In my youth, I had no clue how difficult Jesus’ words on the sermon on the mount were. I had no clue how difficult it was love an enemy, or do good to one, or bless one who curses me. It is hard to get how difficult it is to love an enemy when you live in a world where there really are no enemies.
This past week, we remembered the attack on Perl Harbor; but as we remembered, we also knew that the nation of Japan is now an ally with the United States. I am old enough to remember us exchanging insults with the Soviets, but the cold war was definitely winding down; nobody had duck and cover drills anymore. Gorbachev is the only Soviet leader I can remember. In the time I lived in, Germany and Japan have always been allies, China is a trade partner, and when I think of the Russians, I hope that someday the Russian people will someday have a government that looks out for ordinary Russians. In my life, enemies have been far away. The closest things I had to enemies would be competitive playmates.
The world I live in has changed. I now know the vocabulary of enemies. Those who were born in 2001 are now 16 years old, we have a generation who do not remember a world without the threat of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. When people talk about political opponents, they talk about them as if they were traitors — not as if they were well meaning, but wrong. In a personal sense, I am married into a non-white family, and recently I’ve seen the KKK’s hoods come off. The nice place I was born into has changed quite a bit.
Now, I know it is possible that I was sheltered from the chaos in the world around me. I would have had a very different experience if I were born in central America. When I read recent history, I see that I really was not aware of what the world was like in the 1980’s. I grew up unaware of a violent crime rate much worse than we have now; I grew up unaware of the scandals of the day. It would be fair to say that I didn’t live in the adult’s world. I remember a time that only existed for me because I was a child.
These days, I see some serious anger and grievances; some that I understand, others that seem petty. People are angry with the justice system because punishment is too slow, too fast, too harsh, or too lenient. People are angry about tax laws, regulations, immigration policy — it seems like no matter what anybody does people will be angry. Now, I admit, I have interests in these things; I want a functioning and fair justice system. I have an interest in taxes and what the money is used for, I want sane regulations that protect us yet allow us to work live and profit. What I want most is to be able to believe that my government is made up of people who have good intentions for our nation and communities. Most of the time I believe this, if I can’t believe my leaders have good intentions I get a bit angry too.
Today, I have a hint of what enemies are. Today, I know that there are people who curse others, and wish them harm even if it is unclear why. I know the language of the culture war, I know about scapegoating, I know that is much more than the jealousy of schoolboys who honestly wish harm on nobody. I have lost enough innocence to realize that Jesus is telling me something that is difficult.
If I pay attention, I realize that I was very lucky, and that the people Jesus was talking to would not have the experience I had. Doubtlessly, even the children knew about the struggles of living in an occupied land. When I read John’s gospel, I see that Jesus went to Jerusalem for Hanukkah. You likely know that Hanukkah starts on Tuesday night and is a celebration of the re-dedication of the temple. After the Jews came back from Babylon and rebuilt the temple, the Greeks conquered Judea, tried to force the Jews to eat pork and they turned the temple in Jerusalem into a temple of Zeus. The story of Hanukkah was the story of a revolt that drove the Greeks out and created a new kingdom. It is a celebration of taking back the nation and the temple, and rededicating the temple to God.
This must have had a special meaning for the people who lived in Roman Judea. Jesus was there when the Romans were in power, and they were again under foreign rule. In the time of Jesus, we remember that the Jewish leaders were afraid that the Romans would take away the limited self rule that the occupying Romans allowed them.
As you might know, Hanukkah starts this Wednesday, or by our calendar when the sun sets on Tuesday. When Jesus was in Jerusalem for Hanukkah, he was approached and asked when he would reveal himself as the anointed one. John’s gospel tells us that it was when he was asked if he were the messiah, he answered that “I and my Father are one”, and that the response to this was to start throwing rocks at Jesus for claiming to be God.
They were looking for something different than God walking with them in human flesh. On a feast where they celebrated Judas Maccabees putting together an army and driving the Greeks out of Judea, and then creating a new kingdom, they asked Jesus to reveal himself as King — to set up a second revolt that drove out the Romans. I don’t know what it is to have enemies like this.
Jesus was more than what they were looking for; they were looking for a king to restore sovereignty to their kingdom, to kick out the Romans until the next time they were conquered. What came was a traveling preacher who told them to love their enemies, pay their taxes, and to work when pressed into service. They were looking for a king who would conquer — not God coming and suffering as they suffered.
The thing is, it is so easy for us to make the same mistake. We should know perfectly well that Jesus taught us that his Kingdom is not of this world. We should know that Christ calls us to love one another. We should know that Christ tears down the barriers that the world sets up — and that Christ gives life where the world gives death. We should know this, but I can see that have people calling for an Earthly kingdom, who feel Christianity depends on winning political battles. I see people who are confused as they treat the illusion of political power as more important than following Christ’s teaching; I see people who fear that the future of Christianity is dependent upon political influence.
We forget that Christ came for something bigger. Jesus didn’t come to take over the government, Jesus came to reform hearts and to change minds. Jesus didn’t come to make better laws — Jesus came to write the very center of justice on people’s hearts so that they would have a better law within them. Jesus came to teach us to speak the language of love to every person.