An Unreasonable Faith!
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3: 10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5: 38-48
Theology is the art of speaking reasonably about faith. The word ‘theology’ is made up of two Greek words, theos, meaning god and, logos, meaning reasoned words. Theology is the logical explanation of God. Well today I want to focus on the unreasonableness of the Christian faith. It is another instance of Jesus raising the bar, so to speak, and expecting us to jump higher.
Over the past two Sundays I have spoken about how the real temple of God is formed by the assembly of faithful people and that God expects us to grow spiritually. The lectionary texts set for this Sunday include these themes of temple and growth. But the prime theme is loving our neighbour. It’s in the very fabric of the Christian life. Christianity without love would not exist. The foundation of the Faith is God’s love for Creation. Love pulsates through the veins of Christian faith. Like blood is to our physical body so love is to the body of Christ, the Church. Love carries the energy, the life force and the fuel that sustains and renews the Body of Christ. No wonder the Epistle of John declares that God is love and that s/he who does not love others does not love God [1 Jn 4: 7-9].
The church had put a new poster up on its notice board in 2007. It had only been up two days and it had created a very wide-ranging reaction. The journalist who contacted me thought it was brilliant. The photographer, who clicked away endlessly first at me and then the policeman examining the signboard, thought it was brilliant. A passer-by on a bicycle stopped to convey his approval lambasting some radio journalist’s denigration of the poster.
Yes the police were there. They were taking fingerprints. Well the poster had been up for two days and someone disapproved strongly. They jemmied open the display board and took it away! This was the poster: JESUS LOVES OSAMA. That is Osama bin Laden, the founder of al Qaeda, who claimed responsibility for 9/11 attack. The poster included Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us [Mt 5:44]. The latter was in small print. When I saw the poster I was not keen for it to go up. My reason was simply that I didn’t like the implication that “Osama bin Laden” was possibly the worst person on the earth. Then someone convinced me that it should go up, because they didn’t want it to go up. Their reason was that God does love everyone, … but … well … “Isn’t Osama, a bit too much?” That was their response. They struggled with what the poster was saying, but they recognized the truth behind it. I knew then that it had to go up. You see this value – love your enemies – is the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity. That’s what God did in Christ! God in Christ does love people like Osama, the terrorists, the politicians, the journalists, the refugees and … even us nice people. God loves us all.
It was quite amazing time. People reacted I had so many conversations about God, justice and love following that posters display in the shopping strip. Few could imagine that God’s love included such a terrible person as Osama bin Laden. A good few came to recognise the full nature of God’s love. The logic of God began to emerge.
At the time I returned to my earlier thoughts about the political and military response to the terrorists. I wondered what would have happened if the USA administration had decided to love their 9/11 enemies. I wondered what that might mean in international political terms. I not suggesting that they should have overlooked the evil act, but what if they had approached the situation with more consideration. Of course, hindsight is merely hindsight. The deed has been done. The Middle East has been destabilised. Countless people are paying the price.
Is Jesus being unreasonable in expecting us to love our enemies? We struggle enough with the concept of loving our neighbours let alone our enemies. From our human perspective loving our enemies is unacceptable. We destroy our enemies. We want to neutralise them. In fact we just want to destroy their threatening power even if it means killing them. That is why they are our enemies. You destroy your enemies. Jesus says, love your enemies.
Let us try and get our heads around this teaching of Jesus. I always think it is good to remind ourselves that loving is not liking. I like my friends. In general I like people. But liking is not loving. ‘Like’ describes sharing the same characteristics or qualities, whereas ‘love’ describes strong feelings of affection, pleasure or intimacy with someone or thing.
Love in the Bible takes on a richer meaning. Our dictionaries pick it up too. Love includes the notion of unselfish compassion for others’ well being, and this is manifested in charity, benevolence, kindness and justice. The Bible speaks of loving our neighbour in the same sense. The Leviticus reading tells us that a holy God expects holiness from God’s people. That holiness code, just like the Ten Commandments, includes right worship of God, good family and community relationships, provision for the poor and aliens in your region, honest business relationships and justice for all. The all this is summed up in the command to love your neighbour as yourself because of God. Read Leviticus 19 again.
So how do we love our enemies? I have had responsibility for groups and organisations long enough to experience the ugliness of people towards me. In a couple of instances the reaction to me could be described as hatred. In the one instance I was in a position of authority with the support of 99% of the people deciding to do something, which an individual strongly opposed. The other I had challenged the status quo. Now I am not going into a detailed analysis, because I am not trying to justify my actions. Anyway that would not be fair and could not be done justly without an extensive hearing from all sides in those situations. The point I want to share is firstly that I have experienced hatred and injustice, and most importantly I want to share what the Christian Faith has taught me.
As much as I want to dislike these people and get them back, I have done the following.
Firstly, I have prayed that I might forgive them. Not easy to do. I think it is only possible with God’s help. But I cannot ignore the prayer Jesus gave us, which includes this telling request; forgive us our sin as we forgive those who sin against us. We pray it every Sunday. I hope you pray the Lord’s Prayer everyday.
The second thing I have done and will do is give justice to those who have hurt me. They are entitled to fairness and justice. Though it was possible in one case in particular to punish the individual by sidelining them I didn’t. I argued for their full inclusion in the affairs of the organisation. I am not saying it is easy to do this. But logically it is the right thing to do. Pastorally it is the most helpful thing to do for the group or organisation. There is nothing more disruptive than the sense of injustice in a company of people. Even if the injustice can be rationalised. For example, although there are rational reasons for torturing the enemy it is inhuman and unjust and finally disruptive to the integrity of our society. Right now I think we have in this nation and in many nations a sense of injustice in the way society works. Injustice of any sort does not add to the ‘health’ of any society. If prayer is the first thing we do when we are subject to hurt, injustice, hatred and rejection, then the next is that we act fairly to those who are our ‘enemy’.
The third thing we do is continuing to be courteous to them in our daily interaction. Our discourteousness or ignoring of the ‘enemy’ is merely a form of punishment and rejection.
Fourthly we need to continue to respect them because they too have been created in God’s image. I am not suggesting that respect should become liking. Neither am I suggesting that we overlook the hurt, rejection, injustice or hatred received. I speak here of a basic sense of respect. Our enemies are human beings like us. Respect their humanity. When we fail to respect another’s humanity we enter the slippery slope of becoming inhuman ourselves. When we inflict pain on those who have hurt us we become like them. We loose our sense of humanity and our dignity.
When we have prayed, offered justice, been courteous and respectful we have moved more easily to the point where we can forgive. Now forgiveness follows an apology and restitution. But before we can accept an apology or some form of restitution for the wrong directed at us, we need to be willing to forgive. Again I would add that forgiveness is not overlooking the wrong, but acknowledging the wrong first and accepting the regret for what has been done.
When there seems to be no hope of any reconciliation, then we must be strong and continue to be fair, courteous and respectful of our enemies, without condoning their action. Otherwise we will merely become like them.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 19/02/2017