Some thoughts on who we are and Whose we are — and how we conduct ourselves.
New Revised Standard translation
Jesus said, “But to those of you who will listen, I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
“Hell no, I’m not going to pray for that #+%&*!” my friend exclaimed. Frank (not his real name) went on to list all of the sins and shortcomings attributed to the newly-elected President of the United States. As he continued, he leaned forward, his face grew red, and he clenched his fists — becoming angrier and angrier, fueled by his own words.
“Whoa, dude,” I said at length, “You need to chill.”
Frank looked surprised, and seemed to suddenly see me: his eyes focused on my face and his body relaxed. It was as if he had been somewhere else: out of his body and in another world far from this one.
A moment passed, my friend took a couple of deep breaths and began to resemble the man I know.
“That was.…” I paused to consider my words, “scary. You were like some Old Testament prophet, shouting and cursing.”
I went on, as if composing for the press: “The ordinarily mild-mannered young man was suddenly seized by the spirit, and marched into town, proclaiming his message for all to hear.”
Frank looked embarrassed, “Well, it is something I care about a lot. Those Trumpsters have to be stopped…”
“Elijah,” I said, “ordered the people to murder 450 people he didn’t like. And had the queen thrown from the palace window into the street below.”
Frank smiled, “Out you go, Melania.”
This from a devout vegan.
Frank is a good person and I don’t think he really meant that he would relish a bloody, violent death for Mrs. Trump, but his immediate response to the idea was glee. It was a reflex, an expression of an attitude that has become alarmingly common: Destroy “the enemy.”
This applies equally across the political spectrum (as well as, sadly, religious, racial, ethnic, and national divisions).
As you well know, I’ve repeatedly spoken out against this us-versus-them, victim-villain worldview. It harms our nation as well as us as individuals. It makes it impossible for people to come together on behalf of important issues such as health care, justice, and jobs because we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that “there is no common ground,” and thus no dialogue between us; no conversations, only suspicion. We have become small, ineffectual, special interest groups, easily controlled with a few well-chosen trigger phrases.
As destructive as it is to the process of democracy, that is not the worst of it. The true tragedy was exemplified by Frank’s honest response to a story of vengeance and violence: when we start to believe that it is OK for terrible things to be done to other people. What is happening is damaging to our souls.
This emphasis on taking sides — as if any human being can be categorized! — deludes us into believing that we are better than we are: “those people” are horrible and, therefore, by comparison, we are just this close [ ] to walking on water. It is a comforting, extraordinarily dangerous lie. As unlike “them” as night is to day, we can hate, demean, judge, and condemn — and even wish them harm — because “we” are on the side of the angels.
I seem to recall a story about hubris-filled angels slipping and sliding into Serious Trouble.
Further, at a little less than the half-way point of the last century, an entire populace was convinced that several million “others” were disposable, that the world would be better off without “those people.”
Be wary, now, that you don’t start pointing your finger at anyone. Remember who the finger-pointers were, in 1937. Has there not been an occasion of late when you have been told that “those others” are utterly without merit, morals, or value? After all, their minds are closed, their hearts are hard, they bring only suffering and pain; the world would be better off without them. Right? Have you not heard that view propounded anywhere? Can you honestly say you didn’t nod your head in agreement? Not once?
In our desperate desire to prove that we are “the good guys,” we’ve forgotten who we are — and Whose we are. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that “those other people” “aren’t like us”; they are evil, demonic, and don’t deserve a seat at the table. “They” can be excluded, ignored, shunned, abused, and ….
And what? Just how far into the abyss have we “angels” allowed ourselves to slide?
“But to those of you who will listen, I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
~ Luke 6:27-28
Talk about a “difficult teaching”! Christ’s Path is an especially changing one to follow now, when we are bombarded with messages that we should hate our enemies, gloat over their misfortunes, and wish them ill (“Just wait and see what happens to them!”). The worldly “powers” would divide us and debase us, encouraging our contempt rather than our compassion. Yet we say that we are all — all of us — children of the One God. We say that we are Christians; people of mercy, forgiveness, and lovingkindness. We’ve been called to preach the good news to all the world: even those who have fallen short of the glory of God. (Which can mean that we, ourselves, are in need of hearing that Message again. And again. And again.)
To pray for those who hate us — and for those whom we hate — is our pledge to the Lord to be merciful and compassionate. We’re going to try to be understanding, we’re going to try with all that is in us not to seek vengeance or wish others harm. We’re going to try to behave like Christians.
Beyond that, to pray for those we consider damaged and damaging is a statement of faith: we are affirming our belief that it is within God’s ability to revise and reform people and situations. Hardened hearts can grow tender, friendships can be renewed, communities can be healed. People can change, with God’s help.
(Can I get an “Amen”?)
To pray for those “others” is to begin opening the door of our own prison; when we start to accept them as fallible (and redeemable) human beings, we free ourselves from the necessity of having to remain constantly on the alert, ever-ready to jump into any discussion with anger and outrage, prepared to attack their character, belittle their concerns, and condemn their choices — which we ascribe to the lowest and meanest of reasons. Just letting go of that can bring great peace to our lives. Hatred draws a lot of energy from us; it is exhausting physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally.
When we pray for one another it doesn’t mean we agree on policies or plans, but that we recognize our common humanity (and shared divine origins). When we accept others as people, as other souls trying to make their way in this complicated world — rather than as demons or monsters — we will stop attacking one another, and start speaking to one another. And we will actually listen to what each other has to say.
We will show compassion.
It is not easy to swim against the tide of snark and cynicism and separatism. It takes prayer and practice to speak about what is right, rather than constantly focus on what is wrong. It requires strength, faith, and stamina to pray for our enemies — to believe that God can change lives, and to genuinely desire their transformation, to want it to be possible — even though it will eliminate those “others” who make us feel so holy and good by comparison.
Our task is to insist upon, inspire, and show forth what we know to be of Ultimate Importance: charity, compassion, mercy, justice, and generosity — and not just for the chosen few. Our graciousness is not to be conditional: we are to extend it to our enemies as readily and abundantly as to our friends.
Jesus said, “If you only love those who love you, what’s that prove? Even tax collectors do that much.”
~ Matthew 5:46
Jesus didn’t limit the Message; he didn’t exclude sinners or Samaritans, centurions or slaves, lepers or lapsed Jews, but blessed and healed and prayed for everybody. The Gospel is meant to be spread across the whole world, to shine like the sun on all people — the good and the bad alike. Living our faith is a supremely counter-cultural act.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
Pray for your enemies.