Like many friends, Alison and Katie were different from each other. Alison was tall and slender, while Katie was short and muscular. Alison loved to dance, while Katie love to play sports. Alison was polite, while Katie was rough around the edges.
One day at the park, Katie challenged Alison to a game of king of the hill on the climbing structure. The tall Alison ran and made it to the top first, but Katie fought her way up and pushed Alison off the top. Alison slipped and fell; she landed on her back, and got the wind knocked out of her. When Alison got her breath back, she lashed out with, “That was not fair! I got there first, and you just pushed me out of the way.” But, Katie laughed it off, and proclaimed her victory. With hurt feelings, Alison walked away in silence.
The battle between Alison and Katie had started. The next day, Alison and Katie talked to their friends but not to each other. Alison told her friends that Katie was mean and a big bully. Katie told those same friends that Alison was a weak baby. After a few days, the girls’s friends were fed up. “I’m am so tired of their fighting,” one girl said. “Yeah, they will yell at us but they won’t talk each other,” another replied. “I don’t want to talk to either of them until they get this straightened out,” they all agreed.
On Saturday, both girls felt alone. Finally, Alison got up enough courage to call Katie. “I’m sorry I got mad at you,” she told Katie. “I said some things that weren’t very nice about you to our friends. You won the game; you’re stronger than I am.”
“Alison,” Katie answered. “You’re stronger than I am. After all, you were the one to reach out and call me. I didn’t have the courage to do that.”
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
When I think of loving my enemies, I usually think of great evil war lords, far, far away. Enemies are distant forces with whom I have no power, the big war machines operating behind the closed door of distant oppression. But what if enemies are much closer to home? Like Katie and Alison. Good friends, classmates, who turned a mistake into a deep divide, pushing these friends away from each other, and dividing their larger circle of friends.
There is a saying, ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’ I had to look up where this saying came from and was shocked to find that it is attributed, in these words, first to Michael Corleone, in the Godfather. I have never even seen the movie! I heard it from a pastor with whom I studied. It was how he approached conflict in the church.
Our text today is not particularly difficult to understand. 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.
It is difficult to do.
We live in a culture where winning is important. Strength is admired. We are not far removed from the playground where Katie and Alison played king of the hill. They did not do good to each other. When one lashed out, the other walked away. They did not bless each other in that moment. They did not give up their pride because of love.
There is much to say about loving our enemies on a world stage. There is much to say about justice and world peace. But today, let’s stay close to home. This is the place where we can take our first steps in loving our enemies. Here we can practice our real-world skills in building the bridges which start one relationship at a time. The enemies we are going to talk about today are under our own roofs – friends, family, church family.
It seems to me that there are two movements in loving an enemy.
The first movement of loving an enemy is taking a look at ourselves. It is always wise to consider working with one’s self first – the only person we really can change. Let’s look at Alison for a moment. Some of us, myself included, see her as the one who was wronged on the playground. Katie pushed and bullied her without remorse. But Alison had the courage to look at her own behavior. She realized that she, too, had been unloving. She had protested that Katie was not fair. She had bought into the value that winning is everything, and she was not willing to concede in the spirit of play. She passed along negative rumor-speech about Katie – she talked about Katie behind her back. She tried to build a posse of anti-Katie people. She started to build her army, of sorts. She had turned Katie into an enemy.
Alison looked into her own heart and saw all this. And she had amazing courage to call Katie. And when she called, Alison did the brave thing and admitted what she had done wrong.
So often we are paralyzed when we see that we have done something wrong. We feel shame. And if we let shame get a foothold, we will put up more and more barriers to protect ourselves from feeling this most difficult of emotions. We will begin to withdraw or we will lash out. It is what humans do.
But Jesus is saying that there is another option. We can admit our wrong-headedness, put it out there, be honest about it. Then we can forgive ourselves and be forgiven. Then shame loses its power.
It goes like this: Suppose a person is accused in public of immoral behavior. The person has a couple of options. One is to deny the accusation. Another is to withdraw and say nothing. But another option is to speak the truth. It is embarrassing. But when the truth is on the table, shame no longer drives our behavior. ‘Yes, this is true. I can do better. And it is my intention to do better.’
Essentially, this is what Alison said to her friend Katie. ‘I was wrong. I can do better. I don’t want to be the rumor-merchant any more.’ Once the thing was said, there was a solid, real foundation to continue the conversation.
Alison is my hero! She had so much courage! Katie recognized that too. She admitted that Alison was stronger than her, because she had the courage to call, and Katie didn’t.
The other movement of loving an enemy is empathy. Now that we have looked at ourselves, we can begin to imagine what it might be like to be on the other side of the situation. Once we know that we have blame in the break, we can reach out to the other to see that they may be justified, or at least understood for the action they took
This part isn’t really played out in the Katie and Alison story, but I see it clearly behind the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s brothers threw him in a pit, sold him to slave traders, and left him for dead. He was out of their lives forever. Joseph had many years to think about this. When he first saw his brothers, coming to Egypt because they were starving, Joseph plotted to trick them, to humiliate them. He made harsh demands forcing them into the situation where they would have to repeat their cunning with their brother Benjamin, stealing him from their father, or else go home and starve. He wanted revenge. He wanted power over them. Or perhaps, he just wanted to know if they had changed. A harsh test!
The brothers had done their work. They were truly sorry for what they had done. They refused to repeat it. A brother was willing to be held hostage rather than lose another brother.
At this courage, Joseph was undone. He could no longer keep from weeping. Perhaps he, too had done his work. He could see that he was using power as badly as they had so many years ago. He could end this feud. And he did. Weeping and embracing and weeping and embracing. Once Joseph knew that he was not innocent in this family drama, his heart was broken open, and the path to connection was opened again.
Empathy is listening with an ear to recognize that we are the same. Listening to open to the same truth in ourselves. Then we can begin to understand what it might be like to be in the other’s shoes.
Love your enemies, or your friends who have become estranged. Look at what is in you which may have broken the tie. Imagine what it might be like to be the other. These are acts of love for yourself and for your enemy. In these two movements, the first planks are laid for a bridge.
We are Jesus followers. We are a bridge-building community. Let us be honest with each other and set our intention to love first and always, enemy, friend, neighbor, colleague, church member, store clerk or bad driver. For they are us, too.
Grace & Peace,