The Word We Don’t Want to Hear

February 19, 2017 – 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 5.38-48

My sermon title is “The Word We Don’t Want to Hear” because, as you heard me to talk with the kids, what Jesus tells us to do is really hard.

Yesterday afternoon I saw the documentary about (but also more than just about) James Baldwin titled “I Am Not Your Negro.” It’s currently sold out at the Speed Cinema but will open in early March at Village 8 Theatres. I highly recommend it. It is not an easy film to watch but the truth James Baldwin speaks is so important for us to hear. We who are white need to hear it. And what I heard from African Americans in the audience is that as hard as it was to experience, there was something affirming about having the truth of one’s life named.

When I got to the theater, I was thinking about my sermon for this morning. Thinking about what Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer….Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Part of “I Am Not Your Negro” is James Baldwin’s reflection on his relationship with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Medgar Evers worked for the NAACP investigating injustice. Evers, Baldwin wrote, was a “peaceful man, who had constantly urged that violence is not the way.”[1] On June 12, 1963, Medger Evers was assassinated in the driveway of his home in front of his family members by a Ku Klux Klan member. “So much for not resisting an evildoer,” I thought to myself.

Malcolm X “exhorted blacks to cast off the shackles of racism ‘by any means necessary,’ including violence.”[2] Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965 in a ballroom in Manhattan, where he was preparing to deliver a speech. “Resisting an evildoer doesn’t save you either,” I thought.

Dr. King, of course, was a proponent of non-violence, learning the ideals of it from Jesus and the “operational techniques from Gandhi.”[3] In his sermon, “Loving Your Enemies,” on the same text we have heard this morning, he says, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiples hate, violence multiples violence…into a descending spiral of destruction.”[4] On April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Dr. King was assassinated. “Loving your enemies does not protect your life either,” I thought.

It would be so much easier if these words of Jesus were just ethereal admonitions. You know, great ideals but nothing we’re ever going to actually do in our real lives.

Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we didn’t have to deal with our enemies? If you’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof you probably remember this exchange. Someone asks the rabbi, “Is there a proper blessing for the tsar?” The rabbi ponders, “A blessing for the tsar?…Of course…May God bless and keep the tsar…far away from us!”

But the kind of evildoers and enemies Jesus talks about are not just a few people from whom we can distance ourselves. In the Jesus’ day it was the entire oppressive and coercive system of the Roman empire. And for Dr. King and Medgar Evers and Malcolm X and James Baldwin it was not one or two Klans men, it was an entire entrenched, and legalized, system of white supremacy which remains largely in place today, remodeling its method from enslavement to Jim Crow to mass incarceration to gutting voting rights to whatever this period of time after President Obama will come to be called.

75 years ago today, February 19, 1942, three months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, another President signed an Executive Order. President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.

“The order allowed the secretary of war to declare that an area was a military zone, clearing the way for more than 110,000” people of Japanese ancestry, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens, who were living in Washington, Oregon, and California, to be evacuated and interned.[5] They were forcibly moved inland, without a hearing or a trial to internment camps (also called concentration camps by some historians). They were allowed to take with them only what they could carry, leaving behind homes and businesses, farms, possessions and communities in which they had been respected and contributing members.

Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” How does that even make any sense in the face of white supremacy? How does that make sense in the face of evil?

Let me offer a few possibilities that give me some way to tentatively move forward with this text—and maybe it will for you too.

This word “resist” in verse 39 is more, scholars say, about retaliation than about being passive. The Greek word for “resist is usually used in military contexts referring to armed resistance.” Talk of armed resistance was not an abstract conversation. Pastor Karen Sapio tells us that “The appropriateness of violent resistance to the Roman occupation was a matter of intense debate in the Jewish community of Jesus’ day.”[6] One writer summarizes verse 39 to say, “Love does not retaliate.”[7] Retaliation and the violence which comes with it are not part of the realm of God. Eugene Peterson in his translation in The Message says it like this: “‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’”

In a recent interview, Representative John Lewis from Georgia talked about taking part of the lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960s when he was in his 20s. A recent documentary about Rep. Lewis is titled, “Get in the Way”—which is what he has done his whole life. In both the interview and the documentary, Rep. Lewis  talks about the preparation for the sit-ins. There was serious training for this work including practice with the kind of physical and verbal abuse the young adults would experience when they asked to be served at the lunch counter.

Rep. Lewis said, “[We were trained that] if someone kick[ed] you, spit on you, pull[ed] you off the lunch counter stool, [we] continue[d] to make eye contact. Continue[d] to give the impression, ‘Yes, you may beat me, but I’m human.’”

Krista Tippett, the interviewer, said, “In the way I come to understand this…the point of all of this role-playing was not just about being practically prepared. I suspect that some neuroscientist now in the 21st century probably understands what happens in our brains somehow with what you knew about that moment of eye contact and human connection. But you also understood this to be a spiritual confrontation, first within yourselves, and then with the world outside.”

Rep. Lewis responded, “You’re so right. First of all, you have to grow. [Nonviolence is] not something that is natural. You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. And in the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being.”[8]

Love does not retaliate, Jesus says.

Listen to how The Message translates verses 43-45. “You’re familiar with…‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.”

More than a decade ago, a church member said in the prayers of the people, “The Bible tells me to pray for my enemies so today I want to pray for [and he named the man who was President of the United States at the time].” There was a lot of laughter in the congregation but this church member was serious.

John Lewis again: “From time to time, [we] would discuss if you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person — years ago, that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? [Did] something go wrong?…Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being. And you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.”[9]

In Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence, the third principle is, “Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.”[10]

James Baldwin asks, “How can you lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourself?”[11]

We white people are coming to see that white supremacy and systemic racism is damaging not just to people of color but it is also damaging to those of us who are white. It distorts our view of the world, of ourselves, of God’s creation. It makes us assume we are something we are not. As the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church says, “We violate the image of God in others and ourselves, [and] accept lies as truth.”

So loving our enemies is not just our enemies, it is also for us.

Professor of Theology, Matthew Boulton, says Jesus calls us to a way of discipleship that “points toward a deeper, more radical resistance: namely, noncooperation in the underlying [system] of hate and brutality involved in evildoing…Jesus advises defiance—but not defiance directed against the enemies themselves, since this simply perpetuates and intensifies the relationship’s adversarial character, but rather a deeper defiance directed against the vicious, endless cycle of enemy making.” The endless cycle of you do something bad to me so I retaliate against you. Then you retaliate against me. And then I retaliate against you. And on and on until we both die and our children pick up the retaliation, back and forth. “Do not fight fire with fire, Jesus says; rather, fight fire with water, and therefore refuse to take part in the incendiary, all-too-familiar work of injury and domination.”[12]

Before “I Am Not Your Negro” began there was a preview for a movie to be shown at the Speed Cinema this coming the week. It’s called “Disturbing the Peace.”

The film is about people born into conflict, sworn to be enemies, who challenged their fate. The film follows former enemy combatants—Israeli soldiers from elite units and Palestinian fighters, many of whom served years in prison—who have joined together to challenge the status quo and say “enough.”[13] The film tells the story of their journey from being soldiers committed to armed battle to nonviolent peace activists.

In the trailer, a woman is challenging one of the Palestinians who has given up fighting and now is a nonviolence peace activist. “You think a small group like [yours] will change anything?” she asks skeptically. The former fighter turned peace maker responds, “Nelson Mandela, one person, was able to change the whole country. One man. How did he do that?”[14]

One man. One person. Nelson Mandela. Or Martin Luther King, Jr. Or Rosa Parks. Or Ella Baker. Or Jesus. Disturbing the Peace. Getting in the Way. Loving Our Enemies.

It might seem crazy, naïve, even hopeless. But what other choice do we have? Continue the violence or choose another way?
* * * * *

[1] Quoted in printed notes for “I Am Not Your Negro,” 18 February 2017, Speed Art Museum Cinema.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 51.

[5], accessed 18 February 2017.

[6] Karen C. Sapio, “Matthew 5:38-48 – Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, vol. 1, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 111.

[7] M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 193.

[8], accessed 18 February 2017.

[9] Ibid.

[10], accessed 18 February 2017.

[11] Quoted in “I Am Not Your Negro,” 18 February 2017, Speed Museum Cinema.

[12] Michael Myer Boulton, “Matthew 5.38-48 – Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word – Year A, Vol 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox press, 2010), 385.

[13], accessed 18 February 2017.

[14], accessed 18 February 2017.


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