Enemies, Opponents

September 29, 2002
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein


READINGS
The Gospel of Luke 22:47-53
"While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, 'Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?'

When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, 'Lord, would we strike with the sword?' Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, 'No more of this!' And he touched [the man's] ear and healed him."

MEDITATION "Crazy Quilt" Jane Wilson Joyce

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia
is cracked. California is splitting
off. There is no East or West, no rhyme,
no reason to it. We are scattered.

Dear Lord, lest we all be somewhere
else, patch this work. Quilt us
together, feather-stitching piece
by piece our tag-ends of living,
our individual scraps of love.

SERMON "Enemies, Opponents"
We are coming into that wonderfully creepy time of year. Shadows lengthen, daylight savings time ends in a few weeks, and in anticipation of the dark time of year we spray our bushes with faux spider webs, hang rubber bats from the porch, and nail big cardboard skeletons to the front door. We get that good shiver that reminds us (as we need to be reminded) that we are mortal, that life is finite, and that ancestor spirits are somehow still among us.

I appreciate those holidays and holy days that bring us into some kind of awareness of our shadow side: the side often hidden from our conscious selves, the Underneath of our spirits that crawls around in fear, that howls at life's more painful mysteries, and that likes to form little kinship tribes in order to create a semblance of safety. Our shadow side is what we are not acknowledging when we name others as crazy and evil, without confronting the ways that we ourselves are wild and cruel. The shadow side is the side that holds all the parts of our being that our society asks us to please keep in the attic or under the bed. It is the side of us that hates that seeks revenge that holds bloodlust in its heart. Learning to accept our shadow side, and learning how to manage it, is one of the central tasks of religious development.

I think of an old slogan I must have seen on a bumper sticker somewhere that said "if you're not angry you're not paying attention." I embrace that as a legitimate truth, and I am angry with a lot of things and have been for a long time. I have been fueled in all of my political activism by what theologian Rebecca Parker calls "benevolent rage" - a kind of inner fire that burns one to action without frying us in its flame. I have had rage against injustice and prejudice and ignorance for my entire life, and I am learning how to tame the anger so that it doesn't spill over and consume all aspects of my life and being.

One of the keys to managing my rage has been a refusal to hate the objects of my opposition; those people whom Martin Luther King referred to as "bitter opponents." It seems fair and right to work passionately against those agendas we think are destructive, and to rally with all our might against damaging ideologies, but all of this can be accomplished without resorting to hatred. I was raised to think of hatred as the inhumane ravings of uncivilized souls. You could hate someone's actions or attitudes without hating them; a careful distinction that was made clearer to me on those occasions when one of my parents would admonish me, "I'll always love you, but right now I don't like you very much!"

To give oneself over to hate was to have lost one's own dignity and decency. Like religious fanaticism, hatred was considered to be in bad taste - not so much threatening as just pathetic - evidence of deep stupidity and profound moral failure. From that perspective, I have always had a personal caution against assuming that hateful people are necessarily also evil. My personal jury is still out on the origins of evil - whether it is a spiritual force, a kind of character defect some are born with, a contagious condition, a learned behavior, or somehow part of the cosmic plan, as the Hindus, Zoroastrians and the Gnostics have taught. I have no conclusions on evil to share with you today, but I don't believe that hateful people are necessarily always evil. I believe that evil has some dimensions that hate does not approach, but I cannot coherently express more than that.

When we begin to look at hatred at this day and time, it is hard to avoid the subjects of religious fanaticism along with the question of evil. We have so many images that have been branded into our minds and memories to illustrate the disturbing confluence of fanaticism, hatred and evil: clouds of smoke where mighty towers once stood. Great mounds of shoes, or hair, or spectacles that once belonged to human men, women and children taken off trains and crammed into gas chambers. The haunting, haunted eyes of violated, listless Bosnian women staring from behind barbed wire, all raped and impregnated by soldiers of the occupying Serbs. A young man tied to a fence in Wyoming, 5'2" and 105 lbs., cold and bleeding and exposed, and mistaken for a scarecrow by the time a passing biker discovered his dead body.

It was, in fact, the murder of Matthew Shepherd a few years ago that compelled me to research hate groups in the United States. The nation was becoming more aware of the especially horrific nature of hate crimes and some legislation was being proposed to impose harsher sentences on those who committed them. It was at that time that I thought I should get my head out of the sand and acquaint myself with some of the hate groups currently active in the United States. I was shocked to find how easily I could find their materials on the Internet, and sickened by what I read of their rhetoric and their plans for our future.

This was when I realized that I had taken too superior and too passive an attitude to hate groups and hatred in general. In my "everything will work out okay and decency will prevail" optimism, I had failed to notice the hate groups proliferating in my own backyard. And I do mean that literally. At the time I was living in Pennsylvania, where neo-Nazis and skinheads had many thriving groups in the more rural areas of the state.

You are doubtless familiar with some of these groups' dominant ideologies: they claim that racial minorities are vile aberrations of nature, as are sexual minorities, and should not be allowed to live in this fine country of ours; and this goes for all immigrants, too. Jews are singled out for special condemnation in these groups; they are the devil incarnate, and I quote, "are murdering, imprisoning, en masse, those around the world that try and expose them." ("Pastor" James P. Wickstrom) According to these philosophies, diversity is just a euphemism for the pollution of America's true destiny as a white, heterosexual, male-led Christian nation. The separation of church and state is "an evil Jewish effort" to divide the United States from the True God.

It makes for tremendously disturbing and depressing reading, and I didn't feel any better to note that I was visitor number 195,000 to the most terrifying web site I found. The Southern Poverty Law Center provides an annual update on hate groups and informs us that by 1998 there were more than 500 organized groups in America.

Another favorite message of hate groups is that only violent means will bring about a satisfactory resolution to our country's problems: sympathizers are encouraged to see themselves as beyond the law, subject only to God's law, and to terrorize, attack and destroy their enemy's person and property with impunity. Sound familiar? I have wondered, since September 11, when someone in the Bush Administration would publicly point out the profound similarities between Al-Qaeda and our own hometown, all-American terrorist groups.

It was a nice kind of innocence I used to have when I believed that most terrorists were fringe-group weirdoes who lived in the woods, had one tooth apiece and barely ventured forth in the light of day. How could I hate someone that intellectually and culturally disadvantaged? My liberal religious and political outlook tempted me to consider them just victims of their upbringing and social class, and I believed in the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein's song, "You've Got to Be Taught:"

"You've got to be taught to hate and fear, you've got to be taught from year to year, it's got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you've got to be carefully taught…" (South Pacific).

I felt sorry for the haters and sorry for their children. I still do.

But my more elitist assumptions are being smashed in pieces around me these days. I can no longer feel superior. Hijackers who were educated at the graduate level at some of the best schools in Europe and the U.S., terrorists who came from privileged, mainstream families and towns, civilized men in suits and ties who never once drooled into their beards or had that clearly insane glint that we saw in Hitler's eyes … the purveyors of hatred in this world are my equals in many ways, and I am having a hard time admitting that. Because as long as I could feel superior to then, you see, I could avoid being afraid of them.

Pat Robertson is a man who ran for president of our country and who raised millions of dollars for his campaign from his many followers. So he could hardly be described as a fringe type. Here's something that Mr. Robertson said not that long ago, which I tend to take rather personally. He said,

"The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians." Pat Robertson, fundraising letter, 1992.

(It must have been this remark of Pat R's that inspired one of the funniest buttons I have ever seen: "Sorry I missed church, I was too busy practicing witchcraft and becoming a lesbian.")

Randall Terry is the leader of Operation Rescue, another man who has a popular following and who opposes the work many of us do on behalf of reproductive rights and freedoms for women. The following is a quote from a 1993 interview in the Fort Wayne, Indiana News Sentinel:

"I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good - Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a Biblical duty, we are called by God to conquer this country. We don't want equal time. We don't want pluralism."

As far as I know, Mr. Terry has not changed his stance since these words were spoken.

And last year, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, you might recall the brilliant analysis offered by the Reverend Jerry Falwell and again Pat Robertson who claimed that "civil liberty groups, feminists, homosexuals and abortion rights supporters" have to take responsibility for the attacks because their actions have turned God's wrath against America. I belong to three out of four of those supposedly responsible subgroups (I guess if I ever become a lesbian I will be totally responsible, according to Robertson and Falwell).

It's taken me awhile but it's finally getting through to me, past my own defenses: there are people out there who hate me. There are people out there who hate us. And they are not necessarily crazy, they are not necessarily uneducated, they are not necessarily inferior in intellect or social standing. This is a bitter pill to swallow. It is a bitter pill I have refused most of my life to swallow, doing with the reality what my dog always did with her heartworm pill: seem to swallow it and then surreptitiously spit it up later when she thought we weren't looking.

I am the granddaughter of immigrants on both sides of my family and a woman who, were it not for Hitler's regime, would have dozens of extended family members in Romania. Because of hatred, they are all gone and with them my father's family line in Europe. So I am not so innocent. But I am an optimist, or have been, and have wanted to believe that humanity was learning, was evolving morally since those days. I still want to believe it.

The only way I can think to hold the dual reality of the hatred (specifically, people's hatred for me and my values – our values) and the potential for human evolution toward compassion, tolerance and love is to try to live from those latter behaviors myself, as best I can, and to do what I can to encourage the people I know not to abandon those principles. One of the ways we can know for sure that we have lost to our shadow sides is when we demonize our adversaries the way they demonize us. Although this is a tempting solution, we must refrain from demonizing them, and I think we must go a step further than that and insist that our leaders do the same. The roots of every kind of genocide are planted when one people refuse to accept the humanity of another.

I recall a scene from "Life is Beautiful," the Italian film by the Roberto Begnini that won so many well-deserved Academy Awards several years ago. This film is very much about hatred and how people choose to respond to it. In the film, Guido Orefice, an Italian Jewish bookseller, walks the streets of his small town during the Nazi occupation of Italy during World War II. He strolls with his young son Josue, and they pass a sign on a window that states, "no Jews or dogs allowed."

Josue asks his father about the sign. What does it mean? And Guido, who consistently tries throughout the story to shield his son from the horrific realities of anti-Semitism and Nazi hatred, responds casually that it's really nothing, sometimes people just decide they don't like other people, no big deal, pouf. "I'm thinking of putting a sign on our window, too," he adds. "You know, keeping out the people we don't like from our bookstore." And he asks his son, "So, who don't we like?" Little Josue thinks a bit, and he suggests, "Spiders." "Fine, fine," says Guido. No spiders. Josue asks his papa whom he doesn't like. Guido also thinks for a moment. "Visigoths," he replies. "Those darned spiders and Visigoths, we won't have any of those around."

It's a funny scene, but heartbreaking. It is a scene about how hatred around us forces us to decide who it is we don't like, who we would bar from our own doors, who we would reject as unfit companions in our world.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, there is only one world for all of us and we must learn to live in it together, and we must help our children discover better ways to share the planet than we have done in our generation. We cannot be paralyzed by the evidence of hatred in our world and let our armies do all the conflict resolution for us. The stakes are simply too high, and too devastating.

Along with many of you, I grew up hearing the Golden Rule quoted as a kind of cliched response to the reality of humans not getting along. "Do unto others," you'd hear. Well, I could understand and accept that. But then this strange quote also from the teachings of Jesus, which takes the Golden Rule to a whole new level: "You shall love your enemies as yourself." Everyone knew that saying, Christian or not. It sounded like a lofty spiritual ideal but I said then, as I say now, "What???

"How? Why?"

Why am I supposed to love my enemies as myself? What good could that do? My father always said to me that if someone beat me up on the playground, I was to hit back as hard as I could. He wasn't a bad or violent man; he just didn't want his kids to be victims. I'm sure I'm not the only kid whose parents preached the Golden Rule in one moment and in the next, taught us how to make a good fist.

So I still struggle with that saying, which is a tremendous request to make of anyone, that you should love your enemies as yourself. These days, reflecting on what Jesus really expected of us in regards to loving our enemies, it occurs to me that we have reached a day where the world quite literally may cease to exist if we do not embrace this ethic on a profound level. Perhaps to love my enemy as myself means not to accept my adversary's choices, not to tolerate his actions, but to continue to recognize, even in the most intense of conflicts, that my enemy is human; nor more, but no less. And along with this recognition, loving my enemy as myself means that I understand the dangers of being caught in the same spiritual darkness that imprisons my enemy. Martin Luther King, who ought to know, reminded us that "hate scars the soul and distorts the personality." So while today is the first time I have ever referred to my ideological opponents as enemies, and to me that signals the end of innocence and perhaps an erosion of my ultimate optimism, I am called to respond to the forces of hate without resorting to it myself.

And how do we fight? Our nation's leaders have made that decision on one level, and have committed military forces to the fight against the form of hatred that is played out as terrorism. I have disagreements with my government about the extent of those commitments, and I communicate those views to my elected representatives whenever and however possible. But what about myself as an individual?

Here I return again to the moment in Jesus's life that we just heard about in the gospel of Luke. What a strange, striking moment it is. Jesus and his followers are caught. They are in trouble. He is in imminent danger. Swords have been drawn, and there is bloodshed. Yet in the midst of this chaos, this violent clash of Jesus's peace community and the Rome's power community, Jesus looks up to see that one of his enemy's ears has been cut off by a disciple's sword. And in the midst of the shouting, the sweating, the bleeding and the smashing Jesus does this remarkable thing: he takes the time to heal the man who has come to harm him. He puts the ear back on the man from whom it has been severed.

Could we ever be so wise and so brave as to actually reach out to heal the one who comes to harm us? Is it too much to ask of the average person? Or is it perhaps not only courageous but also common sense smart, and something we ought to know ourselves capable of? I think the latter. How clever of Jesus to understand that even though he might still be in immediate danger, the man whose ear he healed is at least one individual who will forever remember his compassionate act. I am willing to bet that the man with the restored ear was never again so willing to persecute another. I am willing to bet that the man whose ear was restored would never again be so quick to think in absolutist, fanatical terms: black and white terms about who's good and who's bad. Maybe he did. And if so, we know that that man had lost his soul, and he is beyond our reach. What concerns us here is not his soul, but our own – that we should not lose our own souls.

Let us be restorers of ears, the instrument of hearing. Let us be the ones who dare to hear our enemies and who insist on being heard by them. In this world of screaming and sloganeering, in the din of the explosion of bombs and sirens, let us be the ones who listen for, and heed the compassionate cry of, the voice of the spirit that dwells, quietly but eternally, within us all.

In solidarity with all people who strive to live by the commandment of love, in all lands, and in all times, we say Amen.