Earlier this week, our daily office lectionary offered this little not-at-all-challenging bit of scripture:
27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Jesus has something of a reputation of proposing a touchy-feely “lets all get along and love each other” message, at least in comparison to the allegedly fire and brimstone God of the Old Testament. But then there are times when we cannot escape the fact that Jesus poses some pretty tough spiritual challenges to us. I will confess, I struggle when I read these words of scripture. It is much, much easier (not to mention so much more self-validating) to see ourselves as victims than to extend the hand of charity and grace to those who have hurt us. It is so much easier to seethe in anger than to pray for those by whom we have been damaged. This is up there with that annoying “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” when it comes to spiritually convicting teachings of Christ.
But there is another reason why this passage gives me pause — aside from the challenges it poses to my own life of faith. It is the fact that this passage as those like it can be so easily used to validate oppression and injustice. Victims of abuse are expected just to let go of their hurt without going through a natural, healthy process of grief and anger. Historically marginalized groups are expected to extend the hand of reconciliation to the oppressors without any acknowledgement from those oppressors of corporate guilt.
Don’t get me wrong. I think there is a reason Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who do us wrong. Sinking into our own self-righteous anger, closing ourselves off from the prospect of extending the grace of forgiveness is not the path to spiritual wholeness and salvation. On the other hand, it is not the place of the powerful to tell the hurting what forgiveness looks like. We are doing something wrong if we interpret Jesus’s words in such a way that we place undue burden on those who have historically suffered to just … get over it. To express their anger, frustration, rage in a way that makes US feel more comfortable.
It does not take a huge hermeneutic stretch to apply these thoughts to what is currently happening in Baltimore this past week, as decades of racial tensions and gross social inequality boiled over to the surface. I have thought long and hard about how to respond to the events of the past week. As a priest, I feel I must say something. On the other hand, what can I say? Do we really need another white blogger evaluating–whether to sympathize with or condemn–the actions of Black Americans? All I can say is to pose the question of what would it look like for EVERYONE to take these challenging words of Jesus to heart. To recognize that Jesus’s call to love our enemies is not a burden unduly placed on the historically weak, but an obligation aimed even more directly at the historically powerful and privileged, among whom I include myself.
Maybe part of what Jesus is getting at in his teaching is that we extend the benefit of the doubt to those with whom we differ. Maybe we do not understand why the black community feels so disenfranchised … or, indeed, feels that their lives do not matter in the current cultural climate. But rather than responding with a posture of judgment or condemnation, we have an obligation to respond with humility. To at least try to hear and understand the issues at the heart of the current issues. To face hard truths even when it makes us uncomfortable–trust me, I have felt uncomfortable and defensive when I hear frustrations vented against “white Christianity” and its obliviousness to racial issues. I also know there’s quite a lot of validity to those frustrations and I need to be willing to hear them. That doesn’t mean that we always have to agree. But it does mean we have to start by listening to those who have not historically had their voices heard.
When it comes to the current racial issues, especially what’s happening in Baltimore, a good place to start is Ta-Nahisi Coates (really, just read everything he’s ever written). Someone on Twitter that I’ve really appreciated following recently is Broderick Greer, who brings a challenging and moving Christian perspective to hard racial truths. His recent speech at the College of William and Mary is deeply convicting and well worth reading. Christena Cleveland as well offers helpful words on how to truly listen with humility. (Side note, if we think systemic racism is merely a problem of the states, one need only check out Desmond Cole’s recent column in Toronto Life).
In the end, my decision on what to say about Baltimore is to say … nothing. But to listen, and hopefully to hear. And to pray for everyone. For those rioters who burned down private property. For those offering peaceful demonstrations. For the police officers … most of whom are ordinary men and women trying to do their job as best they can. For my friends on facebook referring to rioters as “thugs.” Maybe even, when I have the spiritual strength, for the reporters on Fox news. Maybe I’ll work up to that last one.