September 24, 2009

Loving Enemies: A Training Program

by Brian Volck
Numbers 11: (4-6, 10-16) 24-29; Psalm 19; James 5:1-6 (Catholic); 5:13-20 (Revised Common); Mark 9:38-50

“Even heretics love God, and burn
convinced that He will love them, too.
Whatever choice, I think that they have failed

to err sufficiently to witness less
than appalling welcome when – just beyond
the sear of that ecstatic blush – they turn.”

– Scott Cairns

My enemy has a portion of the truth. A portion I need. My enemy may have deformed that partial truth into an absolute (Heresy, from the Greek, hairesis, “to choose,” is an absolutized partial truth, no longer according to the whole.), but its core remains true. That’s one reason why Christians must love, rather than kill, enemies.

History, of course, demonstrates how difficult the injunction to love one’s enemies is, especially for Christians. Perhaps that’s why we’re assigned less challenging tasks as practice. Perhaps that’s why we rehearse lesser challenges in liturgy. We listen and reflect on the Word (not just the parts that please us), extend signs of peace to those who worship with us (most of whom won’t be on the guest list of our next – or any – house party), and become one Body (understood variously in different traditions) in the breaking of the bread.

Today’s readings from Numbers and Mark are about getting over ourselves, to stop fussing about the uniqueness of our place in salvation history.(Interesting, isn’t it, that Joshua, the future military leader, wants Eldad and Medad silenced. Interesting, too, what happens to Miriam soon afterward, when she questions Moses uniqueness as prophet. I leave parsing such matters to Torah scholars.) We are not the only prophets, not the only healers. My portion of the truth, however clear to me, may seem partial and opaque to you. Others, even those whose theology we find terribly wanting, are still capable of speaking and doing the Word.

Mark’s Jesus goes even further, having us cut off even our hands, our feet, our eyes if they become instruments of our personal heresies. I, at least, need frequent reminders that my most precious faculties may serve as channels of error. Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Revelation,” ends with a vision of the righteous entering heaven, surprised to find even their virtues being burned away. Scott Cairns concludes his poem, “Possible Answers to Prayer,” similarly:

Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—

these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.

The Letter of James provides other ways to practice love for those “who rouse our passions.” James pulls no punches in the reading Catholics hear this Sunday:

Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries….Behold,
the wages you withheld from the workers
who harvested your fields are crying aloud;
and the cries of the harvesters
have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts.
You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.

If this is so, the majority of Christians north of the Tropic of Capricorn have reason to weep and wail.

The selection in the Revised Common Lectionary is subtler: Pray constantly. Confess our own sins to one another. Counsel – notice it doesn’t say burn at the stake – those in error.

But what could be more revolutionary in a time, like ours, that worships health and autonomy, than anointing the sick? Yes, oil was a common treatment in first century Palestine (see the so-called Good Samaritan story), but James presents a liturgical function here, involving the elders of the church. In biblical context, ritual anointing is reserved for priests, kings and prophets. Jesus himself is “the Anointed One of God.” What James does is assign the sick person, weakened in body, mind and spirit, place of honor in the worshipping community.

This isn’t your standard Scott Osteen message, but even Mr. Osteen has a portion of the truth, however obscured by his carefully maintained exterior. We can live our best life now, or at least live a foretaste of it. The price, though, is steep, far steeper than most Christians are willing to pay: loss of autonomy, surrender of the role of “decider,” hospitality toward strangers, acceptance that God – not we – must make things come out right in the end.

It’s certainly not a path I’d choose on my own. But not walking that path, today’s readings tell us, is a waste of time.


Jon said...

Loving enemies is ultimately an admission of God's sovereignty over our lives. We love our enemies precisely because Christ commanded us to do so.

Furthermore, not "loving our enemies" undermines the entire notion of our faith--namely that Christ came to save what was lost.

If we understand the hard truth that each one of us has betrayed (even crucified) our Lord, we will find ourselves undeserving of His love, undeserving of a relationship with Him. As enemies of Christ we are destined for an eternity apart from Him (Hell),and it is in the midst of this realization then we begin the process of reconciliation with God and with our fellow man. In fact, our newfound love and devotion to Jesus Christ can scarcely exist outside of loving the least of these, even our enemies. How else could we show our love for Him?

When we begin to recognize that God loves us so much that He would dare to forgive us for what we have done, we are likewise compelled to forgive and to love our enemies.

david+ said...

I think it might be helpful for you to write "Joel Scott" instead of merely "Scott" Osteen... Nevertheless: a good message. Thanks.

Brian said...


You are, of course, correct. His first name is Joel. Why I didn't catch that before posting is unclear, but it's entirely my fault. I also mean the Tropic of Cancer, not Capricorn, so I'm down two strikes on this post.


Right on. Another admission of God's sovereignty is recognizing that we have enemies. We can't love someone who's not there. Not that we have to make enemies. Life takes care of that.

I do remember, though, spending a few moments at a Buddhist tchotchke shop nearby and finding, among all the other trendy retail items, a bumper sticker that read, "Love your enemies and you won't have any." I want to believe that Buddhism is more morally and intellectually serious than thinking my attitude will change the world, but that, apparently, is what sells.