Seventh Sunday of the Year February 23rd, 2020
Clint Eastwood’s 1992 movie Unforgiven, like many others, saw revenge being perpetrated on ‘evil’ people because ‘they have it coming.’ Who do we see as an enemy? Is it the neighbour whose cigarette smoke drifts into our yard or throws weeds across the fence? Is it the person with an astonishingly low level of self-awareness, humility, or restraint? Is it the one in power whose racist and misogynist rhetoric threatens vulnerable people? The identity of an enemy can be blatantly clear or very subtle.
At the moment, the situation in Syria is dire, whilst that of the Rohingya, the Yemenis, and Palestinians are hidden. Communities and nations are threatened by a toxic stew of hatred, murder, and lust for power. The enemies and persecution in Jesus’ time are not unique. They are still abundant in the world. The myth of greatness in Australia and the USA based on an exceptionalism is upheld, Kelly Brown Douglas asserts, by ‘the violence that traps people of colour in the crucifying realities of death’. Then there is the ‘landscape of brutal expulsion from the contours of society’ that makes people into ghosts because of their race and gender (Laura McTighe).
The desire for revenge can be strong and now more powerful with social media. It can used as a weapon to reject people we dislike, disagree with, ‘conservatives’ or ‘lefties’, people of other religions or sexual orientation. But, in doing this, we fall short of God’s holiness and we inflict ‘death’ on each other.
We need to be awake to history’s counterparts that manifest themselves around us today. They are associated with ‘lost causes’, yet ended up winning: Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Daniel and Philip Berrigan. They have counterparts today in John Dear, Noam Chomsky, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Pope Francis. In saying, ‘Never again war! War never again!’ Francis holds up hope for our world. We need to take account of his words in our bedrooms, kitchens, workplaces, communities and on the national and international level. His uncompromising stance calls into question the inevitability of war as Paul refers to ‘the wisdom of the world.’ The readings steer us into another direction by pointing to a God who is not vengeful, but merciful and compassionate. This is the basis of Jesus’ calls to mirror the ‘perfection’ of God. This foundation of indiscriminate love of neighbour and the nonviolence is embodied by Pope Francis.
When the Amish community saw 11 of their children murdered in 2006 they reached out to the murderer’s family. The Amish response was not, is not, the kind of justice we usually imagine. Another woman, Doris, whose son was murdered by an unknown person, sits with people who have loved ones in prison. They share about the horrific crimes their children committed. Doris’ message focuses on one thing: love. Love for her slain son opened her heart to other people affected by violence – even perpetrators. We saw this recently when four children were killed in Sydney whilst walking on the footpath as the parents of the children spoke with love for the driver.
In 2005, Andrew Denton in Enough Rope interviewed Johnny Lee Clary a former Ku Klux Klan (KKK) leader about his journey from a world of hate to one of tolerance. He was taught about prejudice, racism and bigotry by his father in a society where non-white people were the exception. (http://www.abc.net.au/tv/enoughrope/transcripts/s1453904.htm). When his father shot himself, his mother abandoned him and his sister. He was a perfect recruit for the KKK. Seeking acceptance, he joined the KKK with task of stereotyping black people, sniffing out racial trouble and inciting fear among the white people. At 21, he became the Grand Dragon of Oklahoma. In 1979, he met a black minister, Rev Wade Watts, when caught off-guard when the minister held out his hand. The Klan rule book says, ‘The physical touch of a non-white is pollution.’ Some years later, Clary burned down the minister’s church. When they burned crosses across the street, Watts offered hotdogs and marshmallows for the barbeque!! Clary was unable to deal with the positive responses he received. Later, whilst Watts was at a restaurant, 30 KKK members came and surrounded him threatening to do to him what he was about to do to the chicken on his plate. When Watts picked up the plate and kissed the chicken, the KKK was defeated. Clary left the KKK and ‘flipped the script’ by exchanging one powerful set of beliefs for another. He became a minister.
In 2016, I attended a conference in Rome where most of the participants came from places of war and extreme violence. All had suffered some violence where loved ones, colleagues were tortured, imprisoned, and/or murdered. Yet, all remained committed to the gospel of nonviolence claiming that nonviolence works. These experts on nonviolence had embraced Jesus’ call to love the enemy.
Jesus asks us to ‘flip the script’. He calls us to go deeper with three examples: turn the other cheek, walk two miles, give not just your outer garment but one’s inner garment, as well. It is not about rolling over but to a love that radical, creative and nonviolent that strips the oppressor of control, restores the dignity of the one oppressed, and opens the door for a transformation of the relationship.
Leviticus says we are called to be holy as God is holy. For Matthew, as followers of Jesus we need to be merciful and compassionate – to be perfect as God is perfect. Perfection or holiness is not about piety but to mirror God who is compassionate and nonviolent, by refusing to retaliate when harmed, and seeking the best even for those considered an enemy. Clearly, it is not about avoiding things, but doing what will make a difference and transform relationships. This is the foolishness Paul speaks of. This is the foolishness that empowers a grieving mother to act out of love for her son’s murderer, empowers one to walk two miles and turn the other cheek.
Paul insists that we encounter God in every person – a ‘temple of God.’ where God dwells. The One dwelling within us also dwells within the other.
Many people would have welcomed Jesus' call to love God and neighbour because they understood this love was reserved for one’s own people or kin. Jesus broadens this to include everyone, Jews and Gentiles, friends and enemies. Sticking to your own kind was not a value Jesus embraced. That is why there is always the call to go out to the peripheries, to the ‘not like me’. This is not the way in the ‘real world’ but then where has violence or retribution achieved? Jesus point is to do the unexpected to break down conflict and create the possibilities for a relationship and recognising the humanity even in the enemy. The call is to ‘flip the script.’ An industry of images exists to make the ‘enemy’ look inhuman and to incite our hate where cartoons of Germans, Japanese, Russians, Middle Eastern or Asian people are turned into the less than human. Love of enemies is not an appendage or something tacked onto Jesus’ teaching. It was part and parcel of the call to ‘perfection’.
Jesus is suggesting ways to defuse violence. Trying to imagine a nonviolent world and putting his teachings into action, might mean being vilified, seen as mad, bad or sad, when we attempt to include when others exclude; when we call for compassion in the face of vengeance; when we welcome the stranger where others want to reject them. Though we might advocate for people trapped in the crucifying realities of death, we need to recognise how we benefit from systems of discrimination and exceptionalism where people are seen as less than human and more as ghosts because of their of race, gender, sexual orientation or social position.
What could our world look like? What would it mean if holiness was measured by compassion and justice rather than just church attendance or avoiding wrong?
Imagine if the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics simply refused to destroy their fellow human beings because they recognised in them the indwelling presence of God which Paul refers to today. Imagine if did not worship the God of violence, power and oppression that Jesus also rejects and embraced this compassionate and loving God. Inspired by Pope Francis, let’s take the microphone away from ‘warmongers’ and ‘hate-mongers’(including shock jocks) so that peace and nonviolence become mainstream.
Compiled by Claude Mostowik msc,
Director, Missionaries of the Sacred Justice and Peace Centre, Enmore
Convenor, Pax Christi Australia [NSW]
President, Pax Christi Australia.