In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – Amen.
There’s a story that goes around the Episcopal Church from time to time. I cannot attest to its truth, but it’s a good story, so I’m going to tell it just the same. In the weeks after 9/11, there was a priest who decided to pray for Osama Bin Laden, by name, in church. His parishioners were, understandably, quite upset at this development, but rather than coming to talk to him about it, they called the bishop. The bishop, himself distressed to hear this news, immediately called the priest to ask what the heck he thought he was on about. “Well, bishop,” the priest answered slowly, “I guess I figured when Jesus told us to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us, He meant it.” [Editor’s note: After preaching this sermon, a retired pastor came up to me in the receiving line to tell me he lost his job after praying for Ho Chi Minh in 1969. So even if this specific story didn’t happen, stories like it did.]
Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. This is one of the hardest teachings in the whole Bible. How can Jesus ask us to love those who hate us, who revile us, who would erase our very existence if they could? Surely, he can’t have had much experience with enemies. If he knew, just how evil men like Osama Bin Laden, Timothy McVeigh, Dylan Roof, Adolf Hitler were, He would make an exception. He would understand that there are some enemies who are just impossible to love.
But Howard Thurman, an early 20th-century African-American theologian, who heavily influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., reminds us that Jesus was himself someone who had enemies. He knew what it was like to be hated because of his race. He knew what it was like to have enemies who reviled him, who would erase his existence if they could. And boy did they try! Not just on the Cross – think about it – from Jesus’s earliest infancy, Herod sought to have him murdered. So Jesus knew about hate.
How then, could he offer this teaching? How could he ask this Herculean task of us when he knew just how miserable living under this kind of hatred and degradation was? And I think the answer has to do with just how far the word love has strayed from its original meaning. You see, love, in the Scriptures, isn’t a feeling. It’s not about feeling warmly toward a person, or thinking well of them. Love, for Jesus, is an action. And it’s an action that every human being is due.
Most Christians, even most people, are aware of the golden rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Fewer of us are aware that the golden rule comes to us from Leviticus. Yes, Jesus was quoting Leviticus, that much-maligned and little read book of the Bible, which gives us this gem at the end of the long paragraph we hear today which demonstrates what that love looks like. Love doesn’t look like a feeling. It doesn’t look like choosing the company of someone. Love looks like justice. Or, as Dr. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
You can see it in our reading today. Love looks like leaving the edges of our fields for the poor and for the alien. Love looks like dealing fairly, and not committing fraud. It looks like respecting and caring for the deaf and the blind. It looks like taking a loss rather than profiting at the expense of our neighbors. Wow. And I thought loving our enemies was hard. Just even loving our neighbors in this way is a challenge!
Love, the action, is often challenging for us precisely because it isn’t a feeling. It isn’t about being nice to people we already know and like. It isn’t about moseying along with the status quo as long as we weren’t trying to hurt anybody. Love is about the active pursuit of justice. And this includes justice for our enemies. Because you see, the moment we fail to love someone, even people who don’t deserve it, that is the moment we begin to treat them as something other. Something inhuman. Something not worth even basic respect and dignity. A monster. And that just isn’t true of any human being, nor is it wise, and I’ll tell you why.
There are two reasons why we must constantly be on our guard against dehumanizing our enemies: First, because the moment we set some category of human beings aside as being undeserving of our just actions, we allow ourselves to treat them cruelly. We allow ourselves to do things to them that we believe should never be done to any human being bearing the image of God. This is always wrong, both because of the pain and terror it causes them,and because it awakens something monstrous in ourselves. And that monster is not put easily back into its cage.
Second, because in setting aside some category of human beings as uniquely evil, we run the risk of ignoring the sins we commit, the faults we bear. We aren’t horrific monsters like those awful people, so we must be doing all right, we think. No matter what failings we might have, as long as we’re doing better than Osama Bin Laden, we might feel nothing more needs to be done, which is an obviously ridiculous position. I mean, we should strive for more than “just barely better than Osama Bin Laden,” right?
We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, and Jesus expands the idea of our neighbors, as a category, to include our enemies. And the love we are called to looks like justice. Now, that justice might look like accountability for crimes that have been committed. Loving our enemies doesn’t mean letting them walk all over us, or those vulnerable they are harming. But it does mean never allowing their hatred of us change the fact that God still loves them, and we should too.