a sermon by Rev. J. Mark Worth
- From Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 5:38-45)
“You know that you have been taught, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and let that person slap your other cheek; and if anyone sues you for your coat, give up your shirt as well; and if a soldier forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles. Give to everyone who begs from you, and lend to anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who mistreat you. Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on both good and bad people, and sends rain for both the righteous and the unrighteous.”
- From the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” in A Gift of Love, Beacon Press, Boston, 2012, © 1963 by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to ‘Love your enemies.’ Some men have sincerely felt that its actual practice is not possible. … [But] 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. Jesus is not an impractical idealist: he is the practical realist.”
Today is Valentine’s Day, and so we’re talking about love. But my topic isn’t romantic love. That’s far too complicated and too mysterious for me to try to tackle today. I’m talking, instead, about loving our neighbor. But whether romantic love – eros, the Greeks called it – or agape, the love of our neighbor, love is a choice. It’s a willingness to commit ourselves to a relationship in which we set aside our own ego and act without pretense or guile. When you truly love, you want what is best for the other person. When you are in love, you merely want the other person!
So, according to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Similarly the Buddha said, “Hatreds do not cease in the world by hating, but by love. This is an eternal truth. … Overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good. Overcome the miser by giving, overcome the liar by truth.” (Dhammapada 1:5 & 17:3)
In the Buddhist sense the word “love” or “loving-kindness” – metta in Pali, the language of the oldest Buddhist texts – means to wish for the happiness of someone. It’s not to be “in love,” it is simply to wish for their happiness. The command to love everyone, including those who harm you, might seem impossible or even incomprehensible. But it is possible to wish that everyone, even our enemies, may find happiness. In fact, wishing for their happiness is the only way we may be free from their torment. We probably can’t change them, but we can change our own attitude toward them.
Sounding very much like the Buddha, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”
Then there was Oscar Wilde, who had the ability to find humor in the obvious. He said, “Always forgive your enemies. Nothing annoys them so much.”
Now, we’ve mentioned that there are those who say that loving your enemy is an impractical bit of advice from Jesus of Nazareth, because it is clearly impossible to do! Besides, anger can be a good thing, can’t it? Anger, we are told, can motivate us to act. It gets us going so we can fix things and make them right. Or at least that’s the conventional wisdom.
We’ll come back to the issue of anger. For now, let’s just consider what Plato said, “There are two things a person should never be angry at, things they can help, and things they cannot.”
Non-violent resistance ~
But first, let’s answer the question, “Is Jesus asking us to do the impossible? Is his advice completely impractical?” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said this is actually very practical and necessary advice. Are you old enough, as I am, to remember what Rev. King accomplished? In the face of violence, brutality, jail, and assassinations, Rev. King led a campaign of nonviolent resistance. But he was not weak or feeble. When you hear “nonviolent resistance,” remember that the word “resistance” is just as important as “nonviolent.”
The NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and other Civil Rights organizations led an almost entirely peaceful campaign, in spite of the bombings, murders, beatings, arrests, and indignities they faced. But it was not a milquetoast kind of movement. Under the guidance of people such as Rev. Dr. King, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Ella Baker, Whitney Young Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis and James Farmer Jr., the Civil Rights movement engaged in vigorous and continuous action.
Key to the success of the Civil Rights movement was Rev. King’s faithfulness to the idea that we must love our enemies. He used the power of what we might today call “tough love.” King said, “To our most bitter opponents we say … ‘We shall meet your physical force with soul force. … We cannot in good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. … One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory. Love is the most durable power in the world.’ ”
The non-violence of the Civil Rights protestors contrasted with the violence and hatred of the white racist reactionaries, and the obvious unfairness of racial segregation. Non-violent resistance gained the sympathy of the white moderates, and embarrassed and shamed our nation into making long- overdue changes. And non-violent action won the day, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the end of the humiliating “Jim Crow” laws.
Today our nation is still far from perfect when it comes to race relations, but in order to understand how far we’ve come, you have to remember where we’ve been. Rev. King understood that lives would be lost if he and his followers turned the other cheek. But more lives would probably be lost if they did not turn the other cheek.
When push comes to shove, all of our pushing and shoving blinds us to more peaceful and creative solutions. Hatred and anger lead us down a blind alley. And so when, in the mid to late ‘60s, when the Civil Rights movement did turn violent, the pace of change ground to a halt. When Stokley Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Malcom X, Eldredge Cleaver and the Black Panthers began preaching violence, and told white allies their help was no longer wanted, and cities started burning, that’s when the Civil Rights movement died.
Once, in New York City, Malcolm X’s followers threw eggs at Rev. King. King said later, “They had heard all of these things about my being soft, my talking about love, and they transferred their bitterness toward the white man to me. In fact, Malcolm X had a meeting the day before … and he said a great deal about nonviolence, criticizing nonviolence, and saying that I approved of Negro men and women being bitten by dogs and [pelted with water from] the firehoses…
“My feeling has always been they have never understood what I was saying. They did not see that there’s a great deal of difference between nonresistance to evil and nonviolent resistance. … I’m talking about a very strong force, where you stand up with all of your might against an evil system, and you’re not a coward. You are resisting, but you come to see that tactically and morally it is better to be nonviolent. … [The killing of Malcolm X by other Negroes demonstrates] that violence is impractical
and that now, more than ever before, we must pursue the course of nonviolence to achieve the reign of justice and a rule of love in our society, and that hatred and violence must be cast into the unending limbo if we are to survive.”
Drive them crazy ~
Martin Luther King, Jr., was no wuss. He was a courageous man who faced death every day of his adult life. And he lived by the dictum, “Love your enemies.” He got the idea from Jesus of Nazareth, who was no wuss himself.
Loving our enemies is not something any of us wants to do. Yes, there are people who are hostile. There are plenty of enemies out there – bullies, people with guns shooting up theaters and schools, international terrorists, abusive spouses. There are people trying to steal your identity, and people who treat you unfairly at work. Sooner or later, harm will find us. How do we deal with it?
I think it was the Quaker author, educator, and activist Parker Palmer who suggested that Jesus’ advice that we turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and give our cloak as well as our coat, was really a creative and imaginative response to political repression. Israel was ruled by the Romans, and the Roman Legions were an army of occupation that favored the 1% who were wealthy, but oppressed the 99% who were the dirt-poor peasants.
If you are a Galilean peasant, and a Roman soldier hits you on the left cheek, he does it with the back of his right hand. That’s how a master hits someone of a lower station in life. But then you offer him your right cheek as well. Now if he is going to hit you, he has to hit you with the palm of his hand. That’s how an equal hits another equal. You are actually getting him to treat you as his equal!
And a Roman soldier could legally compel you to carry his pack for a mile, but no more. If he makes you carry his pack for more than a mile, he can get a severe thrashing from his commanding officer. So when you offer to go the extra mile, and say, “I’m glad to keep carrying your pack,”the soldier gets into trouble and has to go chasing after you begging you to please give his pack back.
If he asks for your coat and you give him your cloak as well, you are now standing naked in front of him, because that’s all the clothing a Galilean peasant would have had. You humiliate him by your nakedness. So in it appears that Jesus may have been saying, “If they try to exercise power over you, do them one better. Give them more than what they ask for. They cannot fault you for your generosity, and it will drive them crazy.” Jesus, 2,000 years before Rev. King, was teaching a version of non-violent resistance to oppression.
Break the anger habit ~
Buddhist authors Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman have written from a Buddhist point-of- view about Jesus’ command that we love our enemies (Love Your Enemies, Hay House, Inc., Carlsbad CA, 2013). They tell us that we really have two kinds of enemies, our outer enemies, those other people who would harm us – and an inner enemy, our own anger, hatred, fears, and other destructive impulses such as our self-obsession and self-preoccupation.
To deal effectively with our outer enemies, those people who would harm us, or those have already harmed us, we have to overcome our anger and hatred toward them. That’s very hard to do, but it’s necessary if we are to find peace of mind.
There’s a story of two Tibetan Buddhist monks who had been tortured by the Chinese government. Then, after a long imprisonment, they were finally released. They decided to leave Tibet, where they felt unable to practice their Buddhist religion faithfully, and hike over the Himalayas to Dharmsala, where the Dalai Lama lives in Northern India. It’s a long and difficult journey.
A couple of days into their journey the first monk asked the second monk, “Have you forgiven your captors?” And the second monk replied, “No, I can never forgive them!” “Then you are still their prisoner,” said the first monk.
Anger is one of the worst of our inner enemies. I can remember some time ago in Maine, lying awake at night, angry with someone who had said some very hurtful things. I went over and over in
my mind what she had said and how I wished I had responded differently. I stayed awake and tossed and turned for hours. In the meantime, she had no idea that I was lying awake, angry, unable to get to sleep. My anger wasn’t inconveniencing her in the least! She was probably getting a good night’s sleep. The only person being hurt by my anger was me, and maybe Mickey as well, as my tossing and turning disturbed her sleep.
This is why an old Korean proverb tells us, “If you kick a stone in anger, you’ll hurt your own foot.”
Yes, it’s hard not to be angry with those we think have harmed us, or want to harm us or those we love. When we’re hurt, we feel victimized, and tend to respond with fear or anger. But our response is a choice. No one can make you angry. You always have a choice. Often we get angry over small things, like inanimate objects. There’s that cabinet door that always sticks, and so we slam it in anger! But the door doesn’t care. We make ourselves unhappy, we make those around us unhappy. We may slam the door so hard that we break it and have to repair it, but the door still won’t care. And if we get angry over small things, what does that say about our own size? Anger and hatred don’t help us alleviate our pain in the slightest. Instead, they add to our pain. Further, we have a common-sense understanding that “what goes around comes around.” Our anger simply produces more anger. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it “compensation.” Whatever you do comes back to you one way or another.
Further, Buddhism teaches that anger is never useful. Does anger spur you to act in a positive way? No! Thoughtfulness and keen analysis of the situation may spur you to positive action, but the more angry you are the more your anger will get in the way of clear thinking. Anger will make you less effective.
The Buddha said, “Anger, with its poisoned source and fevered climax, is murderously sweet.” And with that murderous sweetness comes pain. The satisfaction of anger is extremely brief. But it produces isolation and disconnection, and it distances us from the world around us.
It’s important to remember that we always have a choice. Buddhist meditation is one way to quiet the mind, and train the mind to choose a better path than anger. Then, using mindfulness, we can say, “Oh, that’s anger. I don’t want to go there.” Rather than feeling angry, or helpless over our anger, or guilty that we are angry, we can simply observe it, and choose a different path. And that’s the first step toward loving – or at least tolerating – our enemies.