The Hardest Commandment

This sermon was delivered first at Eventide worship on February 22, 2014, at Lufkin First UMC.

Matthew 5:38-48

 

38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.[a] 39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. 40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor[b] and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.

040405_rice_hmed_9a.grid-6x2

 

Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State for the United States under President George W. Bush, has a had an incredibly eventful life. She grew up in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960’s, one of the most explosive and volatile cities in the country during one of the most tumultuous times in American History. She tells her story in her book Extraordinary, Ordinary People:   A Memoir of Family. I myself haven’t read the book—it is on my backlist of “things I should probably read but haven’t gotten to yet”—but I remember when it came out a couple of years ago, and an NPR interview she gave about it.[1] What I remember most about it is this story she tells of her father.

Her father, John Rice, was a well-respected pastor of a Presbyterian church there in Birmingham, and both of her parents were well-respected educators in the community. Because of this, education loomed large in Condoleezza’s life, as her parents impressed upon her the notion that education is the best way out of a bad life situation. In 1963, the city erupted in conflict, she says, with riots, police abuse — and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in September, when four young girls were killed. One of them, Denise McNair, was just a few years older than Rice, and had been a playmate of hers. That was the turning point in the civil rights movement, and revealed much about the character of people around her, including her parents.

While Rice’s parents did get involved in the boycotts and some other protesting activities, they never marched in rallies. Rice says she overheard her parents discussing the marches, and John Rice’s decision to stay away. “My father was very clear about why he wouldn’t [march],” Rice says. “My dad was not someone who you would strike with a billy club and he wouldn’t strike back. It just wasn’t in him.” She goes on and says: “They would have hit him — meaning, the police. He would have fought back … and his daughter would have been an orphan.”

birmingham

I tell this story not to impugn anyone, or make anyone look bad. I have a lot of respect for former Secretary Rice and for her family. Her father’s decision was one I think was one of deep self-understanding, and I don’t begrudge him that. He knew that if he was hit, he was going to hit back, and there are few people I know that wouldn’t do the same when push came to shove.  Because he knew this about himself, he kept himself out of a situation that might cause him to lose the things that matter most to him. That was his choice to make, and it wasn’t an easy one.

Violent retaliation is something that is deeply ingrained in us, to the point that it’s almost instinct. We see it in nature constantly—violent aggression is seen in all species in various ways, be it for hunting, self-defense and preservation, and even within a group to establish dominance and superiority so as to secure a mate—and are we humans really any different?  Look hard enough and a common thread appears: survival. Animals use violent retaliation as a means to survive, to stay alive, and humans appear to be no different.  We are bred to be violent, to retaliate, because we are taught that that is usually the only thing standing between us and death. Someone hits you, you hit back, because if you don’t, they might keep attacking. Fear tends to be the root cause of violence because of perceived or real attacks that threaten survival.

Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS

This is why I don’t blame John Rice. He knew he would fall into that trap, which would mean his family would be threatened with death. Because he chose not to participate, though, it only highlights the importance of those rallies and marches. The people in those demonstrations had a strength that is all too rare. Dr. Martin Luther King called it the “strength to love.”

The philosopher Frederick Nietzsche believed that because Jesus preached that we should love our enemies, he asserted that the Christian religion was meant for the weak and cowardly, that Jesus and anyone who follows him is a hopeless and unrealistic idealist. I completely disagree. The truth is that it takes a lot more courage and bravery to retaliate non-violently than it does to retaliate violently. There is a huge risk involved in doing so. One could say that you risk everything in non-violence. Note that there is a distinction between non-violent retaliation and being a doormat. Being non-violent means of resistance is still resistance, but it’s resistance done with the ideal of love in mind. In choosing not to be violent in the face of extreme violence and aggression, you put yourself in the hands of God God’s self. Many who do risk non-violence lose their life in the process, or wind up gravely injured or in prison. The hardest commandment Jesus ever gave us was to love our enemy. It is so much easier to hate those who hate us.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Grant,” you say, “this is all fine, well, and good in theory, but the truth is, I don’t deal with enemies in my everyday life. I don’t live in Birmingham in 1963. I live in Lufkin in 2014. People aren’t threatening to burn down my house, or hit me with a fire hose, or run me out of town. Why are you telling us all this?” Well, this is true. We aren’t directly affected a lot of times on the macro-scale that I just described. This does not mean that violence does not affect us on our micro-scaled lives, no? We may not be facing Roman soldiers and the oppression of, and you may never face the oppression of racism personally, but that doesn’t mean oppression doesn’t exist here, in other ways that are not so organized.

kids-being-bullied4

The most easily available example is that of bullying in schools: How many of you were bullied in school? How many kids here have been bullied? Are being bullied? It doesn’t need to be physical bullying either—sometimes the hardest punch doesn’t come from a fist but with a word. I can speak from personal experience about bullying; I suffered from a bully when I was in high school. For the longest time I tried my best to take the high road, to not retaliate violently to the taunting and abuse that I received. Then one bad day I let down my defenses, and my violent instinct kicked in. I was tired of being hurt, so I reacted violently. I was in band, and this bully was on the drumline with me. I got angry, and I threw a bass drum mallet at him. I hit his leg. He had better aim, and got me in eye. I can testify though that sometimes, even if you stand up to a bully violently, it doesn’t end. Usually it only gets worse. Violent retaliation only escalates the circle of violence.

Bullies are the only violence we face in this world. Domestic violence is also a major issue, and often  times, a silent one. Let me give you some stats on domestic violence: [2]

  • Every 9 seconds in the US a woman is assaulted or beaten.
  • Around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime. Most often, the abuser is a member of her own family.
  • Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women—more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined.
  • Studies suggest that up to 10 million children witness some form of domestic violence annually.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 teenage girls who have been in a relationship said a boyfriend threatened violence or self-harm if presented with a breakup.
  • Everyday in the US, more than three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends.
  • Ninety-two percent of women surveyed listed reducing domestic violence and sexual assault as their top concern.
  • Domestic violence victims lose nearly 8 million days of paid work per year in the US alone—the equivalent of 32,000 full-time jobs.
  • Based on reports from 10 countries, between 55 percent and 95 percent of women who had been physically abused by their partners had never contacted non-governmental organizations, shelters, or the police for help.
  • The costs of intimate partner violence in the US alone exceed $5.8 billion per year: $4.1 billion are for direct medical and health care services, while productivity losses account for nearly $1.8 billion.
  • Men who as children witnessed their parents’ domestic violence were twice as likely to abuse their own wives than sons of nonviolent parents.

 

As you can see, this is a real issue. Violence is a cycle, and it perpetuates itself in ways that are often invisible to us. So how can we find the strength to love in a world that constantly assaults us with violence and hate? How can we find the strength to put down the sword, gun, the fist, or in my case a drum mallet, and face our enemies and say, “I’m not going to hit back, but I’m not going to step down either. I’m better than that, and so are you.” How do we do this? How do we live up to the hardest commandment, to love our enemies?

The first step to loving your neighbor is to have self-respect. You have to be able to love yourself. If you know anything at all about me, you should know that I have myself squarely in the bulls-eye here. Of all the things in the world that I have a hard time doing, it’s respecting myself, and loving myself, and I have a sneaking suspicion that many of you have the same problem. It’s not easy to have self-respect when you live in a world filled with other people who don’t have self-respect either. We are constantly told we are not good enough, either by the media, or by our interactions with others. Our culture, and shoot, our economy,  feeds on the idea that we are not good enough. Women are constantly told they are not pretty enough, not thin enough, not curvaceous enough, not smart enough, and that they are only worth something because of their bodies. Men are constantly told that they aren’t manly enough, they aren’t tough enough, cunning enough, handsome enough, strong enough, powerful enough, rich enough—I could go on. With all this swirling around, it’s no wonder we have problems respecting ourselves, let alone loving ourselves.

How do we turn this around? Read Genesis. The first chapter tells us that God created us, male and female, in the image of God. Not only that, he called us very good. We are all good and beautiful creations of God. Each and every one of us bears the image of God, and that means you. That means me. It’s so easy to forget that you bear the image of God, and because of that, God loves you and me. It’s not for anything that we do that God loves us. That’s not the way love works. We ought to love ourselves, and in turn, respect ourselves. We’re only able to love others when we know what love looks like.

The second thing you need in order to follow the hardest commandment is compassion. For some people, compassion comes easy—some people are just naturally more caring for others, more conscious of the needs and experiences of others. For the rest of us, compassion is not quite so easy to have. Compassion comes out of self-awareness, the ability to understand how you are feeling or thinking, and then why that is. Once you can do that, you can begin to have compassion. The word compassion comes from the latin root Com—with—and passio, which means to bear, or suffer. Literally, it means to bear with—to carry the burdens of others. It means making yourself available to put yourself in other people’s shoes, and see things from their perspective.

That sounds all fine well and good, but it’s a lot easier to have compassion for someone who is suffering than it is to have compassion for someone causing you to suffer. It’s easier to care for a homeless person than it is to care for the person that killed your spouse. Jesus, when he told the people to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and give more than is asked, was talking to a group of people that were downtrodden, outcasts, exiles. They were the dregs of society, the ones who were oppressed by Rome, an empire that had power, wealth, and dominance. On the surface, his advice seems mad to us—why have compassion on the one who makes your life hell? But look a little closer, and things become clearer.

In Jesus’s time, there were two things you can interpret the way someone is hitting another person. You could hit them straight on with a punch, right hand to left side of the face. To do this would mean that you are fighting them as an equal. The other way was to backhand slap them, right hand to right side of the face—this was an insult. It says that I am the master and you are a dog. You are worthless. You are nothing. When Jesus says to turn the other cheek, he says to turn from the right to the left, implying the backhanded slap. If someone were to do that, that would mean the only option the aggressor had was to attack you as if you were an equal. To turn the other cheek means to say, “You have nothing that can make me afraid. I am raising myself to your status, and if you hit me, you admit it. I know that you are not so different than me, and that you bear the image of God.” Turning the other cheek takes courage, because it exposes you to danger, but it also confronts the aggressor with the idea that their violence achieves nothing, and that it only makes them look worse. It makes them  look weak. It takes compassion to raise yourself to the level of another. It takes courage. It takes self-respect. It takes love.

The last thing you need to live up to the greatest commandment is faith. Self-Respect and compassion go a long way, but faith gives you a reason to do it. You have to have a lot of faith in God to be non-violent. You have to have faith that God is love, and that love is more powerful than any sword, any gun, any bomb, any weapon we can devise. And that’s hard, especially when conventional wisdom says you need to fight fire with fire. Jesus knew that if we do that, the only thing that happens is that everyone gets burned.

Faith is hope in the things we cannot see, and I will be frank: it’s hard to see a world different from ours, where we can rise above violence and live up to this hard commandment. Faith in God means faith that his Word is true, and love is power, love is strength, love is what will change the world.

Not only that, love is stronger when it’s shared. If you are abused, bullied, or a victim of violence, don’t be afraid to get help from someone else. Don’t be afraid to reach out. You have options and resources out there, but it may take someone’s help to get you there. If you know someone who’s abused or bullied, don’t be afraid to reach out to them, and help them. Love is multiplied when it’s shared by others.

I know I sound like a hippie right now, but I’m telling you the truth. Love actually is stronger than hate. God is stronger than any weapon we can devise. Love can make an enemy into a friend. It’s only when we love ourselves, it’s only when we respect ourselves, it’s only when we can have compassion for others, and it’s only when we have faith in something more powerful than any weapon that we can find the strength to love our enemy.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

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About grantimusmax

Grant Barnes, aka Grantimus Maximus, aka The Nerdcore Theologian. He is a graduate of Perkins School of Theology with a Masters Degree in Divinity. He is also a commissioned elder in the United Methodist Church, and Senior Pastor at Hemphill First United Methodist Church and Pineland United Methodist Church. He graduated from Texas State University Cum Laude with a Bachelor's degree in English, minor in History. He watches way too many movies, reads too many books, listens to too much music, and plays too many video games to ever join the mundane reality people claim is the "Real World." He rejects your reality, and replaces it with a vision of what could be, a better one, shaped by his love for God.
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One Response to The Hardest Commandment

  1. Michael Snow says:

    Charles Spurgeon had a heart of compassion that was ready to accept Christ’s command to love our enemies. http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

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