What do you do when you are hurt or threatened? What do you do when someone else’s mistake, whether it is deliberate or accidental, causes you loss or grief? How do you act when you are suffering? The answer for most of us, if we are honest, is that we may not be at our best when we are suffering or hurt or threatened. We may lash out in anxiety or fear or criticism. We may become less able to be compassionate and aware of the needs of others. Most of us, when suffering, curve inward and focus on ourselves, and we may even act out. It’s an understandable response to pain.
But unfortunately, many times when we are under siege, when we lash out or are less available to the humanity of others or when we ourselves go on the offensive, we end up perpetuating hurt and the suffering of others. In today’s text Jesus is teaching us what to do with suffering and violence. But his teaching is very difficult to understand.
Turn the other cheek, he says. Love your enemies. Pray for those who abuse you. Is that really better than an eye for an eye? At least with an eye for an eye, justice is done and violence is stopped. What about holy resistance? What about standing up for what is right? What about refusing to cooperate with violence in any form? Are we just supposed to become doormats? Are people who are being abused or oppressed just supposed to meekly put up with it in silence? Are we just supposed to say it’s OK when people betray us and are outrageously selfish and act for their own interests and pleasure with no regard to the damage they are doing?
The answer is no, Jesus is not teaching us to become meek doormats that just allow anyone to do anything because we “love” them. What Jesus is saying is actually far radical and more powerful. This text is the text that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King studied, along with Gandhi’s teachings about nonviolence, when he led the nonviolent revolution that turned this country’s racism on its head in the 1960s. Jesus is not saying we must not resist evil. In fact our baptismal covenants require us to continually resist evil, and to repent when we fall into sin. Jesus, instead, is giving us an understanding and a roadmap of how to resist evil without perpetuating violence. He is showing us how to resist evil without demonizing evildoers. Jesus is deeply in touch with the tragic reality that violence tends to beget more violence. Even the violence of justice—an eye for an eye—can tend to continue in never ending cycles. Jesus is showing us a third way. It is the way that insists that as we seek justice we must remain constantly grounded in love and nonviolence, and not hatred and retribution.
But how are we to do this in practice? How are we to love our enemies? How are we to resist evil?
I once read an article by a Catholic priest from Nigeria named Charles Kwuelum. Perhaps some of you know that Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, and that it is divided largely between its Christian south and its Muslim north. Rev. Kwuelum had been a priest who led a small parish in Northern Nigeria, where for many years Christians and Muslims lived peaceably alongside one another. He said that he knew personally many Muslims who were his friends, including three young men who joined Boko Haran in 2009. They had been attracted to Boko Haran “because of their frustration with overwhelming socioeconomic inequality that had left them impoverished and unemployed. From their perspective, the ostentatious lifestyle of the political class indicated corruption, poor governance, and improperly managed resources. Boko Haram seemed to promise justice. ” Rev. Kweulum watched how the government that opposed Boko Haran was often guilty of the same civil rights abuses as its Boko Haran counterparts. He saw how the government ordered the destruction of the mosque in his town and saw how the Muslims had to flee further northeast in Nigeria, all while Boko Haran became increasingly violent, radical, and abusive.
What this Christian priest, who personally knew three young men who became members of Boko Haran, said about Jesus’ teachings today is this. An enemy is just a person whose story we have not yet heard. This priest is not in the least saying that the abuses and violence and terrorism that Boko Haran espouses is acceptable. He is saying that he has personally watched how the increasingly violent and dehumanizing rhetoric between the Nigerian and U.S. governments and Boko Haran, and the policies of violence that have ensued, have seemed only to fuel the extremism of this group. What is needed is the capacity to recognize that your enemy is a human being, and the willingness to hear your enemy’s story. What is needed is the capacity to find peaceful and nonviolent ways to stop demonizing one another, and instead to address the suffering and violence that itself causes more violence.
In Matthew’s version of today’s text, when Jesus is teaching us to love our enemies, Jesus says that we must be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. That is the last impossible thing he demands of us in a long string of impossible things. But the Greek word translated perfect is teleios, which means complete. It means a thing that completely fulfills its purpose. It means being whole. Jesus is saying that we must be so transformed, we can be so healed, that in the end, all that can be found in us is love. Not sentimentality, or weakness, or wishful naïve thinking, but love. The sun shines because it cannot help doing what it is. The rain just falls because it is rain. Jesus is inviting us to such inner healing that we are consistent between what is within us and what comes out of us: that both our inner and outer lives are suffused with the single reality of the love of God. The love of God makes humanity in God’s image and constantly seeks the life and forgiveness and healing of everyone without exception. God sees every person, even the worst abusers on this planet, with love. God knows and understands our suffering and requires us to see and treat our fellow human beings from that place—not just our family and friends and neighbors, but our enemies as well.
An enemy is one whose story we have not yet heard. If a Christian Nigerian can say that about those he calls his Boko Haran neighbors, then by the grace of God, you and I can be transformed enough to have the same attitude toward whomever we love to hate. We can say it about people we habitually demonize, whether that is Democrats or Republicans or pro-lifers or pro-choicers or black lives matter or all lives matter people. We can learn to say it about the people in our families who have harmed us. We can even listen to ourselves, when we commit great wrongs, and learn to hear the stories of hunger and need our own wrongs can teach us. We don’t have to endorse violence or promote injustice to love those who are guilty of it.
So this week, I’d like to invite each of us to a practice. Remember how at the beginning of today’s homily I asked you what happens when you are suffering? What you are like when you feel hurt or threatened? This week, I’d like to invite you to remember what that feels like, and from that place of compassion and curiosity, reach out to one person who you might see as different from you – even, perhaps someone who is an enemy. Try to hear something authentic and real from them about their story. How might you see the dignity and genuine gift and need in that person? How might that change the way we seek to promote justice and the welfare of every living thing? Whose story have you not yet truly heard?
Now there might be some here who are not yet ready to hear an enemy’s story. Your hurt might be too fresh. If that is the case, then I invite you to listen to your own anger, to your own pain. What story does it need to tell? What was it that you lost? What do you need to become whole again?
May God grant each of us liberation and healing. May the love of God transform us to become forgiven and forgiving people. Amen.
 Charles Kwuelum, “My Neighbor, Boko Haram: We Can’t End Violence with More Violence,” in Sojourners Magazine (March 2017), accessed February 19, 2017 at https://sojo.net/magazine/march-2017/my-neighbor-boko-haram .