We are living in conflicted times, and I know that may be an understatement. But, we have lived through challenging times before…
“Upheaval after upheaval has reminded us that modern man is traveling along a road called hate, in a journey that will bring us to destruction and damnation. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world.” (MLK)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words from the early 1960s, remind us that this journey we have been on as Americans, has been a struggle with love and hate, (& if we are honest, since its inception, really.) “Modern psychology recognizes what Jesus taught centuries ago: hate divides the personality and love in an amazing and inexorable way unites it.” (MLK) Love is the key to our survival.
We can go back to the days of Jesus, there was as much hate as we have now, a people under Roman occupation who often saw their own King and religious leadership as enemies of the people. And in the midst of such conflict, Jesus gives to all those listening in the crowd on that mount quite a command - “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies...”
Love them, Jesus said. Love is central to our lives. Sadly too often we settle for a soft “love the sinner, hate the sin” which really ends up with us hating both the sinner and sin by the end.
But Jesus goes much further than we want. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” Now love is Agape, the word in Greek, and its meaning is different than how we usually use the word love.
“An overflowing love which seeks nothing in return, agape is the love of God operating in the human heart. At this level, we love others not because we like them, nor because their ways appeal to us, nor even because they possess some type of divine spark; we love others because God loves them… when Jesus bids us to love our enemies; he is speaking of agape, understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all. Only by following this way and responding with this type of love are we able to be children of our Father who is in heaven.” (MLK)
And loving others, even our enemy is what we are called to do by Jesus if we want to call ourselves Christian and live out that baptismal faith we have been baptized into. But more than that, we do this because of God’s love. “God’s love for you is not ultimately because of you. God’s love for you is because of God. God loves whom God creates.” (SSJE) And God has created everyone. So we are called to offer such love. Why?
“Because that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.” (MLK)
On this President’s Day weekend it is fitting for us to remember the 16th president who put such reconciling love into action. (I am using MLK’s retelling of this story)
Abraham Lincoln tried love and left for all history a magnificent drama of reconciliation.
When he was campaigning for the presidency one of his arch-enemies was a man named Edwin Stanton. For some reason Stanton hated Lincoln. He used every ounce of his energy to degrade him in the eyes of the public. So deep rooted was Stanton’s hate for Lincoln that he uttered unkind words about his physical appearance, and sought to embarrass him at every point with the bitterest diatribes. But in spite of this Lincoln was elected President of the United States. Then came the period when he had to select his cabinet, which would consist of the persons who would be his most intimate associates in implementing his program. He started choosing men here and there for the various secretaryships.
The day finally came for Lincoln to select a man to fill the all-important post of Secretary of War. Can you imagine whom Lincoln chose to fill this post? None other than the man named Stanton. There was an immediate uproar in the inner circle when the news began to spread. Adviser after adviser was heard saying, “Mr. President, you are making a mistake. Do you know this man Stanton? Are you familiar with all of the ugly things he said about you? He is your enemy. He will seek to sabotage your program. Have you thought this through, Mr. President?” Mr. Lincoln’s answer was terse and to the point: “Yes, I know Mr. Stanton. I am aware of all the terrible things he has said about me. But after looking over the nation, I find he is the best man for the job.” So Stanton became Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War and rendered an invaluable service to his nation and his President those 4 years… [After Lincoln’s assassination] Standing near the dead body of the man he once hated, Stanton referred to him as one of the greatest men that ever lived and said “he now belongs to the ages.” If Lincoln had hated Stanton both men would have gone to their graves as bitter enemies. But through the power of love Lincoln transformed an enemy into a friend. It was this same attitude that made it possible for Lincoln to speak a kind word about the South during the Civil War when feeling was most bitter. Asked by a shocked bystander how he could do this, Lincoln said, “Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” This is the power of redemptive love.
We must hasten to say that these are not the ultimate reasons why we should love our enemies. An even more basic reason why we are commanded to love is expressed explicitly in Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies... that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.” We are called to this difficult task in order to realize a unique relationship with God. We are potential sons & daughters of God. Through love that potentiality becomes actuality. We must love our enemies, because only by loving them can we know God and experience the beauty of his holiness.” (MLK)
Jesus ends his Sermon on the Mount with “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." – such instruction is not about perfection as in making no mistakes, but in wholeness – to be perfect is to serve God wholeheartedly, to love God who created us with every fiber of our being, to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love our enemies too. To be wholly human is to stand reconciled before God in love but that doesn’t mean his words aren’t hard. That’s why we pray… “Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you…” Love and pray.
“I am certain that Jesus understood the difficulty inherent in the act of loving one’s enemy. He never joined the ranks of those who talk glibly about the easiness of the moral life. He realized that every genuine expression of love grows out of a consistent and total surrender to God. So when Jesus said “Love your enemy,” he was not unmindful of its stringent qualities. Yet he meant every word of it. Our responsibility as Christians is to discover the meaning of this command and seek passionately to live it out in our daily lives.” (MLK)
Let us discover the meaning of his command to love our enemies and seek passionately to live such love in our daily lives. Amen.