11-2-16 - Blessing the Enemy

Conflict saps our energy. Sustained conflict can drain our spirits dry. Many of us have been living with high levels of bitterness on our social media feeds and airwaves. Even those who have pared their lists of friends or followers to the like-minded cannot escape the chasms of division that seem to be widening in our land. “This is not who we are as Americans,” we cry, even as we lament the fact that we no longer seem able to agree on what that means.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt." (This week's gospel passage is here.) 

The Way that Jesus invited people to walk in was, and is, unnatural for human beings. It is natural to protect yourself and those whom you love, to punish or retaliate when attacked, to hold on to your stuff and decide when and to whom you are going to give your shirt. Yet followers of Christ are called to the super-natural. We are asked to give beyond our natural capacity – and so to ever expand our capacity for giving until we have no more “mine,” just “yours, God.”

What happens when we love someone who hates us, who desires harm for us? We bless them, and thus bless ourselves. We make a space for love where there didn’t appear to be any. We trust that someone will be touched and transformed by that love – maybe the self-declared enemy, or an observer, or we ourselves, even as we risk injury or death in the physical realm.

What happens when we pray for someone who abuses us? This is painful ground for many, and it cannot be rushed. When we can come to that place, though, we make space for freedom – in our own spirits, in our interactions. We might even create space for perpetrators to come to repentance and healing.

But are we really to let someone hit us twice? Are we not to defend ourselves? Of all Jesus’ hard sayings, perhaps this has been most often twisted against victims of violence. I do not believe Jesus is talking about relationships here; I think he is talking to peacemakers and protesters and makers of justice. If in those contexts we refuse to engage in violence, we model the peace we are proclaiming. We subvert the aggressors and strengthen others to stand against injustice.

And when we give our shirt to one who steals our coat, we proclaim our confidence in God’s provision, and we say to that one “You are worth more than my possessions. And you are better than this.” Will that person listen? That’s not up to us. Our call is to bear witness.

Can I live like this? I don’t know. I have appreciated this opportunity to go a little deeper into a text I have never really mined, to remember that God has given us more than we deserve and forgiven us more than we can ever comprehend. And I know that with God all things are possible, even living this way.

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