Ordinary VII: Love your enemy

by the Rev’d Dr Hugh Kempster, OS 7 – 24th February 2019

1 Samuel 26:2-25; Luke 6:27-38 

“I say to you that listen: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

On the 28th June 1919, in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, the treaty was signed that brought the First World War to an end. It was a treaty with two primary goals: reparation for a decimated France, and the weakening of Germany so that she would never wage war again. Sadly, history bears witness to the ultimate failure of the Treaty of Versailles. Without this vengeful crushing and humiliation of Germany by the Allies, it is unlikely that Hitler would ever have risen to power and the Holocaust taken place. 

In our first reading today we see a different spirit at work. David and Saul have become archenemies; there is a monumental power struggle at play. David, the popular contender to the throne of Israel, is hiding in the desert. King Saul decides to crush him once and for all, pursuing him into the desert with three thousand elite soldiers. At night just two men, David and Abishai, slip into Saul’s camp and even into the king’s tent. They consider impaling the sleeping Saul with his own spear, but David decides rather to steal the weapon, and to publicly confront Saul with this act of mercy the following day. David’s strategy works, and a truce resumes. 

What David chooses, and the angry Allies at Versailles don’t, is future-oriented empathy over vengeful payback; David became king, but just not that night. In her book, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, Martha Nussbaum reflects on the problem of anger: “The road of payback,” she writes, “makes the mistake of thinking that the suffering of the wrongdoer somehow restores, or contributes to restoring, the important thing that was damaged” (p. 5).

Reflecting on alternatives to payback in the political realm, Nussbaum goes on to tell the story of two South African fathers who lose their sons. It is the story told in the powerful prophetic 1948 novel by Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country. One of the protagonists is James Jarvis, who is rich and white; the other is Stephen Kumalo, who is poor and black. Jarvis’ son is killed by Kumalo’s son in a botched robbery. 

Awaiting his only son’s execution, father and Anglican priest Stephen Kumalo has … valid grounds for anger against white society. On his side, James Jarvis has reason for extreme anger against the killers, and perhaps too against a family who let their son move to Johannesburg with no supervision and without sufficiently preparing him for the lure of crime and bad companions. “I hope to God they get them. And string ‘em all up,” says Jarvis’s friend … 

On the other hand, why has [Kumalo’s son] left his home? The novel … draws attention to the lack of livelihood in [Kumalo’s home town] as erosion dries up the river valley and causes everything to wither. Jarvis and other rich whites who live in the area are aware of the problem and its causes, and yet have done nothing to address it. Why did [Kumalo’s son] fall into crime? Much blame no doubt attaches to a racist society that has not educated him or provided him with employment opportunities.

Naussbaum, p. 214

There is a poignant turning point in the novel, on the day of his son’s execution, when Stephen Kumalo climbs a mountain to be alone. Jarvis just happens to pass him on the path. They say nothing, no apology, no asking for forgiveness, but they share in that brief moment a deep understanding; they silently share one another’s grief and injustice.

And from that simplest of beginnings, a new future begins to flow. Jarvis slowly awakens to the poverty around him, and to the part that he can play in partnership with the father of his son’s killer. He hires a young, scientifically trained black engineer, to address the problem of erosion. Kumalo ensures that the tribal chief is on board, and addresses the resentment on both sides of the racial divide: “hate no man, and desire power over no man … For there is enough hating in our land already.” The two fathers turn aside from anger to imagine, with generosity, a future of interracial cooperation and flourishing.

Luke’s Jesus, in his sermon to the disciples, encapsulates this primal wisdom we see in David’s act of mercy, in the Marshall Plan following World War II, learning from the mistakes of Versailles, in the friendship of the grieving fathers, Jarvis and Kumalo: love not payback; forgiveness not an eye-for-an-eye. It is a high bar indeed that our Lord puts before us:

I say to you that listen: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

A high bar, yes, and a deep truth that works; for ourselves, our families, our communities, our church, our world.

Alae Taule'alo