Learning to Love the Enemy
Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18 is central for Christians coming to love the enemy. Particularly important is that we never forget that God is the enemy we most fear. To be confronted and to confront those that we have wronged and have wronged us one of the central practices for Christians to practice neighbor love.
Love is difficult. And Christians have been given the gift of a process that I want to hold up for you tonight that helps us negotiate the difficulty.
“If your brother sins against you, “go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. “If he listens to you, you have gained a brother. “But if he does not listen, “take one or two others along with you “that every word may be confirmed “by the evidence of two or three witnesses. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, “let him be to you as a gentile and a tax collector. “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on Earth “shall be bound in heaven. “And whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven. “Again I say to you, “if two or three of you agree on Earth about anything, “they ask it will be done by them by the father in heaven. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, “there I am in the midst of them. “And Peter came up and said to him, “Lord how often shall my brother sin against me “and I forgive him? “As many as seven times? “Jesus said to him, I do not say to you seven times, “but 70 times seven.”
This is surely a strange text to begin a lecture on love, and in particular what love produces, peacekeeping. The text does not seem to be about peacekeeping, but about conflict. It does not say if you have a grievance you might think about confronting one who you believe has wronged you. The text is much stronger than that. It says if you have a grievance you must, you are obligated to confront the one you believe have sinned against you. You cannot overlook a fault on the presumption that it is better not to disturb the peace.
Rather you must risk stirring the waters causing disorder, rather than overlook the sin. But on what possible grounds could Christians, people supposedly of peace be urged actively to confront one another? It seems out of character for Jesus to urge us to do so. And out of character for the Christian community to follow such an admonition. Yet I want to suggest to you that we will understand peacekeeping and the love that produces peacekeeping as a virtue, only when we see such confrontation is at the heart of what it means to be a peacekeeper.
Even more important, however, I think that by attending to this passage we will be able to see how peacekeeping as well as any virtue is correlative to a community of practice. This is a crucial issue if we’re to appreciate how peacemaking and the love that produces peacemaking is a virtue. It is interesting to note how seldom peacemaking is treated as a virtue. Courage, temperance and even humility are usually acknowledged as virtues much more than is peacekeeping.
For many, peacekeeping may sound like a good thing, but they would be hesitant to call it a virtue. Peacemaking is usually seen more as a matter of political strategy than a disposition forming the self. Some people may even be peaceful, but that hardly seems a virtue. Why do we seem reticent to think of peacemaking as a virtue? I suggest it is because we think of virtue as personal characteristics that everyone should possess, irrespective of our membership in any specific community.
But as I hope to show such an understanding of virtue is far too limited if not outright mistake. For as Aristotle argues some virtues such as justice and friendship are correlative to certain kinds of relations that cannot exist without that relation being institutionalized and constitutive of a community. Peacemaking is that sort of virtue insofar as the church becomes that peace. And a very particular kind of peace as an essential characteristic of its nature to worship God.
And never forget the enemy who is our most basic enemy is God. And you must learn to love God as your enemy. As important as understanding why we rightly consider peacemaking a virtue, is how we understand what kind of activity it is. It is in this context that the passage from Matthew is so important for helping us understand peacemaking.
Normally we think of peacemaking as a resolution of conflict rather than the encouragement of conflict. That such is the case I suspect is also one of the reasons that peacemaking, even if it’s understood as a virtue is really not all that appealing to us. Have you ever known anyone, yourself included, who rushes out to see a movie or play about peace? [audience laughs] Actually you did, it was called Babette’s Feast.
We say we want peace but in fact we know we love conflict and even war. Indeed I suspect that one of the deepest challenges for those of us who call ourselves passivists, is that on the whole peace just does not sound that interesting. We may all say we want peace but I suspect that most of us would deeply be upset if we got it.
We want to work for peace, we like the struggle for peace, but the idea that peace might actually be achieved would be actually something that would scare us to death. For we associate peace with rest and we fear the rest without conflict is but another name for death. We thus pray like Augustine. We pray give us peace but not yet. [audience laughs] We simply have to admit that most of us peace seems boring.
Of course in the midst of terrible turmoil we may well think we could stand a bit of boredom. But it’s interesting how often people look back on the past troubles nostalgically. Life needs movement. Which most of us believe rightly or wrongly entails conflict. Therefore peacemaking for most of us appears like a Barnard Shaw view of heaven, namely on reflection, Shaw thought he would prefer hell since at least in hell there would be more interesting people. [audience laughs]
But this test for Matthew puts the issue of peacemaking on quite a different standard. For as I’ve noted, Jesus does not suggest that if you have a grievance against someone in the community, it might be a good idea for you to try to quote, work it out. Rather, he says that you must go and speak to the one who you believe has sinned against you.
Such a speaking, of course, may well involve nothing less than confrontation. You must do it first alone, but if reconciliation does not take place you must go public, taking witnesses with you. If that still is not sufficient, you must take the matter before the whole church. Our first reaction to this text is to think that surely this procedure is far too extreme for most of our petty conflicts. I may get angry at someone but if I wait, I discover that I will get over it. Moreover, who wants to appear as someone who is too easily offended?
No one likes people who tend to make mountains out of molehills. Especially when they claim to be doing so only because of quote, the principle involved. God, I hate those people. [audience laughs] Even more important, most of us learned that time heals all wounds and thus we’re better off waiting for some conflicts to die through the passage of time.
Yet Jesus seems to have been working with a completely different set of presuppositions about what is necessary to be a community of peace, of people how love one another. It seems that peace is not the name of the absence of conflict, but rather peacemaking is that quality of life and practices engendered by a community that knows it lives as a forgiven people. Such a community cannot afford to overlook one another’s sins because they have learned that such sins are a threat to being a community of love.
Never forget, you never, it is a sin to think you are capable of naming your own sin. You are able to only know your sin by being told by another. The essential presupposition of peacemaking as an activity among Christians is not a common belief that we have been made part belief that we have been made part of a community in which people no longer regard their lives as their own. We are not permitted to harbor our grievances as ours.
When we think our brother or sister has sinned against us, such an affront is not against us, but against the whole community. A community established as peaceful cannot afford to let us relish our sense of being wrong without exposing that wrong in the hopes of reconciliation. We must learn to see wrongs as personal because we are part of a community where the personal is crucial for the realization of the common good.
It is an unpleasant fact, however, that most of our lives are governed more by our hates and dislikes than by our loves. I seldom know what I really want but I know what or whom I deeply dislike and even hate. It may be painful to be wrong but at least such wrongs give me a history of resentment that in fact constitute who I am. How would I know who I am if I did not have my enemies? It seems our enemies are exactly who Jesus is forcing us to confront. For he tells us that we cannot cherish our wrongs.
Rather we are commanded to engage in the difficult task of confronting those we believe have sinned against us. Such confrontation is indeed hard because it makes us vulnerable as the one we confront. The process of confrontation means that we may well discover we’ve been mistaken about our being wrong. God, how I hate that. [audience laughs]
Still more troubling, it seems that even if we have been wrong by confronting our brother or sister, we have to envision the possibility that like Jonah, he or she may repent and we will therefore have to be reconciled. We’ll be forced to lose the subject of our disgust. From the perspective of peacemaking, is anything therefore but boring?
Rather it is the most demanding of tasks. One of the interesting aspects of this passage in Matthew is it assumes that the Christian community will involve conflict because we are sinners. The question is not whether such conflict can be eliminated, but rather how we are to deal with the conflicts. Conflict is not to be ignored or denied but rather conflict, which involves sin is to be forced into the open. That we are to do so must surely be because the peace that Jesus brings is not a peace of rest, but a peace of truth. Just as love without trust cannot help but be accursed. So peace without truthfulness cannot help but be deadly.
In short, peacekeeping is but the virtue of Christian community that is required if the church is to be a community of people at peace with one another in a world at war. Christians are not called non-violence because we believe our non-violence is a strategy to rid the world of war, though we would of course like to make war less likely. But in a world of war, as people called to follow Christ as a way of non-violence, we cannot help but be non-violent in a world of war. Which often will make the world more violent.
Thus the church is such a community of truthful speech, depends on it being a community of the forgiven. As the text from Matthew notes, Peter realized that Jesus command that we confront the sinner is not an easy one. For such confrontation is based on the presumption that forgiveness is also to be offered. But how often, Peter asked, can forgiveness be offered? Seventy times? We cannot help but be sympathetic with Peter’s question for it just seems to be against good sense to be ready to always offer forgiveness. What kind of community would ever be sustained on the presumption that forgiveness is available?
Yet there seems to be no limit to forgiveness as Jesus elaborates his response to Peter, by telling the story of the servant who haven’t been forgiven his debt refuses to forgive a fellow servant. The lord of the unforgiving servant on being told of his servant’s behavior, threw him in jail until he paid his debt. And so we are told your heavenly father will do every one of you, will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
What it seems we must remember if we are to be peacemakers capable of confronting one another with our sins, is that we are forgiven and that we are part of the community of the forgiven. Our ability to be truthful peacemakers depends on our learning that we owe our lives to God’s unrelenting forgiveness.
I mean, Christians today have the view that they are tingling masses of forgiveness, ready to lay some on you. [audience laughs] Is it any wonder the world hates us? [audience laughs] I mean you must remember we’re only able to forgive because we’ve been forgiven. The forgiveness that makes peacemaking possible moreover, does not mean that judgment is withheld. The question is not whether we should hold one another accountable, but what is the basis of doing so? And how is it to be done?
To be sinned against, or to know we’ve sinned requires we have language and correlative habits that make it possible to know it to be a, what it means to be a sinner. Only on such a basis do we have the capacity to avoid the arbitrariness of judgment. As we learn to see our relations with one another as part of a continuing tradition of discourse that helps us serve a common good. That good, at least among Christians is to be a community of the forgiven, empowered to witness to God’s kingdom of peace, wrought through Jesus of Nazareth.
We do not therefore confront one another from a position of self-righteousness. We must come to the other as one who has been forgiven. Such perspective I think throws a quite different light on the passage from which I began. Too often it is assumed that this text legitimates confrontation with the brother or sister on the assumption that we have the power over the other because we have been wronged and thus can decide to forgive.
Forgiveness from such a position is but another form of power since it assumes that one is in a superior position. But the whole point of the text is that we confront one another as the forgiven. Not as those who use forgiveness as power, but first and foremost as a people who have learned the truth about ourselves, namely, that we are a people who need to be and have been forgiven. [gentle music]