Last November I participated in an interfaith seminar at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Louisville, Kentucky. All of the major world religions were represented. In one session, each of us was asked to select a passage from the scriptures of our own tradition that trouble us and to say why in some detail. The exercise encouraged us to be honest about our personal doubts and uncertainties and about what we might see as the shortcomings of our own religious system. It also helped us to avoid being judgmental about the beliefs of the other participants. The discussion, as you can imagine, was disarming, fascinating and revealing.
I can’t remember now what my chosen text was then, but it might well have been the selection we just heard from the gospel of Luke or its parallel passage in Matthew. Today’s reading, which is designated by the lectionary rather than selected by the preacher, is a difficult one at any time, but especially right now.
To begin with, these unambiguous words of Jesus are hugely difficult for each of us personally because of our frail and fallen human nature. Who among us doesn’t carry in some secret pocket of our soul a little list of enemies? Who hasn’t been angry to the point of violence, whether it be the slamming of a door to punctuate an argument, the striking of a recalcitrant child, or an equally damaging assault of verbal vituperation or abuse?
These are hard words on a day when we remember with wrenching sadness the horrible events of September 11th two years ago. They are troubling for those who lost friends or colleagues or loved ones in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or a field in Western Pennsylvania. They are difficult for the families of British and American soldiers who have been killed or wounded while trying to keep the peace in Iraq. There is little comfort in these words for parents, whose children have been killed by politically-prompted violence not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan, Palestine, Israel, West Africa and other parts of the world.
This teaching is also problematical for people whose ethical convictions are strong but who do not happen to be pacifists, people who believe that the responsible use of force may be the morally correct thing to do in certain situations.
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So how do we live with these troubling instructions from the one we call the Prince of Peace? We may choose to disregard them as hopelessly naïve. We may decide to skirt past them, like a series of difficult hurdles in an obstacle course. We may pull arduously on our spiritual bootstraps, believing that we can rise to the challenge if we just try hard enough.
Or we may see them as a set of standards against which to measure our values and our actions. Precisely because the teaching of Jesus is difficult and troubling, it causes us who seek to be faithful to assess our lives conscientiously. It may be hard to love those whom we consider to be our enemies, but we can see the need for reconciliation in a world of division and alienation and strive to be reconcilers ourselves. It may be difficult to have positive feelings for those who hate, curse and abuse us, yet we may be able to understand the root causes of antipathy and by an act of the will (which is at the heart of authentic love) work to redress the wrongs which issue in hatred. Going the second mile with thieves and beggars may be a strange idea today, but it points to the importance of cultivating a pervasive spirit of generosity that has transforming power for the one who gives as well as the one who receives.
Twice in today’s gospel reading Jesus holds out the key that unlocks the ethical dilemma in this troubling teaching: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (v. 31) And again at the end: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (v. 36)
For an individual believer, ethical behavior is rooted in the examination of one’s spiritual biography as a child of God. For a community or a nation, it is rooted in the perceived understanding of that people’s history under the providence of God. Ethical behavior, whether personal or corporate, grows out of the recognition of how God has been — and still is — at work, creating, blessing, correcting, forgiving, renewing, sustaining. For people of faith, the fuel that drives the ethical engine is gratitude, gratitude refined and purified by openness to the working of God’s Spirit.
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As the nation commemorates 9/11 this year, we see a world beset by dangerous and deepening fault lines of enmity and division. Violence builds under the surface and erupts with frightening frequency on virtually every continent. The beast called terrorism stalks the world seeking whom it may devour. Interventions of various kinds overseas — military, diplomatic, humanitarian — have proven less successful than anticipated. Measures have been taken to increase our security at home, but dark clouds of foreboding hover at the horizon like threatening summer squalls. Thoughtful people, people of good will everywhere ache with anxiety and frustration. There seems to be no transforming vision for the way ahead. And without vision, scripture tells us, the people perish.
Polls and surveys remind us from time to time that the United States is the most overtly religious nation in the western world. A solid majority of our citizens say they believe in God. Another impressively large group claims to attend services of corporate worship regularly. Not all are Christians, of course. A highly important and influential minority is Jewish. Religions whose origins are in the eastern hemisphere are growing rapidly here, most notably Islam.
While Judaism, Christianity and Islam all regard Abraham as their common spiritual ancestor, their relationship with Jesus is quite different. Jesus himself lived and died a Jew, but the sect first formed by his disciples within Judaism ultimately separated from its parent faith. For Christians, of course, Jesus is Lord and Savior. For Muslims he is a revered prophet, but always in the shadow of the supreme prophet, Muhammad. Yet all three faiths could affirm the core values lifted up by today’s passage from Luke: humility, reconciliation and generosity, which are nutrients in the soil of humanity that enable justice and peace to flourish.
Given the state of our world, the time may well be upon us for the three Abrahamic traditions in this country to begin to take counsel with one another for the common good of the nation and its proper place in the world. The creation of a new coalition of harmony and compassion, which does not compromise the discrete doctrines of any of the three religions, could begin to foster a climate of humility, reconciliation and generosity, within which a new vision of justice and peace could germinate and grow.
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Four weeks ago today a huge swath of this country lost all of its electrical power. Although the cause of the biggest blackout in history is not totally clear even now, it appears that a series of power surges, some going in the wrong direction, tripped certain circuit breakers, which unleashed that creeping blackout. Whatever the technical explanation, the event is a potent metaphor for the age in which we live.
The people of the world are so interconnected in the twenty-first century that an event in one place has almost immediate ramifications in many places. Most of the political, religious or cultural power-surges in the global grid have been negative and destructive in nature. It is time for a steady flow of positive energy to be generated. Who is more suited to that task than the three great Abrahamic religions working in a spirit of humility, reconciliation and generosity? What better place for this to happen than the open and tolerant culture of America, free of the religious wars of other times and places? What better time to act in new and hopeful ways than now?