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Sermon – February 20, 2011 – Love Your Enemies

Sermon for February 20, 2011

The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg
Love Your Enemies

Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18, 1 Corinthians 3: 10-11, 16-23,    Matthew 5: 38-48
The old Baptist hymnal included the following hymn, written by John Hay in the late nineteenth century. I don’t think I ever sang it, but I saw it there, and the words surprised me. The name of the hymn is “Not in Dumb Resignation,” and these are the first two verses:
“Not in dumb resignation We lift our hands on high, Not like the nerveless fatalist, Content to trust and die.    Our faith springs like the eagle Who soars to meet the sun, And cries exulting unto Thee, O Lord, Thy Will be done!”
So far the only thing which has an odd ring to it is the repudiation of mute resignation and accepting death trustingly. Humanly speaking resisting dying sounds like common sense, but in a hymnal it is peculiar to choose language which echoes the following verse, taken from Isaiah 53: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” Christians have long regarded these words of Isaiah as describing Jesus, and indeed the New Testament picks up this image of Christ in the eighth chapter both of Acts and Romans
The Book of Isaiah Hay would have had before him would have read, “like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,” making it the more daring for him to proclaim, as a declaration of Christian purpose, “Not in dumb resignation.” In other words he’s saying, “we are not going to engage evil the way Jesus did.” That he is discarding Jesus’ approach to countering human murderousness is plain in his second verse, which reads:
“When tyrant feet are trampling Upon the common weal, Thou dost not bid us bend and writhe Beneath the iron heel. In Thy name we assert our right By sword or tongue or pen, And even the headsman’s axe may flash Thy message unto men.”
The “headsman’s axe” is a rhetorical flourish, I suppose, for government’s practice of executing the condemned, unless it is a reference to the Puritan Revolution in Great Britain in the seventeenth century, which included the beheading of Charles I. Of course what Hay is saying is that killing people solves problems, and that we have God’s blessing for choosing this solution over martyrdom.
Hay was in politics throughout his life. He was in Lincoln’s administration as a young man and several times in the diplomatic corps and died as the U.S. Secretary of State. He began his career involved in a civil war which seemed as essential as it did inevitable, and which, when it grew to include the abolition of slavery, took on for many the character of a religious crusade. The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” blends images of Christ with warlike passages from the prophet Isaiah, specifically “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”
The latter nineteenth century also was the time of continuing colonial expansion, especially on the part of Great Britain, where Hay served as ambassador. The Christian West still held Biblical religion as central to its identity, but found continuing reasons to flout Jesus’ bidding his disciples to put away their swords. Nonwestern peoples everywhere, as on the frontier of the United States, were seen as benefiting by being conquered, savage customs yielding to civilization.
I don’t know whether Hay was a Baptist or not. He did go to Brown, a Baptist school. He may have been a very good man, and he certainly was not unusual in deciding that engaging in violence for higher purposes was endorsed by his God.
It is one thing, however, to resign oneself to ignoring the teaching and example of Christ because one believes that circumstances require one to do so, and it is another thing to pretend that the teaching of Christ is not pacifism. It is understandable that people would prefer that God have their point of view, when they find it impossible to accept God’s point of view, but it is often the case, and it certainly is the case with the use of violence against other human beings, that the approach offered by Jesus is in fact not the way most people do things.
Everyone knows that pacifism is very difficult to practice. Few people manage both to profess it and to persevere in it. Of those who find themselves unable to be pacifists, a small number believe that, if only it could be practiced, it would be the best response to violence. Most people who have scruples about following Jesus resign themselves to the use of violence, when they do, on the supposition that in the circumstances it is the lesser of two evils. Ours is not, after all, a world in which the choices we are given simply are the obviously right thing to do or the manifestly wrong thing to do.
One might stick up for Hay’s hymn by saying that at least it doesn’t have the hypocrisy of proclaiming an approach to life which few have any intention of attempting. It is true that the hymn’s resolute promise of fighting and killing in order to do God’s will would reflect the real beliefs of many worshipers better than a hymn based on this morning’s scripture about turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies.    Isn’t it, however, a bigger problem to put words in Jesus’ mouth of approval for the course we feel constrained to take? Hypocrisy at least has the merit of being divided about one’s actions, feeling bound to acknowledge a teaching which contradicts what one ends up doing. Once you decide it’s okay to make your Lord tell you to do the opposite of what Jesus has, both by word and by example, taught, it seems that you are getting farther from the faith than the very ordinary sin of hypocrisy can take you.
I said earlier, in speaking about how people profess a religion which teaches pacifism but are not themselves pacifists, that a reason for that is life brings us problems to solve and choices to make which are not black and white. It is not the case that we always are choosing between the best and the unacceptable. We usually are doing the best we can with confusing and conflicting realities.
If I seem to be countenancing hypocrisy, it is because that sometimes is the best people are going to manage. To get rid of hypocrisy by being completely true to one’s principles is a solution beyond most of us; and to evade hypocrisy by pretending that God’s will is consistent with our inclinations is what I think dishonest in the hymn “Not in Dumb Resignation.” We may feel we have sound reasons violently to resist what we regard as wrongs, but we shouldn’t say that the God of Jesus Christ encourages us to be violent.
In fact most of Christianity works this way. People who have reservations about prayer still ought to pray, because Jesus expects us to pray. That’s presuming we regard it as faithful to suppose that Jesus knows more about how to be his disciple than we do. People who don’t believe still have to do their best to believe, if they are going to be that variety of saved person like the father in the story of the boy born deaf and dumb, who responded to Jesus’ encouragement to believe by saying “I believe! Help thou my unbelief.” Most of us, most of the time, are going to have to practice our discipleship by willing ourselves to heed the teaching of Jesus, because a lot of the time we otherwise would neglect Christ’s way altogether in order to do whatever comes naturally to us.
What often doesn’t come naturally to us is to place a very high value on other human beings, just as human beings. We are tempted by our own perspective to think that people forfeit the regard we otherwise would have for them as fellow children of God by annoying us in some way. That’s why it’s easier to get enthusiastic about going abroad to help the poor, because we don’t know them.
All the scriptures today, however, assert that others have a great claim on our kindness, patience, forbearance, and sense of fair play. It is part of the cultural heritage of Christianity that human beings are deemed important in their own right, and all the talk about individual rights and human rights and stuff like that derives from the Bible’s insistence that foreigners and enemies, as well as kin and friends, are valued by God and must be treated fairly by us. The refusal to countenance killing others, even when, as Jesus did, it leads to one’s own death, is an extreme application of this principle, but it’s part of it.
The laws from Leviticus making sure that we aren’t selfish are consistent with this holy insight. In First Corinthians the sickness within the church which Paul is trying to cure is that they don’t believe in their equality before God and that everyone is worthwhile. Some lord it over others and some are ignored and neglected. In this morning’s scripture the divisions are drawn based on various influential leaders, but that’s all beside the point. What is important to have in common all disciples possess–Jesus Christ, and God. That will be the basis for a whole and healthy life for the church, for it to take to heart the need to love others, no matter who they are, as fellow children of God in Jesus Christ.

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