‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’

Posted Apr 11, 2014

[Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs] Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori delivered the following sermon at St. Paul’s Cathedral on April 11 at the close of Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace: An Episcopal Gathering to Challenge the Epidemic of Violence being held at the Reed Center and the nearby Sheraton Midwest City in Oklahoma. 

Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace
Oklahoma City
11 April 2014
St. Paul’s, Cathedral, 5:30 pm

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  The ability to do that begins with the heart.  There’s a traditional Irish prayer that goes something like this, “May those who love us love us.  And those who don’t love us, may God turn their hearts.  And if he doesn’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we will know them by their limping.”

That is a start, and it’s honest – it doesn’t hide the complexity of feeling about an enemy.  But those who would be perfect, as Jesus charges us, have to keep looking beyond subtle forms of vengeance or branding those we deem unlovable with some obvious sign of their irredeemability – as though we might not have to try so hard to love them.  Learning to live without violence is an ongoing struggle.

Violence is anything that seeks to diminish life – especially another person’s integrity or dignity or life possibilities.  The word comes from the same root as vital, but it moves in the opposite direction, away from what God has created and called good and blessed.  Violence misuses the gift of life, trading it for some dull or brassy idol that promises control, predictability, or certainty.  That brassy idol is simply a dressed up and tricked out phantasm of death.  The life God has created is free to choose – and it can choose life or death.  Violence seeks to steal that freedom or end it.  Violence can be an instinctive reaction to preserve life when other violence threatens – like attacking a charging animal likely to maim vulnerable children.  Violence can also be a more or less conscious choice that seeks to augment life at the cost of others – the assassination of a political opponent, or the crazed mayhem of an unstable shooter.

We often try to counter violence by superior violence or by fencing it in.  Jesus teaches another way.

The nuns in the convent school I attended as a child taught us custody of the eyes – being conscious about what we see, and turning away from distractions that prevent us from seeing the presence of the holy.  Sometimes we need to avoid seeing what is unhelpful or unedifying or because it may harm another.  But it’s also about seeing what needs to be noticed, either for praise or correction.  Do you remember Shug telling Celie, “I think it [ticks] God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice.”[1]  Custody of the eyes is about cultivating a kind of purity of seeing, a perfection that avoids aggressive possession as well as defensiveness.  It can be misused – in the overly guarded vision that refuses to see a neighbor in need, or as we were also taught by those nuns to avoid playing with Protestant children lest we be tainted or misled.

Countering violence requires custody of the heart.  Violence begins in the heart, especially in hearts that have been wounded and scarred by the violence of others, and then react and respond aggressively, in overly defended ways.  Violence begins in the heart that cannot countenance vulnerability – rooted in fear that its own vitality will be extinguished.  As the counterforce to abundant life, violence is intrinsically kin to evil.

The ultimate counterforce to fear is perfect love, the ability to share life to the full, with radical vulnerability, in the face of those who would destroy it.  The undefended Jesus shows us the way.  He does not go about with armies or weapons, he does not protest the words of his captors, he does not defend himself or attack others with violent words or actions, and it is ultimately his ability to set his life-force and spirit free, fully free, that deprives the evil around him of any ultimate power.

Vulnerability is finally galvanizing those of us who are less than perfect into action – through the slaughter of innocents in our schools and on our streets, and the willingness to let our hearts bear some of that pain.  The civil rights struggles of this nation, and the wanton violence of others, even those charged to uphold the law, finally galvanized the passive people of this nation into active response. Response in the face of lynchings, cross burnings, fire hoses, and attack dogs.  That active response is most effective when it is non-violent and openly vulnerable.

It looks like the widow, showing up day after day to ask for justice.  It is Paul urging, “don’t repay evil with evil… never avenge yourselves… No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you heap burning coals on their heads.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”[2]  I believe Paul means burning coals not as vengeance, but the coal the angels use to touch Isaiah’s lips, and remove his guilt and sin.[3]

Non-violence is ultimately the only creative response, for an absence of life cannot bring about greater life.  Feeding the rage of violence may briefly burn out the heart of aggression, but it only increases the carnage.  It does not increase love.

Custody of the heart is what Jimmy Carter was talking about when he said that he’d committed adultery many times in his heart.  We commit violence when we judge others less than ourselves, when we wish them ill, when we give them labels that serve to pre-judge or dismiss them.  Peace-making begins in the depths of our hearts, by loving those we first address as enemies.

Enemy literally means “not a friend.”  Acting out of love begins to change that.  It begins in our hearts, in response to threat and stranger, and it moves out across families, communities, and nations.  If the immediate response to perceived threat is an attempt to destroy, we are no better than the beasts.  When we can “be not anxious” we just might meet Jesus in this one who is not yet known as friend.

Custody does not mean closing up your heart – it means setting boundaries on how the heart responds, it’s more like stewardship, guarding and keeping watch.  It is aided by remembering – even by rehearsing – that we are God’s beloved and God is well pleased with us, and with every other human creature on this earth, and that God has given abundance for the good of all creation.

Custody of the heart is a spiritual discipline that unleashes the power of love and abundant life.  In the midst of the Irish troubles 40 years ago, instead of praying that God turn an enemy’s ankle, I discovered that I was being led to pray for Ian Paisley.  At the time he seemed to me an image of evil incarnate.  But that discipline changed my heart.  When a stranger grabbed me when I was out running a couple of years ago, I yelled and wrestled with him until we reached a stalemate.  It finally dawned on me that putting my foot in a sensitive place might induce him to let go – and it did, without damage to either of us.  At another time in my life I think I might have tried to hurt him before I realized that he was mentally ill, that I had somehow entered his zone of safety and threatened him.  I still wish that I had been present enough to hug him rather than running away.

Consider how violence was transfigured in the shooting in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania – the story known to many of us through Amish Grace.  The community forgave, reconciled, and rebuilt their school house, naming it New Hope.  The memorial site in this city has begun to turn swords into plowshares by planting a garden, letting water flow in the desert, and remembering and celebrating the unique gifts of each vulnerable and beloved child of God who died in that place.

Countering violence begins in our hearts – with the words we choose, the judgments we make, and the vulnerability we’re willing to assume.  We stand at the gate of Holy Week.  Before us is the cosmic example of the prince of peace, who befriends the world, and meets the world’s violence with love.

Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the infinite peace to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you.
Deep peace of the prince of peace to you – and through you, to the world.

[1] The Color Purple, Alice Walker.  1982.
[2] Romans 12:17, 19, 20-21
[3] Isaiah 6:6-7