I was thinking back across my life history the other day (as you do) and was a bit surprised to realize how deep my connection with politics goes.
When I was 10? 11? I wrote Jimmy Carter a stinging letter scolding him for, in my view, not doing enough to realize a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. My mom still has it somewhere, she likes to laugh about it.
But I also accompanied my parents to anti-nuke rallies in the early 80’s, when I was 14 or so. At about the same time, I decided I needed to know what was going on in the world, so I more or less taught myself to read the evening paper. (I skipped business mostly and sports always.) If I remember correctly, it wasn’t long before I was trying to dope out Newsweek and Ms. as well.
From there, it just flowed. I got kicked out of high school for a day because of some dumb protest I took part in. It did at least result in one math teacher wishing aloud that he could be like John Wayne with anti-war protesters, so we did raise some consciousness. Despite that, two of the history teachers sprang for a plane ticket so I could participate in a week-long study trip to D.C., even sought me out to tell me I should apply for the scholarship.
I don’t know why I didn’t take a degree in poli sci and journalism. Probably it was some combination of a deficit in maturity, preparation and self-confidence. Besides, I was set on a career in literature. Look at how well that worked out. But I marched against the first Iraq War and police brutality, and served as the campaign manager for two buddies running for student government. The highlight of the campaign was the student newspaper terming us “a joke party, but a pretty funny one.”
It’s honestly a mystery why I never made a living related to politics. Maybe the right situation never presented itself? Sometimes you fall into these things by accident, and if there’s no rabbit hole, it doesn’t happen. Yet despite all the curves in life, activism and awareness have never been far away. Even in the worst times of my life, I’ve always known what’s up, and I’ve never been shy about sharing my opinions. That hasn’t always worked in my favor. I was an advocate for marriage equality way before my congregation was ready for it.
Things took on a new urgency under Bush II. I was horrified by the invasion of Iraq and how it came about, and scandalized by church people declaring Bush the “instrument of God’s will.” That led to writing for the newspaper which led to blogging which led me to where we are now.
Through all of this experience, all the ups and downs and apocalyptic moments of American politics in the past 40 years, I’ve never been scared like I was the night the latest president got elected. I had to go in another room and weep so our son wouldn’t see the fear and distress. I’ve never thought a president might actually dissolve American democracy, and I’m old enough to remember Ronald Reagan, for God’s sake.
For longer than I want to admit, what kept me going through the rough patches was the progressive’s sense that world was inevitably getting better, that conservatives could drag their feet, but ultimately our side would win. That idea died hard when Scott Walker won his recall election after cheating his way into office and then promptly screwing his state employees. It died even harder come early November 2016. What the hell is wrong with people? Why are humans so perverse sometimes? I don’t know.
These days, I’m trying not to get ahead of myself laughing at the ineptness of the new regime. Their days seem numbered, but that’s what I thought about Walker, too. Bannon’s crew could always pull things together and finally start the authoritarian regime they’ve been lusting after.
Frankly, my biggest source of hope at the moment is the knowledge that people like me—straight white men—are steadily losing their grip on American society, and thank God for that. We’ve stunk up the joint for long enough. There’s a new and pretty effective civil rights movement, a flood of women planning on running for office, and there are young people stronger than they ever should have to be yet doing a superb job all the same.
I look at a kid like this, and all I can think is “we’re going to be in good hands.” One of these days, she or Jaqueline Rayos García or someone like them will run for president and win, and we will all be better for it. Maybe I’ll never make a living in politics, but I’ll stick with the activism and the sharing of opinions. In the end, it’s probably for the best, anyway. Everybody else plays politics to accumulate power. My goal is to give it away, ever as fast as I can.
Are you kidding me? In this poisonous political climate, we’re going to drop “love your enemy”? Jesus, are you trying to get me killed?
This is what you might call a hard word. It’s hard to hear, and hard to preach.
Yet, there it is, plain as day, the teaching of our Lord and Savior:
I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven.
Now what are we to do with that?
Let’s back up and begin at the beginning. This is part of Jesus’ effort to call his disciples to a higher standard than simply following the rules. We have to go above and beyond. Last week it was about getting along with people you know: reconciling with a brother, not throwing away your spouse. This week, the focus turns outward for the most part, and the standard gets higher.
First Jesus talks about the lex talionis, the law of retaliation. That’s the principle that the punishment for an offense should not exceed the offense itself. So let’s say—and why not—that I gouge your eye out…the law says you can claim no more than my eye in exchange. Can’t kill me for my crime.
But again, Jesus wants his disciples to go above and beyond. So if somebody hits your cheek, he says (an insult and punishable offense in those days), don’t retaliate, just walk away.
And if somebody wants to take your coat, give them your undershirt as well. (A coat was often the only thing of value somebody had, the kind of thing a man would use as collateral for a loan. A cloak or “shirt” was the bottom layer of clothing, next to the skin.)
And if somebody forces you into service, do them one better. Double their demand!
And if somebody wants to borrow from you? Say yes. Ditto begging.
All of this seems difficult, if not impossible, to carry out in practice. People are naturally very resistant to it—they see threats. And sometimes legitimately so!
There are a couple of theories about what’s going on here. One is that Jesus is suggesting his followers “kill ‘em with kindness,” or as it says elsewhere, “heap burning coals on their heads.” It’s also possible that this is deliberate exaggeration meant to get people thinking about what their duties actually are.
But there’s a third possibility worth considering. At least one scholar sees signs that all of these lessons take place against the backdrop of Roman military occupation.
That bit about going the extra mile? That’s something Roman soldiers did to civilians. And Jesus uses the less-familiar Latin word for mile, not the better-known Greek term. If he lived today, we’d call that subtweeting.
But who do you think the “enemy” was, anyway? Even in Jesus’ day, there was debate about how to respond to the Roman presence in Israel. Some factions advocated violent rebellion—a plan they later carried out with disastrous results.
Jesus offers another alternative: not violence, but something like subversion.
As we’ve seen with countless non-violent protests since, when you stick to the core of what’s right in the face of oppression, you highlight the injustice of what’s being done to you. It’s an excellent way for people without power to resist injustice.
But “love your enemy”? Really?
Understand this: “love” and “hate” aren’t primarily about emotions—they’re about duty. For example, kings would command their subjects to love them, meaning pay their taxes and obey the laws.
So it’s possible that Jesus is saying: “Do the right thing, always, even for people you would consider your enemy.” That includes praying for them: seeing them as God sees them, resisting the temptation to dehumanize them, and reminding ourselves of the grace, mercy, and love shown to us by God.
It’s important to understand as well that this kind of love cannot be given with any kind of expectation of return. My enemies may or may not be converted by my prayers, and they may or may not become better people. Whatever, that’s between them and God. Still, this points the way forward, I think.
I won’t give my enemies the satisfaction of hating them. Being irritated by them, perhaps, but that’s a sermon for another time. Instead, I will do what is right by them, including praying for them and their salvation. Not because I hope to get anything out of them. Because I have been called, like all Christians, to be perfect as my Father in heven is perfect, and that begins with love.
Here’s a poem Jen commissioned from the Marian English students for Valentine’s Day. All scansion and punctuation as is.
To My Valentine, Dan
When we play the insult game,1
sometimes you win, sometimes
I do, but you
will always be my favorite adversary.
If you were a beer, hops would be too flowery
or too bitter. You’re no carb-light Miller 64, watered down
and weak. The snob in you would want to be
an Alaskan Amber.2 And just this once, I’d agree.
Although each year I toss your closet, discarding
what you haven’t work—whether you agree or not—you’re
the one thing I’d never discard.
Well, you & Taco.3
I still marvel at being a Pastor’s wife, on the every other Sunday
I’m reminded I am, sitting
in the pew.
So, Valentine, I’ll order a pint of you,
I’ll keep you, I’ll sing you, I’ll insult
you, with love.4
1.↩ A game in which players attempt to one-up the other with increasingly nasty, vile, and depraved insults until their opponent is left utterly flabbergasted and unable to continue. Often played on road trips on the Ohio Turnpike where there’s no good radio.
2.↩ This detail provided by a colleague’s husband from the last time I was at their house, almost a year ago. Actually, I’d be more of a barleywine or Imperial Stout, but good remembering.
3.↩ What about Bill?!
A couple members of the congregation and I visited an intergenerational worship service this past Sunday. It kicked off late in the afternoon with a Bible story (Jesus calling Simon Peter to fish for men), then proceeded through some activities and dinner before wrapping up with a second telling of the story, a prayer, and a song.
The pastor introduced the prayer to the children as having three parts:
- I’m sorry, God
- Thank you, God
- Please, God
She asked the children (and adults) to share something for each part. When we got to “Thank you, God” she let the visitors know that the tradition in this service is to begin by giving thanks for tacos. That’s one of their favorite dinners, and acknowledging as much helps keep the kids focused.
The pastor was going to breeze right past this, but I couldn’t help raising my hand.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Excuse me, I’m sorry.”
“Yes, what would you like to share?” she asked, in exactly the same tone one would use with a five-year-old. (It is the only appropriate tone for me.)
“Well,” I said. “I just want to say that my dog’s name is Taco, and even though we don’t eat him for dinner, we are very grateful for him.”
The kids exploded with laughter. A dog named Taco! They were very pleased to hear about this. There were a lot of dog-themed prayers that night, the pastor noted drily.
But it is Taco Tuesday, and we are very grateful to have him.
Even when things get dark in life, there’s something about the warm, loving gaze of a beagle that brings you right back. Thank you God, for Taco.
Sorry, didn’t have time to turn this into a proper essay. Nevertheless, here’s a sermon (I guess?) on covenant, immigration, and freedom.