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 non violent person, far from being weak, is actually the strongest one. More than that, when you renounce violence, it makes you a man or a woman of God. You cannot do nothing for God out of hate. We can be angry. Jesus was angry sometimes. MLK was angry. But they were not hateful.
We are called to persevere in the way of love – Turn the other cheek – it’s not about letting people hit us, it is about not responding to an insult by another insult. Basically what Jesus tells us about our enemies: Do not imitate them, do not let their ways be your ways, do not let them turn you into someone else. We talked these past weeks of Jesus being a child of God (Christmas) and then us becoming children (baptism) now it’s about persevering in being a child of God by keeping on loving. Besides, as bad as people can be, MLK reminds us that they too are children of God and we have to love them for that.
The good news is that this love Jesus talks about is about doing, not about how we feel, whether we genuinely can’t stand our enemies or whether we are unhealthily attached to them. Maybe we think: Well, I can’t help feeling what I feel. Maybe we can’t, but the kind of love Jesus is talking about is not about feelings, it is about what we do and we can control what we do. MLK tells us that Jesus does not ask us to like our enemies, to be attached to them, but loving is to do what is right. And it is not only by not hitting back, but it is also by positive actions, like in showing/ telling our enemies how they wrong us. How they need to change.
And it is only when we renounce violence that we can communicate that. In doing so, we can redeem bad people. I was amazed to discover that MLK said that his ministry was as much about defending African American’s rights than it was about converting white people. He loved his people so much that he wanted freedom for them but he also loved white people so much he wanted them to turn back to God. True freedom is about social justice and equal rights, but more deeply it is about freedom from sin and finding or maintaining the ability to love.
Love for the enemies: Hardest love but maybe the deepest. Love that points out to another dimension. I visited MLK museum in Memphis and it was very touching to enter his room in the Motel where he was assassinated. And I thought when I left: this is tragic but strangely it does not bring you down. As Jesus’s death. It does not give you a sense that MLK’s enemies won in the end. Even if MLK was killed, his enemies were defeated by the beauty and meaningfulness of his life and by all the hope he brought to the people. I love it that we remember MLK during the Epiphany season / the season of the light because his life was about bringing light to the people. It makes us want to have a life as rich and meaningful. It points towards something that is more important than death/ beyond death.
This week: Not trying to have positive feelings for those who hurt us but how could we do good / bless / pray for them in the way Jesus and MLK showed us?