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Touching Our Enemy's Trigger Hand

A sermon on Luke 6:27-38

[An audio recording of this sermon is available here]

“Love your enemies.”

Three words that are, somehow, both unavoidably familiar and yet still hard to get a hold on. This is one of those commandments that I just kind of assume I understand. The words are simple enough – I know what they each mean. But when I put them together… when I try to get particular, to imagine how they apply in my own life… they get fuzzy.

In part, I am sure, this fuzziness comes from the relative freedom from personal enemies in my life experience. I have never, to my knowledge, been the subject of another person’s active animosity, of someone who wants to do me personal harm. I have never joined a group defined by a commitment to violent conflict with another group. I have never even lived in a place that made me feel unsafe on a daily basis. I’ve never had to live my life in a mode of persistent vigilance against potential attack.

And because of the privilege of my lifetime of safety, I’ve been nurtured in a lifestyle of “getting along” with people. Of talking disagreements through. Of NOT practicing an adversarial approach to life because I don’t have to. I am a white, cis-gendered, middle-class, heterosexual, Christian American. My life is not beset by enemies.

Most of the time, I consider this a good thing. But a couple of years ago I heard something that shook me out of my complacency about not having any enemies. Rev. Dr. Traci West – a professor of Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University Theological School – was giving a keynote address about the church’s gospel mandate to work for justice in our world. And she offered this observation:

“You know, you can’t love your enemies if you don’t have any.”

She made this comment in response to an audience member who was operating from the same “let’s get along” mentality from which I am used to operating. He was essentially saying “I don’t disagree with your argument about what the Bible calls us to do as followers of Jesus, but if I talk like that in my church, people will leave.”

And Dr. West’s response was to point him to today’s gospel. To remind him that Jesus doesn’t call us to HAVE no enemies. He calls us to LOVE our enemies. And we can’t love our enemies until we are willing to tell the truth sometimes people do or say enemy things.

Dr. West’s challenge forced me to re-evaluate what I mean by enemy. My enemy isn’t just a person who is personally threatening ME. That’s a pretty limited and – frankly - self-involved definition. My enemy – if I am truly seeking to follow Jesus – is anyone who is working for goals that are contrary to the gospel. The message of Jesus does not give me an option of neutrality, because the gospel is not neutral. The gospel challenges the status quo and so must I… and that means I will have enemies.

So, that solves one problem – “love your enemies” no longer sounds irrelevant to my life. But it raises another problem – what does it mean to love those whom I am called to recognize as enemies? If part of my gospel work is to name enemy action for what it is… to say, without caveats, “this action, or this position is wrong, because it is opposed to God’s mission in the world…” How do I do that with love? How do I unashamedly call out the wrong, and simultaneously live out love? What does love mean, in the context of recognizing that I have enemies?

As I was wrestling with that question this week, I was drawn back to a story that I read in seminary. A book that confronts a much more charged experience of loving an enemy than any I am ever likely to experience. In her book A Human Being Died That Night,[1] Pumla Godobo-Madikizela shares about her experience as a psychologist working with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (or TRC). Specifically, she shares with striking vulnerability about the complicated relationship she developed, over the course of many interviews, with Eugene de Kock.

De Kock was the commanding officer of state-sanctioned death squads under apartheid. He personally murdered many people, and arranged or ordered the murders of many more – primarily Black South Africans fighting to end apartheid. During the time that De Kock’s crimes were being aired in the TRC hearings, he was referred to by many as Prime Evil.

He was, by any definition, Godobo-Madikizela’s enemy. A man who had killed people very much like her, and who, moreover, had been a key enforcer of the system that instilled terror into her formative years, and had – in her own words – “relegated (me) to a second-class citizen, even a foreigner, in the country of my birth.”[2]

Godobo-Madikizela does not shy away from the horrors of de Kock’s actions in her book, and she certainly does not absolve him of responsibility for the evil he has done. But neither does she portray him simply as a monster. In fact, the tension of the book is in how honestly she struggles with her own instinct to see his humanity, to – in some way – love him.

In their first interview, she asks him about meeting the widows of two men he had killed, and she witnesses his distress. She writes: “There were tears in his eyes. In a breaking voice he said: ‘I wish I could do much more than [say] I’m sorry….I wish I could say, Here are your husbands.”[3] She describes how, as he said those words, he was “stretching out his arms as if bearing an invisible body, his hands trembling, his mouth quivering.’”[4] In that moment, she saw a man confronting his OWN evil, helpless before it, and in an instinct of simple humanity she reached out and touched his shaking hand.

It’s a crisis point in the narrative, because that simple act of touching hands is anything but simple. Feeling the pull of their common humanity was deeply complicated, even morally challenging. Godobo-Madikizela shares in the book “I felt guilty for having expressed even momentary sympathy and wondered if my heart had actually crossed the moral line from compassion, which allows one to maintain a measure of distance, to actually identifying with de Kock.”[5] Identifying with him feels dangerous to her, even morally suspect.

And her feelings get all the more complicated when he tells her, at their next meeting, that the hand she had touched was his trigger hand. That announcement leaves her feeling violated. She writes:

“In touching de Kock’s hand I had touched his leprosy, and he seemed to be telling me that… I was from now on infected with the memory of having embraced into my heart the hand that had killed, maimed, and blown up lives. It was as if he wanted to make sure, to insist, that if I intended to visit his cell and talk with him, then I should have the courage to do it not by retreating behind the professional façade of the Truth Commission’s ritualized, courtlike proceedings but with the full knowledge that in engaging him, I was engaging a man who still carried evil with him. He wanted his evil to be real to me because it was still real to him.”[6]

“Love your enemies,” Jesus says. Love the person who still carries evil inside. Love the person who infects you when you reach out in a moment of humanity.

That’s an awful lot to ask! The book makes that very clear. Loving your enemy is a messy, painful... even morally transgressing thing to do. Because Godobo-Madikizela is right. There IS a moral boundary between compassion, which lets us maintain a safe distance, and identifying.

But identifying with our enemy is what love demands. Love demands that we let go of the illusion that we are utterly different. It demands that we let go of our self-righteous instincts for judgment. It demands that we let go of the illusion that people are either all good or all bad. Because we ALL have the capacity to be both. We are simultaneously saints and sinners.

One of the shocking things for Godobo-Madikizela in her experience of coming to know de Kock is the recognition of how both good and evil had warred within him, and more than that, the realization that this is what it is to be human; “that good and evil exist in our lives, and that evil, like good, is always a possibility.”[7]

Identifying with our enemy means recognizing ourselves in our enemy. It means crossing the boundary line and knowing that we are not so very different.

That’s the foundation of love. But more than that, it is the transformative power of love. Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of HomeBoy Ministries that works to rehabilitate LA gang members, teaches this same things. He explains that we have to “welcome our own wounds” – to see in ourselves the same warping pain that is causing others to act as our enemies - in order to reach out with love.

And when we can do that, it changes everything! “I have never seen anything,” he writes, “so able to diffuse a burst of violence, or the spewing of hate, or the indifference to those in pain, like love shown in a kind word, gesture, stance, and presence.”[8] Jesus calls us to love our enemies because love is the what changes the terms of the conflict.

Love is messy. Love makes it impossible for us to stand at a safe distance, and it certainly makes it impossible for us to stand in judgement (after all, "judge not" comes up just a few verses later in Jesus's sermon from Luke 6)... but distance and judgment are not going to fix all that is wrong with the world.

Only LOVE can do that.

We can’t love our enemies if we don’t have any. But the hope of the gospel is that if we are really willing to follow this path... if we are willing to name evil for what it is, and then to admit that we see that same evil in ourselves... if we are willing to reach out and touch the shaking trigger hand of our enemy in an affirmation of our common humanity… then we can diffuse the violence, and the spewing of hate, and the indifference to those in pain.

That’s the power and the promise of loving our enemies.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Pumla Godobo-Madikizela, A Human Being Died That Night, Boston: Mariner Books, 2004.

[2] Ibid, p. 34.

[3] Ibid p. 32

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, p.32-33.

[6] Ibid, p. 40.

[7] Ibid, p. 34.

[8] Gregory Boyle, Barking to the Choir.

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