Sunday, February 23, 2014

Power, Love, and Dignity

sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Deacon, Seminarian
The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A/ February 23, 2014

First, may I have a volunteer from the congregation? Specifically, I’m looking for someone who wouldn’t mind getting into a pretend fight with me.

Let’s pretend that we live in the Ancient Middle East. I am a Roman, and you are a Jew. Who has more power? Why? […]

Now, let’s say that I’m having a bad day, and I pass you on the street. I decide that I don’t like the way you looked at me. How am I going to reprimand you? […]

Is this illegal? No. Because I’m a Roman, and you are a Jew. I’m within my rights as a Roman citizen. Also, note that I used my right hand. This is because we assume, in our society, that everybody is right-handed, and that we only use our left hands for tasks that are seen as “unclean.” I’ll let you imagine what that might entail—but suffice it to say that I would never consider using my left hand to strike you.

Now, if you were a Roman like me, and if we were of equal social status, I wouldn’t backhand you like that. I’d punch you in the face, like in a bar fight. That’s not humiliating—that’s a fight between equals. It’s just boys being boys, right? Notice the difference. If I slap you with the back of my hand, which cheek am I striking? If I punch you with my fist, which cheek now?

OK, so let’s play this again. You are a Jew who is just coming home from hearing Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount, a portion of which we all just heard. I smack you on the right cheek with the back of my hand. Now … “turn the other cheek.” What’s happening here? […]

Theologian Walter Wink analyzes this situation in great detail in his book Engaging the Powers. When you do not cringe and cower, but remain standing and turn the other cheek, you are saying, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.”

OK, one more. I’m a Roman soldier and you’re a Jew. I’m carrying my pack in the hot sun, and I’m tired. I see you and say, “Hey! Jew! Carry my pack!” The law says I’m allowed to do this, provided I don’t make you walk more than one mile. Some Romans, especially soldiers, had abused their right to conscript inferiors to carry their stuff, so this law was meant to curb the practice, as sort of a mercy rule. I have the right to treat you like my personal slave without notice. But if I make you carry my pack for more than one mile, I could be in serious trouble. I might only receive a reprimand, but I could be beaten or demoted—as a soldier, the punishment is up to the discretion of my commanding officer.

Now, you could be all grumpy and carry the pack for exactly one mile, then drop it and walk away. But instead, let’s say you cheerfully shoulder the burden and do your best to chat me up about my day and my family. One mile goes by, and I try to take back my pack. But you say, “Oh, no, it’s OK. I wasn’t doing anything else today anyway, and I’m enjoying our conversation.” And you keep walking. What has just happened? What should I do now? Furthermore, what if all the Jews started doing this?

We start to see what Jesus is up to here, and I’m grateful to Walter Wink for his book. The Jews couldn’t succeed at throwing out the Romans with an armed rebellion. But they could start a social revolution. By knowing the limits of the laws of the land, and by refusing to sacrifice their dignity, the long-oppressed Jews could rise above their station and begin living in the Kingdom of God.

Nothing speaks to this possibility more clearly than Jesus’ command, “Love your enemies.” There are four words for love in Greek, and Jesus chooses the most extreme one, agape. That’s not just general regard, or doing nice things. It means loving our enemies unconditionally and with abandon, the way God does.

In 2006, then-Senator Obama commented that the Sermon on the Mount is “so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application.” True enough, and I find it deeply ironic that those who proclaim most loudly that ours is a Christian country are often the very people who would ignore the heart of Jesus’ teachings as found in the Sermon on the Mount. As individuals and as a country, we must continue to be in relationship and conversation about how we live out our faith, and how our faith applies when engaging our enemies.

On one of the anniversaries of 9/11 a few years ago, I read something on Facebook that made my blood boil. A college acquaintance of mine, a man who spoke frequently of both his patriotism and his love for Jesus, suggested that every year on 9/11, we should use fighter jets to drop raw pork on all the mosques in the U.S. His ignorance and stupidity overwhelmed me, but I did my best to remain dignified. I wrote in response: “Love your enemies. – Jesus.” When he took me to task for using this quote, I said that I thought his suggestion was un-American, and that his ridiculous joke made light of the tragedy and loss of life on that horrible day. I also observed that I knew he was running for local office, and that this kind of statement might not be a wise one to make publicly. His reply back was very angry indeed—imagine the thought of a patriot like him making light of 9/11! And while I don’t remember exactly what my old acquaintance said, I do remember feeling relieved to discover that he had un-friended me. I was relieved, but I was also a little sad. I had not sought to end that relationship. But neither could I bring myself to let his words stand.

Dignity is power. Walter Wink tells the story of a time when Archbishop Desmond Tutu “was walking by a construction site on a temporary sidewalk the width of one person. A white man appeared at the other end, recognized Tutu, and said, ‘I don’t give way to gorillas.’ At which Tutu stepped aside, made a deep sweeping gesture, and said, ‘Ah yes, but I do.’”

Gandhi once said, “The first principle of nonviolent action is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating.” Dignity does everything it can to equalize the relationship. Dignity is power, and dignity is perfection—the kind of perfection Jesus urges from his disciples: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The Greek word here doesn’t imply moral perfection, never doing anything wrong. Rather, it means wholeness—completion—becoming who you were always meant to be. Perfection has to do with the decisions you make with whatever power you may have.

One thing Jesus did continually was to show the powerless what power they had. No matter our economic or social status, the power of love is available to everyone.

We don’t need a bunch of knowledge or wisdom, as Paul states in this letter to the Corinthians: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.” It sounds like an offensive contradiction at first. Why should we become fools? But this passage isn’t about anti-intellectualism. True dignity is built on humility. If I see myself as wise, I will get thrown into a tailspin when something comes along to challenge that wisdom. But if I see myself as a dignified fool, especially relative to God’s eternal wisdom, I take the perspective of a student eager to learn, even if it means learning from my mistakes. Because I am God’s beloved child, making mistakes or displaying my ignorance does not mean I must lose my dignity. The same goes for every one of us.

And this is why Jesus commands us to love our enemies: because we are all in the same boat. Jesus wants us to want only the best for our enemies—life to the fullest, lived in joy and wonder. And that’s because every one of us, no matter what evil we may have done, is eternally a beloved child of God.

To love our enemies is the heart of dignity. And to be direct with those who would abuse us, rather than giving in to them, is a crucial component. If possible without causing ourselves harm, we seek to stay in relationship with those who despise us, rather than writing them off. If we believe the soul is eternal, then we are never done with anyone. Jesus instructs us to live into what we will ultimately become—and to wish the same ultimate perfection for everybody else on earth. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. My only disappointment with this: that I wasn't present at it's preaching. I most deeply appreciate the connection between dignity and loving your enemies. Also brings to mind some of my current studies on rage. I'll need to write something soon.