“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. 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. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
I know probably every parent thinks this at some point or another, but really, sometimes, my kids are the wisest people I know. And Tuesday night, we were headed home after swimming lessons, and it’s only a five-minute-drive, but I couldn’t be obsessively checking my phone while I was behind the wheel so I insisted on listening to election updates on NPR.
My kids usually whine about talk radio, but they’ve been pretty tuned in this whole campaign season, so they kept quiet. And on that quick ride that night, they heard some uncertainty in the commentator’s voice. They heard some hint that Hillary wasn’t as far ahead as the experts had expected her to be at that point in the counting. And from the backseat my boys asked, “Is Trump winning?” And I said, “I don’t know… it sounds like he’s going to have a chance.” And they asked, “But why?”
And we talked again about different visions for the country, and how some people would choose his vision. And then I told them that some people, even if they didn’t share Trump’s vision or his values, they just had always been on the team that he was on, and so they’d vote for that team, whoever that team’s player was, and also, I told them this piece this piece that we hadn’t talked about before, this harder part – I told them that some people would vote for him just so they wouldn’t be voting for Hillary. And again they asked why, and I told them that some people don’t agree with her vision, and then, beyond that, there are people who just think that there are some jobs that a woman can’t do.
My boys were so confused by that.
And Oscar said, “Like what jobs?”
And instead of going through a whole long list, I just said, “Well, like president.”
And he said, “Don’t those people have women who are friends?”
And I said, “Well probably, I mean, sure, yes, I’m sure those people have women who are friends.” I said, “But that’s different.” He said, “How?” I said, “They might have women who are friends but they don’t think those women – or any women – should have jobs where they have power, or especially, where they have power over men.”
And Oscar didn’t miss a beat and he asked me, “Isn’t being a friend a kind of power?”
That’s been helpful for me this past week.
It’s been helpful for me as I read about deepening divisions in our country. It’s been helpful for me as I consider how to move forward, and what sort of role I can play, what sort of role this church can play, in this community as it responds to this change. And it’s been helpful for me as I hear and read about what other kids are saying.
Other school-age children – white kids – are saying to kids of color, “pack your bags” or they’re saying “your time is up” or they’re saying “you’re gonna have to go home” and they don’t mean down the street to your house, or to the neighboring town where you were born; they mean to some-unidentified-foreign-place-where-I-assume-you’re-from-because-your-skin-isn’t-the-same-tone-as-mine. Other white kids are coming home and asking their parents, “The president can’t really send my friends away, can he?,” while parents of color are picking up their kids from school early, in droves, to get them out of places where they’re subjected to that kind of cruelty.
My own kids fell asleep before the results were certain, and when they woke up, still groggy, they said, “Who won?” and I said, “Trump won,” and Oscar rubbed his sleepy eyes and the first thing he asked was, “Is he going to build that wall?” That’s what kids know.
Confederate flags and Nazi flags are being flown on busy sidewalks, on paths kids take to get to school. Students on college campuses and women waiting at bus stops are reporting verbal abuse and physical abuse with language that seems tied to the election results and online abuse between strangers is ordinary and horrifying now. Portlanders have shut down interstates with their protests and those have turned violent, too. Our oldest elders, who remember camps in this country that denied first their American-ness and then their humanity, are fearful of a return to those days.
I do not mean to say that I think the president-elect elicits or condones all or any of this behavior. I don’t know what he thinks of it. I know his previous campaign rhetoric about minority populations and his recent courting of white supremacists makes me suspicious. But what seems clear is this current, that was maybe suppressed before, feels emboldened now. And that boldness makes many, many people feel unsafe.
Here is what I mean to say, church: there is work to do.
And the other strange, small comfort in this – besides knowing that there is power in friendship – is the truth that there has always been work to do. And you know, and I know, that if the election had gone the other way – if it had gone any other way – there would still have been work to do.
The work is always the same.
Whoever is in office or isn’t, whoever we elect, endorse, get behind, or don’t, the work is always the same: we call ourselves by the name of Christ, and so we are a people who know death, and who will find ourselves with need to mourn, and who give ourselves ultimately to the practice of resurrection. We are a people who believe that every life has worth, that every inch of this planet reflects the beauty and the glory of God, that every one of our neighbors can teach us something about the presence and power of God. We are a people who know that every encounter we have with another person is a chance to learn something new about the ways God is alive and a people who celebrate that the diversity that is so hard for us to fully embrace is really a expression of the fullness of God.
And so the work is always the same: to pay attention, and to listen closely, and to love fiercely. The work is always to protect one another and to comfort one another and to challenge one another, and to challenge any system that would say that “one another” does not include all of us.
And really, all of us. Our country split almost exactly in half Tuesday night. Yamhill County went for Trump. Whichever choice you made, there are people you work with and walk with and eat with and definitely worship with and maybe live with who made different choices than you did. That difference does not make us enemies. But it can feel like that.
And when it feels like that, maybe verses like today’s can be helpful. Commentator David Ewart notes that there are six words in the Bible that are translated in our one English word for love, and that the word used in our passage for today is the trickiest of them all – agape. It’s the one that doesn’t mean romantic love, or affection, or even any sort of closeness. What it does mean, he writes, is “whole-hearted, unreserved, unconditional desire for the well-being of the other. Nothing is held back. There is no hesitation. No calculation of costs and benefits. No expectation of receiving anything in return. No pay offs. There is only total desiring of the well-being of the other for their own good.”
He continues, “Oddly, this might also mean you might not like the other. Might oppose some of their behaviors. Might speak against some of what they stand for. But if you agape them, the ways you express your dislike and opposition will always also express your total desiring of their well-being.”
This love does not require a resignation to what must be or a relinquishing of once-held ideals. This love calls for resistance. That call for resistance moves this kind of love beyond reciprocity and invites us into the realm of redemption. Listen to how it happens:
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.
Maybe you know Walter Wink’s take on this text – that this is Jesus teaching Civil Disobedience, Nonviolent Resistance 101. That in a culture where a person’s left hand was used for bathroom functions, and so only the right hand could be used for other purposes – the like power play described here – to turn a cheek was to mess up the swing, and leave the person hitting confounded, unable to strike the way he’d wanted. It was to interrupt the violence.
And in a culture where debts between neighbors could be racked up so high that one man would literally take the coat of another’s back – for the poorer one to say “here, take my shirt also” and to stand naked in the street is to expose not only one’s self but the injustice of the whole system, to force the one collecting to face public scrutiny, maybe to shock him into seeing the inhumanity of his collection and to say, “here – here – keep your shirt on! Take your coat back, too; I don’t need it!”
Love of enemy does not ignore injustice. It exposes it. Love of enemy knows that violence harms everyone, that division hurts us all, that only revolutionary love of those we disagree passionately with and of those we’re told to fear can bring us to a place where there are no more enemies. Love of enemy is the only way to really discover the depth of the kind of power it is to be a friend.
Maybe some of us will be sad for a really long time. And maybe some of us will be celebrating for a really long time. And no doubt as the future unfolds we will be given ever-new reasons for our sadness or for our celebration, and for much more nuanced responses and emotions, too.
And in all of that, there will be work to do.
And the work will always be loving each other.