Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
What do you see when you think of God? An old man seated on a throne? A brilliant light? Beauty in the world? Perhaps you picture the famous 15th century icon by Andrei Rublev of the Holy Trinity? Three figures: Father, Son and Holy Spirit seated around a table inviting you to join them? Today’s scripture confronts us with a startling image with power to make you sit up in bed from a sound sleep. Look for God, Jesus says, in the face of your enemy.
“I say to you…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). Don’t do to others as they do to you but do to them as you would have them do. Not only Jesus but also the Psalmist exhorts us to “refrain from anger, and forsake wrath,” because “fretting” over evil only leads to more evil. (Psalm 37:8). In our first reading too, when the tables are turned and Joseph holds power over his brothers who faked his death and sold him into slavery, he says to them: “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
Love of enemies may be the hardest of Jesus’ commandments, but it hardly comes as a surprise. Yes, Christianity insists on forgiveness. Yet I think forgiveness is something about which we are often confused. Forgiveness is not denial. Forgiveness isn’t a detour or a shortcut. Forgiveness is not instantaneous. Forgiveness ideally leads to reconciliation and restoration of relationship, but not always. Forgiveness is necessary and life-giving for us when reconciliation is not possible or even desirable.
The sainted Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, “We can’t create a world without pain or loss or conflict or hurt feelings, but we can create a world of forgiveness. We can create a world of forgiveness that allows us to heal from those losses and pain and repair our relationships” (Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu. “The Book of Forgiving,” p. 224). The architect of the Truth and Reconciliation Process in South Africa knew about forgiveness.
Tutu said forgiveness begins with telling our story and in naming the hurt. “There is no way of living with other people without, at some point, being hurt… The response to hurt is universal. Each of us will experience sadness, pain, anger, or shame. What so often happens is we step unaware into the revenge cycle… If we cannot admit our own woundedness, we cannot see the other as a wounded person who harmed us out of ignorance. We must reject our common humanity” (Desmond Tutu, The Book of Forgiving, pp. 49-51). When we tell our stories and name our hurt, we become able to face our suffering. When we face into and accept our pain, we start to recognize that we don’t have to stay stuck in our story. In the way of the cross, Jesus has shown us how to metabolize our hurts and suffering to strengthen the bond of connection and community among us.
In loving the enemy what we discover is that forgiveness is a pathway to our own healing and liberation. In her popular memoir, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes that withholding forgiveness is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die. Forgiveness is choosing to live with love instead of resentment. And something else, forgiveness builds trust. Our faithful effort to love the enemy and to forgive has consequences for people and lives surrounding us which can be measured in neighborliness, in respectfulness, and in safety. I believe Immanuel’s decades-long ministries with young families and youth in which strangers become neighbors, allies, and friends has strengthened bonds of community in Edgewater in ways people can feel just walking down the street or lingering in the park. It has done this even as American culture has become dominated by a climate of fear which distorts the human faces in front of us into monsters, magnifies our own pain, and obstructs that of others.
Democracy is a way of life built on respect for the dignity of each individual. Dignity and respect cannot be taken for granted. It must be taught. It must be modeled. It is the product of a life-long commitment to love the neighbor, including our enemies. It is fruit which cannot be grown and tasted without forgiveness. Our secular democracy is faltering. It needs our help and faithfulness. Let your heart and mind be so transformed in Christ Jesus that even strangers around you become neighbors, allies, and friends. Bonds of social trust are extended and strengthened.
Imagine if neighborhood watch programs no longer emphasized surveillance and reporting of suspicious activities to the police but focused on joint neighborhood activities and mutual assistance instead. Imagine a future in which crime rates are reduced. Imagine prisons without bars, chains, or locks. Imagine a criminal justice system that allows inmates to leave for work or school. It sounds too good to be true—doesn’t it? Yet there is such a place on earth right now where these things are a daily reality.
In the 1970’s U.S., policymakers got “tough on crime” and declared a War on Drugs. “They cemented excessive punishment in a system that has devastated Black and brown communities with mass incarceration.” Since then, the U.S. prison population has grown tenfold to 2 million people. Meanwhile, Finland has one of the lowest prison populations in the world — the number hovers around 3,000 — and one-third of its prisons operate as open—without bars or locks. (Natalie Moore, “How Finland is Reimagining Incarceration,” WBEZ, 11/15/21)
The love we learn here, your acts of faith and discipleship, can have a profound impact on the wider community. We are not made for evil but for goodness. “God is always and everywhere in the business of taking the worst things that happen to us, and going to work on them for the purposes of multiplying wholeness and blessing. Because God is in the story, we can hope for the resurrection of all things… As Jesus promises his listeners, the measure we give will be given back to us: “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over” (Luke 6:38). Because God loves us, we don’t have to forgive out of scarcity. We can forgive out of God’s amazing abundance” (Debi Thomas, “The Work of Forgiveness,” Journey with Jesus 2/13/22).
“The work of forgiveness is some of the hardest work we can do in this world. It is also some of the most important work we can do in this world. So. May we stop drinking the poison of incivility and bitterness. May we glimpse the “better selves” that reside within the people who do us harm. May we rise. And may we taste the full measure of the freedom that awaits us when we choose to forgive.” (Thomas)