For about 15 years, one of my weekly rituals has been a run on Saturday morning at the UW Arboratum. 7 a.m. near the Seminole Highway entrance. 4 seasons. Anything above zero or that wasn’t a thunderstorm. I’ve shared this run with multiple running partners and it’s been something I cherish; something that grounds my week.
And yet, recently – because of the cold, travel and illness, I haven’t been out there much. In fact, yesterday was only the second time since mid December. And the thing about running – even if you have practice of running 6 miles a Saturday for 15 years – a few weeks away from it and you lose much of your fitness. So, while I had muscle memory, I didn’t have the fitness I would have liked. I have to work back into it. Past training isn’t for naught, but it doesn’t make today’s run magical.
It struck me that this is like a spiritual discipline or a spiritual practice – however long we’ve practiced them, if we slide away, we have to work ourselves back into them. That could be meditation, prayer, spiritual reading, singing…we need to keep at the practice for it to ground our lives.
In 2011, a friend and mentor of mine, Parker Palmer, wrote the book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. Some of you may have participated in a small group book series we held with this book. In addition, there was later a statewide effort sponsored by the Wisconsin Council of Churches using the same book– Season of Civility. Barb Hummel of this congregation, and I, let several workshops on the material for other faith and community leaders around the state.
The goal was to encourage congregations to sponsor discussion and action groups – within their congregations and/or communities. Over 400 people where trained, and there were some fun anecdotal stories.
But honestly, I don’t know how effective the effort was. I don’t know about others, but for me the reason was I viewed the trainings as an engagement STRATEGY. Like others, I was looking for tools, tactics and even worse, promises. I wanted something that would show me how to cross the divides. In our worst moments, some of those 400 people were looking for a spiritual justification to call their enemies stupid, out of touch, or mean hearted.
What I didn’t calculate was MY PART IN THE DIVIDES, then and now. It was easy to see the divides and it was easy to see problem areas in the perspectives of others. What was more difficult was my ability to see the degree to which those things that are central to my life and faith are part of the problem.
This is where our ancient Scripture text comes back to help us.
“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Mother who is in heaven… If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors (or conservative) do the same? And if you greet only your sisters and brothers, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles (and Republicans and Russians) do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Mother is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
Mahatma Gandhi found the Sermon on the Mount – from which this passage comes- so important that he read twice a day for the last 40 years of his life. He considered these texts the greatest writings on nonviolence in the history of the world.
Catholic priest and theologian, John Dear writes, “We can never talk about this commandment enough. For me, it sums up Christianity. If we do this, we will obey Jesus fully, because it encompasses everything — reflecting God’s universal love, working for disarmament, seeking justice for the poor, practicing forgiveness, living in hope and trusting in the God of peace. I’ve long considered it the most radical, political, revolutionary words ever uttered. And by and large, for the last thousand years at least, we’ve done our best to avoid them and disobey them.”
I’ve never understood why Christians do not take this commandment seriously. We Catholics believe in transubstantiation, and never question that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. We eagerly obey the command, “Do this in memory of me.” But love our enemies? When I raise this commandment, the general response I get is: “Are you nuts?” When will we believe in the transformation of enemies into friends?
What’s so shocking is that Jesus commands us to love our enemies not just because it’s right; not just because it’s moral; and not because it’s the only practical solution; but because God loves God’s enemies. This is the nature of God. Jesus wants us to be “sons and daughters of your God in heaven, for God makes God’s sun rise on the bad and on the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and on the unjust.
The text uses the Greek word “agape.” Unlike any word in the English language, “agape” calls for deliberate, unconditional, non-retaliatory, sacrificial, all-encompassing, all-inclusive, nonviolent universal love, a love that lays down our lives for others.
Mid 20th century Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr also spoke to the power of loving our enemies by pointing out that it was it possible (and necessary) to address this task.
He critiqued the tendency to conceive of love as eros, which is ego-driven and thus limited in its ability to extinguish the hatred that invariably exists between those who oppose each other, making the demand to love your enemy not only morally absurd but psychologically impossible. In this understanding, the only way forward, then, is to avoid conflict altogether.
Agape, on the other hand, understands love as moving the individual beyond the ego to something transcendent — in the New Testament it is the kingdom of God; for MLK it was the beloved community, or simply a more perfect union.
Herein lies the genius Niebuhr saw: “We are not told to love our enemies because…they will love us in return, but because the good of our enemies is always bound to that transcendent ideal of which we are also a part.”
The only way to embrace that ‘transcendent ideal’ is to live with an awareness that such agape love is always a holy and sacred gift. It’s emergence in our lives is part of our spirituality, not our social strategy. It emerges from prayer, from letting go of our need to control and manage. It comes from embracing the mysteries that are outside of us.
Loving your enemy is not an act of will, but an act of prayer. John Dear again, “In prayer, we feel the infinite love of God and are stirred to love ourselves and others, even our enemies. We give God our inner violence and resentments, our hurts and anger, our pain and wounds, our bitterness and vengeance. We grant clemency and forgiveness toward those who have hurt us and move from anger, vengeance and violence to compassion, mercy and nonviolence. In prayer the sense we have of God’s embrace is renewed and we are moved to pass it on to all others, whether they love us or not.”
Seeking to understand and live with an Agape love is neither easy nor limited to our Christian tradition. Recently, on the podcast, OnBeing, there was an interfaith conversation between a Jewish Rabbi and a Muslim imam. Both were speaking to the challenges of our times, the rise in hate and the decrease in our ability to live peacefully amidst ‘the other.’
Imam Antepli was the first Muslim chaplain at Duke University, where he now serves as the Chief Representative of Muslim Affairs and as an adjunct professor of Islamic studies. In this interview he asked, “How do we rebuild our immune system? What’s hurting us more and what’s more and more visible is that our immune system is deteriorating. Our ability to resist and detect hate is declining; the wider community is losing its immune system. The ‘cancer’ of hate is not getting stronger, but it is making us weaker, (to the point that) even a small dose is destroying us.
A spiritual immune system speaks to the kind of community in which we live; and the practices and interactions of that community. Is our community seeking the good of all or simply decrying the evil of the other?
How are the surrounding systems of our lives boosting our immune system towards hate, and how are they fueling it with anxiety and agitation? What are we doing, individually and within our small world to explore the cancer of hate and division near us? This is a spiritual practice, even to ask such questions.
Boosting our immune system requires some honest scrutiny of our lives. Again, the Imam: “It’s not true to say that ISIS, people in ISIS, are not Muslims and that their ideology has no connection to Islam…The solution to the ills and the evils of our communities is not disowning them.
The solution is not to divorce ourselves from our moral responsibility. We have to own this cancer, and we have to confront it prayerfully and powerfully, … and we have to name the way it shakes the social, political, and cultural ground under our feet. Those well-meaning Muslims, whenever they say, “No, it has nothing to do with Islam,” they don’t realize how much they look like an ostrich hiding his head on the sand, unfortunately.
The real moral conversation is to put up an honest mirror, to put yourself into a CAT scan, and see what the report is. What is in you, in your community? How much true moral energy and commitment and drive is behind what you do, and how much of is this shallow politics, playing to fear and difference?”
We have to improve the level of self-critical moral awakening, moral courage, in our communities. Quite possible the greatest act of moral courage – is to see even in our enemy the reality of the sacred.
If this is true – the spark of God that is in me exists in the other. To say this, to believe this, is not to minimize the struggle. To own this, is however, to see it as a spiritual practice to be developed, nurtured, struggled through and embraced.
This is both a personal and communal journey. We do not ‘arrive’ at this practice of loving our enemies easily. The power of hate, the practice of othering, the pain of being hated are all too powerful, too present, too potent to be easily shed.
As we move towards the season of Lent this week – we are lifting up some themes and some resources we hope will help in this journey.
Thematically we will explore encounters with Jesus all season in which the subjects of the story are seen and heard and known in the deepest way possible. We’ll explore what Cynthia Bourgeault, in her book, The Wisdom Jesus, calls the ‘mutual recognition’ in encounters with Jesus. We’ll explore how just as Jesus saw to the heart of people – their reactions, questions and resistance often helped him define himself more clearly as well. We’ll listen to one another as we remember when and how we came to know the Divine Spirit moving within us – even if the customs and patterns of our own families and backgrounds tried to deny it. We’ll try to lift up that as all of us – biblical characters and us – see and name something holy within – we are more able and willing to see the holy in others. Even our enemies.
Secondly, we’ve created a devotional. Each day there is a very simple prayer/greeting accompanied by a picture. The prayer is offered as a simple way to start or end our day – remembering that there is something of God in all of us. The hope is that reading, absorbing and maybe even sharing that prayerful greeting with one another will be a part of a practice of prayer and intention.
We can’t promise miracles, but if Wisdom traditions, and the words and life of Jesus in particular, teach us anything, it is that if we are to ever embody love for enemy, we must start where we are, practice, reflect, lament, pray and start again.
We want it to be easy and clear. It will not be, it never has been. But might we be a community that honestly seeks something more loving than the culture around us? Might we be a community that is willing to address our own immune system before criticizing someone else’s? Might we attend first to our own spiritual practices as a first step in our resistance to the violence and hate around us? Might our life of prayer take us deeper into the practice of loving our enemies, rather than being a practice that justifies our positions and attitudes?
Who are the specific or the general enemies in your life?
Can we start with praying for them?
Can we start with acknowledging there is something of God in them?
Can we sit with that for a period of time, see what that feels like?
Can we feel the pulse of the Spirit in our hearts, the Winds of the Divine in our breath?