“How Can We Ever Do That?”

I have preached over 800 times in my ministerial career. Of all those sermons, none has stuck in my memory as much as the one I preached on September 23, 2001, 12 days after 9/11. As I was reflecting on that horrible event and the continuing scourge of violence in our world today I decided to revisit that sermon, and I found the words of Jesus that inspired that sermon as relevant and as troubling now as they were 13 years ago. So as I pray for peace for a world seemingly bent on destruction, I share these reflections again. The sermon was preached at Jerome United Methodist Church on the text from Matthew 5:38-48 on loving one’s enemies.

This week was harder for me than last week and not just because I was struggling with what to say here this morning. The suffering and agony of the whole terrorist ordeal became personalized and real for me this week. 3000 victims in the abstract last week were more than my mind could wrap itself around. But as individual stories emerged of real people with real names, victims and families and heroes and heroines, my already bruised and battered heart was broken over and over again.

But from the very first hours of the tragedy my greatest pain and fear was not for the damage and suffering that occurred on September 11, as unbelievably horrible as it was. My greatest pain and fear has been for the inevitable escalation and perpetuation of violence that I knew these horrible acts would generate in retaliation that will inflict more suffering on more innocent people.

A friend of mine told me just after the attacks that he had forgotten how easy it is to be a Christian in times of peace and prosperity. And he is very right. We turn to God and scripture for comfort and reassurance in times of distress, as well we must and should, but some of the most important words of scripture also challenge us and are hard to hear.

And that’s why I have been engaged in a lovers’ quarrel with Jesus for the last 12 days over what to say this morning. I have tried every trick I know to avoid the difficult words we just heard from the Sermon on the Mount–these words that are high on the list of those we wish Jesus hadn’t said, but they would not let me rest. They have forced themselves into my consciousness over and over again, pleading, demanding, and crying out to be proclaimed.

“You have heard it said…” O, have we ever – all the public opinion polls confirm in spades that those who want revenge are legion, and I include myself in those who are angry. Getting even is a natural human reaction, and we’ve all been there many times this month. “You have heard it said, an eye for and a tooth for a tooth.” Sounds like good advice. In fact, at the time those words were written, they were designed to limit revenge; so victims would not demand two eyes for an eye, or a whole mouthful of teeth for a tooth. But as someone has said, if we follow the eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth philosophy to its logical conclusion, we end up with a world full of blind, toothless people, and the cycle of violence and pain continues forever.

“But I say to you…” Look out whenever Jesus starts out with that phrase and brace yourself for a zinger. “But I say to you, love your enemies. If anyone strikes, you on the north tower, turn the south tower as well.” O, Jesus, you’ve got to be kidding! We can’t do that! You can’t be serious. How can we possibly love those responsible for such horrific acts of death and destruction?

But Jesus isn’t alone on this one. I’m not sure to whom this letter was written, but a copy of it was circulating on the internet this week; and it contains a very similar thought from a leader of another of the world’s great religions, the Dalai Lama. He writes, “It may seem presumptuous on my part, but I personally believe we need to think seriously whether a violent action is the right thing to do and in the greater interest of the nation and people in the long run. I believe violence will only increase the cycle of violence. But how do we deal with hatred and anger, which are often the root causes of such senseless violence? This is a very difficult question, especially when it concerns a nation and we have certain fixed conceptions of how to deal with such attacks. I am sure that you will make the right decision. With my prayers and good wishes, the Dalai Lama.”

I couldn’t agree more with this analysis, and I have been pleased to hear more of these sentiments this week than I expected, but practically it’s not all that helpful. Of course violence begets more violence. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. We know that and want to believe peace is an achievable ideal. We’ve seen the failure of wars to end all wars and we want to be faithful Christians and follow the ways of the Prince of Peace. That’s all well and good in the abstract, but the question I want Jesus or the Dalai Lama or somebody smarter than I to answer is, HOW do we love our enemies? How do we love someone who can do to our nation what these terrorists have done?

Jesus says a bit earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” By whom? Not by their enemies or by most of their peers. Peacemakers, cheek turners, are more often called “yellow” and “coward” or “chicken,” but seldom even “children of God.” We would much rather go with Moses on this one wouldn’t we, but are we followers of Moses or Jesus?

It is hard to find silver linings in some clouds, but even in tragedy there are some benefits. We see it in extended families that rally around each other when there is a death of illness. And in a similar fashion, the outpouring of patriotic spirit and resolve in the last two weeks has been amazing. One could certainly argue that this tragedy has created a sense of community that has been sorely lacking in our nation for many years. But Jesus asks us to take that sense of community one giant step further–to include even our enemies in the circle of God’s family.

I had a flashback to Jr. Hi youth fellowship this morning. One of those awkward moments when we were circling up to say the benediction at the end of a meeting, and I found myself next to a girl and was afraid I’d get her cooties if I had to hold her hand. And some wonderful adult counselor saw the problem and stepped in between us to close the circle. That’s just what Jesus does when he asks us to love our enemies. When we can’t bring ourselves to take that hand, Jesus steps in and completes the circle.

This doesn’t mean that justice and order are not necessary for us to be able to live peaceful, secure lives once more. It simply means that our attitudes and methods of seeking justice and peace need to be just and peaceful and loving; so that we do not fall into the trap of perpetuating the very kind of behavior we deplore. The Christian way to the goal of peace and security must be prayer and dialogue, not bombs and bullets. We follow the way of compassion and love and forgiveness. It is not an easy way, but it is necessary. And the best news is that success is guaranteed–guaranteed by the one who walked the talk of that love all the way to the cross to show us once and for all that love is stronger than death, that nothing in all creation, not terrorism or fear or death itself, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Jesus did it. He practiced what he preached. But how can we love our enemies, even while we deplore their horrible deeds?

I certainly don’t have all the answers–not even all the questions; but it seems to me there are two or three things that are necessary for us to have any hope of following Jesus down this path of loving our enemies.

1) We need to understand who are enemies are and who they aren’t so we don’t over-react in fear against all Muslims or all Arabs, or against everyone who looks different and therefore suspicious.

2) We need to study and learn and discuss so we understand better the complicated political and religious realities we are caught up in. We don’t dare oversimplify or stereotype. Afghanistan is not our enemy – it is a nation in ruins from previous wars and conflicts. Neither Bin Laden and the terrorists nor the Taliban are representative of the Afghan people, and they cannot be equated.

Tamim Ansary, a writer and columnist in San Francisco, who is a native of Afghanistan, writes this interesting and chilling portrayal of his homeland:
“The Afghan people had nothing to do with this atrocity. They were the first victims of the perpetrators….Some say, why don’t the Afghans rise up and overthrow the Taliban? The answer is they’re starved, exhausted, hurt, incapacitated, suffering. A few years ago, the United Nations estimated that there are 500,000 disabled orphans in Afghanistan–a country with no economy, no food. There are millions of widows. And the Taliban has been burying these widows alive in mass graves. The soil is littered with land mines; the farms were all destroyed by the Soviets. These are a few of the reasons why the Afghan people have not overthrown the Taliban. We now come to the question of bombing Afghanistan back to the stone age. Trouble is, that’s been done. The Soviets took care of it already. New bombs would only stir the rubble of earlier bombs. Would they at least get the Taliban? Not likely. In today’s Afghanistan, only the Taliban eat, only they have the means to move around. They’d slip away and hide. Maybe the bombs would get some of those disabled orphans, they don’t move too fast; they don’t even have wheelchairs. Bombing Kabul would only make common cause with the Taliban –by raping once again the people they’ve already been raping all this time.”

3) Perhaps most important, we must practice forgiveness. Someone has written that forgiveness is the key to happiness. The pursuit of happiness is one of our most cherished American ideals, and forgiveness is what it takes to be free of the burdens of anger and hostility that make happiness very illusive.

One of the young widows of this tragedy was interviewed on ABC this week. Her husband was one of the passengers who apparently resisted the hijackers on the Pennsylvania flight and helped keep the tragedy from being even worse than it was. When Diane Sawyer asked this young widow with two small children and a third on the way if she wanted revenge, without batting an eye she said, “No, I don’t want any Arab women to have to go through what I’m going through.” And then to support her position she quoted the Sunday school song we sang this morning, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight…” If she can forgive when her life has been altered forever, can we do any less?

I’ve always assumed that forgiveness was for those who have wronged me, but I realized in reflecting on this tragedy that forgiveness is a two-way street. Forgiveness needs to be given, but before it can be given it has to be received; and to receive it, we have to confess our own sin and examine our own contributions to misunderstanding, prejudice, and injustice. To assume we are good and they are bad is far too simple and counterproductive and leads us in the direction of a blind toothless world once more.

To understand why anyone has so much hatred toward our nation, we need to get to know these enemies–to understand what we may have done that we need to be forgiven for. And that dialogue can’t take place over the barrel of a gun or under the shadow of a cruise missile.

How can we love these enemies, or anyone who has done us great harm?

My favorite story about that kind of love comes from another period of unspeakable terror and suffering in human society, the Holocaust. After the war, a young Christian woman traveled around Europe proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and love for everyone who would repent and give their life to Christ. Corrie Ten Boom was a death camp survivor. Her entire family had died in the Nazi death gas chambers, and yet she was filled with God’s love and anxious to tell her story. Until one night when she was giving her testimony and looked out into the congregation where she saw a face that made her blood run cold. Sitting there staring at her from the pew was one of the former Nazi concentration camp guards who had helped to execute her family. She could barely finish her talk and hurried toward the side door of the church as soon as she was finished, hoping to avoid any further contact with this awful man.

But he was anxious to talk to her and met her at the door. He extended his hand as he told her that he had repented and become a Christian, but, he added, it was so good to hear someone like her proclaim the unbelievable good news that God’s love was available even to such a terrible sinner as he had been. His hand was there, waiting for Corrie to take it in Christian fellowship. But her hand was paralyzed, frozen at her side for what seemed like an eternity. The silence was awkward, and even though she knew she should shake his hand, she could not. Finally, she said a prayer. She said, “Lord, if you want me to forgive this man, you’re going to have to do it, because I can’t.”

And just then, Corrie said her hand moved of its own accord. She took the former Nazi’s hand and says she felt the most amazing surge of warmth and power pass between them that she had ever felt in her life.

How can we love our enemies? On our own, we can’t. But with God’s help as followers of Jesus Christ, relying on and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, we can, we must, and we will.

Thanks be to God who gives us the victory!

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