Learning From Enemies

Ancient Testimony ~ Luke 6:27-36

July 12, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

The Persian poet Rumi said it best. "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there.” Jesus said it well also: What credit is it to you if you just love your friends? I want you to love your enemies. I want you to love the ones who can’t love back. I want you to live in a world beyond the exchange of either eye for eye or tooth for tooth. I want you to live in a world even beyond the exchange of kindness for kindness, love for love, good deed for good deed. I offer you a land where redemption is not about green stamps (remember them?) or chit for chit.

When we reduce salvation to a set of moral accounts, tits for tats, or chits bargained for chits, we miss the better way, the great field, the great credit which is beyond the credit card, the accountant’s ledger, the higher victimization, even the righteousness of accountabilities. There is a field beyond the frugal feeling of winning the victim contest. In the victim contest, you may win but you will have lost way too much along the way.

If I knew the way to this field, I’d rush right there and take you all with me. I don’t know the way to this field. I just spent what seemed like a half-century at the UCC Synod, retaliating. I will argue that what I did was the higher retaliation; the kind that I wish the President would do for torture or to the CIA for snooping. Debts, we like to say, must be paid. Jesus argues for something quite different. He is arguing for an extravagant, not a cheap, salvation. When we refuse portage to the field beyond right and wrong, good and bad, enemies and friends, we trivialize salvation. We make it too small to matter.

Let me tell you a little about my unseemly political retaliation. One person in the UCC fired another person in the UCC, someone whom I love dearly. The power person wanted certain significant political victories in the UCC. It was my job to make sure she did not get them. Why? Because if she got them, it would look like what she had done to my friend was right. It was not right, so retaliation was right. Yes, Virginia, there are politics in the church. Ask Jeremiah Wright. Or the Mormons. Or anybody who wants to understand extravagant salvation. Politics are not the opposite of extravagant salvation. They are also one of its means. This salvation is politics-plus, it is also a gift from which we don’t have to remove the price tag because it doesn’t have a price on it in the first place. You can neither buy nor sell salvation. Salvation is about as far away from retaliation as joy is from accountability.

When we finally achieve a balanced set of books, all we have is a balanced set of books. When that church in Vermont finally gets the pastor it is going to overwork and underpay, the one that is supposed to be liberal and conservative at the same time, what they will have is an overworked and underpaid pastor. They may balance their books but that’s about all they will do. There is also certainly no doubt that my first husband was finally the fault in our divorce. So what? There is no doubt that torture is wrong and that those who did it must be stopped from doing it again. Yes, yes, and yes. And then, so what? Consider the latest journalistic game, and I do mean game, regarding what Nancy Pelosi knew and when she knew it. The party that encouraged the CIA in the higher snooping has deflected concern about the higher snooping by making sure that everybody knows that everybody is in the same state of muck. So what? Consider the possibilities for blame and retaliation at our sister church, Riverside. Was it the Search Committee? Was it the pastor? Was it the staff? Was it the Search Committee and the pastor and the staff? Or some outsiders? The black folk? The white folk? The CIA? Korean computer spies? All of that and more? When a relationship is broken, the possible culprits abound.

Many of you join me in being overachievers at the art of blame, retaliation, the settling of accounts. Few know how to get to the field beyond blame, demonizing, retaliation, and the settling of accounts. Jesus points a way. The way is to love our enemies and be good to those who hate us and also hate what we love. The way is a kind of moral momentum that replaces moral reluctance and so-called moral retaliation.

If you are tired of your enemies, you might find salvation interesting. Salvation is an extravagant joy,—an excess, not an earned, value. It is a little like the Moon Walk and the man who made it so famous. In the Moon Walk, the dancer goes backwards and forward at the same time. Most of us only know how to go backwards, to that place where we think if we could just establish original fault, or original sin, or original something, we imagine we’d be able to move on. We won’t but that doesn’t mean most of our days aren’t spent enjoying and locating our enemies. Consider the whole conversation about Michael Jackson, the perp, the perv, the precious, or the precocious? Which is he? Well, isn’t it pretty clear that he is all four—and more?

Or I think of the people of Binghamton who managed to turn the awful grief of a deranged killer and his real victims into a question of how many tulips should be planted in honor of those who are now absurdly, ridiculously dead. What is the fight about? Whether the killer also deserves a tulip? The same fight happened in Columbine, by the way, where some Rumi-esque Christians continued to erect crosses across from the high school for the killers and others continued to take them down. Fewer tulips and fewer crosses would surely make a big difference, right? That would show them. If we just got the number of tulips right, for all I know, killing would be stopped in its terrible tracks.

I might also bring up terrorism, which since 9/11 has dominated nearly all of American life. It reaches into the lives of immigrants, regularly, as though if we could just stop them, we could stop terrorism. Without the rain of blood and money in the Middle East we might not have the recession we now have for the “BAIL OUT” we still need. Note the language: bailing out the sea is what we are doing, bucket by bucket. Something bigger than buckets is needed, but all we have is buckets. All we have is enemies whom we cannot stop but we imagine we must stop. Not to mention the lives of Afghanis, Iraqis, North Carolinians, and Pennsylvanians, who get to fight in wars with objectives so unclear that even a forensic accountant could not locate the original thread of whose eyes for whose teeth, whose bombs for whose oranges are being managed.

You probably agree with me that enemies can’t really be stopped by hate. You may even have your own version of that field beyond right and wrong, titting and tatting. Like me, you may also not know how to get there. My closest friends often accuse me of being too soft. They will say, Donna, you have to punish those people who did that to you, otherwise they won’t think you are serious. I take this sophisticated cynicism seriously. That’s why I spent Synod in the higher retaliation, which was completed, as far as it could be completed, right before the final communion service. I am also mightily disturbed that the New York State Comprehensive Immigration Coalition was able to generate 20,000 calls for modest reform—and those we called the other side, and some actually called our enemies, generated 700,000. 20,000 calls is a lot. 700,000 is a whole lot more than a lot. Would Jesus want me to love the 700,000 and tell the 20,000 that our efforts are forlorn? I think not. Would Jesus imagine that numbers determine what is right? I think not again.

Loving enemies cannot be retaliation- or even proaction-free. Real power, real insults, real creeps have to be stopped. Anything less is as naive as planting tulips instead of funding mental health clinics. When we speak of salvation as in the far field, we don’t have to oppose politics as our enemy, some kind of diversion to our spirituality. It can be a field on the way to a better field, especially if we don’t get too self-righteous about it.

Having said that, let me give you some pointers to the field. It is a field beyond power politics and power plays. It is a field beyond no fault divorce—although developing a moral momentum for forgiveness and a moral reluctance to blame are pieces of the trail.

Salvation is an extravagant joy; its root words are safety, security, shalom. We must secure the innocents, especially children, especially those who get in the way of our terrified bombs or our singer’s terrified penises. When our moral momentum is blame, we are not safe. We are actually scared. Anti-terrorist activity, especially the very violent kind, only shows our enemies how scared we are. We are so afraid of them that we must wipe them out. A larger safety tells us we don’t not have to wipe them out. We have to find out what we did to cause the trouble and what they did to cause the trouble and together be transformed into a higher and mutual safety. We plant tulips and clinics for deranged gunmen. We shift the momentum toward the larger human field of safety, away from the puny corridor of human blame. Places like Judson rethink what it means to think of our neighbor, NYU, as the enemy, the one who can never be trusted. People like Americans re-imagine ourselves as a befriending people, rather than a people who need gay people or black people or immigrants or somebody to hate in order to be ourselves. We change the moral momentum toward God’s promised superb and extravagant future, away from settling the accounts that keep taking us and each other back to one woodshed after another. “A trip to the woodshed for America’s mortgagers,” reads a headline in The New York Times. So what? What blame are we bailing out and to what end? Punish, perhaps, but also forgive. What about getting these mortgagers on board to a new future? We are overachievers at blame and underachievers at forgiveness. We have opportunities to change every day, if in no other way than to refuse the demonization of a co-worker at the water cooler. There is nothing like gossip to create an enemy so that those of us talking about him or her can become friends. We often figure out how to get close to each other by finding a mutual outsider whom we can call names, blame for the problem, and make ourselves feel ever so shabbily and short-term “good.” When we win the game of the higher victimization, we actually lose. When we win the game that says history has no victims or victimizers, no winners, no losers, no friends, no enemies, but instead is a level playing field in a great field of salvation, ah… Now we start to have fun.

So I get in the elevator at Synod and the preacher at the previous night’s Synod, Otis Moss III, a simply brilliant preacher, says to me, “I hear you are from Judson in New York City.” I say, “Yes, I am.” He says, “So who is the Senior Minister there now?”

My extravagant salvation response could have been, “I am,” with a smile on my face. Instead, I responded, “I am,” implying something less than complimentary, and adding my log to the fire of retaliation for sexism, even if it is ever-so-small. There is a difference in momentum. When the moral momentum is toward the field of joy, beyond the field of historical hurts, we lean toward the future. We actually dance toward the future.

We watch our tone of voice.

Last Saturday night we were in Amherst with our various offspring and their various friends. To my right there was a full moon rising. In the meadow there were fireflies dancing. We had built a big and good fire in the outdoor fire pit. To my left the fireworks were going off downtown. I had never realized we could see the fireworks from the backyard. All those years we had fought the traffic to go downtown, park the car, schlep the chairs, etc. There were the fireworks right beyond our home meadow. A terrible thing happened. I asked the kids what they thought about Michael Jackson, and Isaac, my 26-year-old, whipped out his iPhone and began playing “Thriller” on it. The group of kids started showing off their various Michael Jackson imitations. We were in a large and well-lit field, with extravagance on all four sides. My kids were glued to a postage stamp screen in the back yard. I leave you there. I could just be disappointed in them. I could even blame them. I won’t tell you what I really did. But this is the moral momentum I wish for myself and for my world. See how big the field really is. How well-lit it is. How some of it had to do with putting logs on the fire, with effort, with distribution, with the politics of preparing a feast. Other pieces of the evening did not have to do with anything I did or didn’t do, could or couldn’t do, will be able to do or not do. Life—and salvation—transcend the postage stamp screen. Let us look around. There is a field beyond right and wrong. I’ll meet you there.

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