I find myself amidst a dilemma this morning.
On the one hand, this section from the gospel of Luke holds core teachings of how we are to live in community with one another in this world. The familiar words tumble one after another: love your enemies – turn the other cheek – if someone takes your coat, give them your shirt as well – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – judge not, lest ye be judged – and perhaps my favourite, the measure you use for others, is the one that will be used for you.
I want those words to speak to us today. What are the implications of these guiding statements, on the way you conduct yourself in this world? What prejudices or judgments do you need to let go of? Who do we regard as enemies? Where do I give myself more leeway than I give to others? To an extent, Jesus is using hyperbole here, exaggerating how generous we are to be with others… but he exaggerates only to an extent. Jesus proposes and has in fact initiated a whole new way of being, founded on doing everything possible to be connected to one another in a healthy, integrated way.
These words speak with such clarity. So, where’s the dilemma?
The dilemma is that if heard the wrong way, these words from scripture can give the impression that Jesus is pulling us back from saying hard things, pulling us back from identifying oppression or resisting aggression. As we hear his sage advice to govern our assessment of others by the amount of leeway we give ourselves, does this then remove our ability to raise any objections about the words and actions of others? If we are to allow and even welcome mistreatment by turning the other cheek, does this just mandate that those who are abused will continue to be abused? If viewed from a certain angle these radical words by Jesus on how community is to be shaped in the Kin-dom of God, may seem to suggest that the way to achieve peace is to smooth the waters wherever possible, not make a fuss, not rock the boat.
But that’s not what we’re being asked to do. We are called into relationships where we are accountable to one another, an accountability that is anchored in love and honesty. In order to illustrate how this might work, I think back to my previous place of employment, nearly twenty years ago.
In those days, the school I worked at did an international teacher exchange which netted us a breezy, plain-spoken middle grades teacher from Australia. She was fun, loud, outgoing, and knew her students well. It didn’t take long for her to figure out which of her students were giving maximum effort, which ones were coasting, and the varying degrees in between. She had endless time for those who were trying hard and just not getting it, and for those who understood right away and were eager to go further; but there were blunt pronouncements for those who were slacking. A particular favourite of hers was to look at an already-marked essay, then at the student, and ask the withering question, “would you call this the best effort you could have made on this?” If it was the best you could do, due to a lack of understanding or some other barrier, you could make a plan to firm up those concepts… but if it wasn’t your best, and you knew it wasn’t, you’d get the essay handed back to you with the opportunity to boost your mark with a do-over. One was well advised to put maximum effort into the second attempt.
As I recall, a key element to this teacher’s demeanor made her classroom work. She was fully prepared to come into the office at the end of a day and say out loud, “well, that wasn’t my best teaching ever!” and she wasn’t above confessing that to the class the next day and basically re-doing the teaching that hadn’t gone well. No, she wasn’t perfect in her classroom practices and yes, she did have one student in particular with whom she locked horns on a nearly daily basis… but in that classroom I saw the same measure being used for herself, as for her students. They were still learning, she was still learning, the students were expected to give it the old college try, and their teacher expected no less of herself. And with time, this really took hold as a “class culture” of mutual encouragement, not just the teacher’s expectation.
In that classroom, there was brutal honesty. Sometimes, I thought, a bit too in-your-face, but when something was spotted it was named, rather than being swept under the carpet; and if it was going to be potentially embarrassing the exchange would happen out in the hall, not in front of the classmates. Things that needed to change were addressed, room to effect that change was created, support during the change was available. Past mistakes didn’t have a lot of carry-over, but some kind of positive motion was expected.
I can say with certainty this particular teacher would find it hilarious to think that this was being used as an extended sermon illustration, but the point remains: Jesus names to us a certain quality of community that is based in truth-telling. This truth-telling begins with an honest assessment of my actions and my motives, but it doesn’t end there. The truth-telling mandated and empowered by Jesus calls us to pay attention to what is going on around us and name injustice whenever or wherever it is evident. We are called to be astute, to sharpen our sense of who is getting hurt, and who is benefiting from that. We are called to discernment, to learn the difference between someone who is in good faith offering a different opinion or perspective from mine, or someone whose actions are shaped by trauma, as compared with someone who is intentionally bending or breaking the truth for their own benefit or to feed an agenda of hatred. The realm that Christ Jesus came to initiate is filled with peace and justice but in order to get there, there’s gonna be some big-time disruption of the way we interact with one another.
Over a year ago, continuing an emphasis that has been ongoing for many decades, The United Church of Canada named racism for the pernicious evil that it is, challenging us to recognize and name the actions and impacts of the racism that exists beyond us, and between us, and within us. And while racism is the main sin being named, our truth-telling beyond and between and within is not to be limited to racism. Any number of other -isms and -phobias also diminish the kind of community Christ calls us to and need to be named for what they are. If it demeans or excludes, and especially if it demeans or excludes to the benefit of those who are already at the top of the social pyramid, it needs to be addressed. And no venue is to escape criticism: it’s not just the “world out there” that gets surveyed – it also includes the ways that racism expresses itself in my life, in my family and neighbourhood, in my Church.
For a long time now, there has been a rising tide of hatred and hate speech in this land. If we were to imagine that the aggressive, outrageous fringe groups who have taken the opportunity for a higher profile by tagging along with the blockades in Ottawa, Coutts, Windsor and elsewhere just appeared out of nowhere, we would be deeply mistaken. There is a problem here, and the “Anti-Racism Common Table” of the United Church of Canada has named it well: “We are concerned that these demonstrations have become places of hate and oppression. We do not support the use of symbols of hate such as swastikas and the Confederate flag; the appropriation of Indigenous cultures, ceremony, and symbols such as the “Every Child Matters” flag; and the use of racist, ableist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, and anti-immigrant language and threats. We have seen this not just at the protests themselves, but also on social media in support of them. Our commitment to becoming an anti-racist, intercultural, and reconciling church requires that we name this clearly”. There is within their words a specific call to the Church: “If you are within the United Church community, we challenge you to discern how, as a disciple of Christ, you are called to respond. Please use your voice against racism whenever and wherever you can, with calmness and faithful persistence, with the goal of making the racism and discrimination in these protests [or wherever!] unequivocally clear”.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to express his bold, courageous, reconciling love: to name hatred for what it is, and to speak truth to it. We are called to be communities where we are rigorously honest with ourselves and with one another, and from that foundation of integrity speak up when hatred is having its way. In following the call of Christ to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” we are to have high expectations of ourselves and our society, rather than making excuses for words and actions that are intentionally divisive and hurtful and rooted in bigotry.
May the honesty that we hear so powerfully expressed in the words of Jesus, be the ground on which we stand, in determining what we expect of ourselves and the society in which we live. Amen.
Anti-Racism Common Table. https://united-church.ca/news/opposing-symbols-hate-protests
The United Church of Canada. https://united-church.ca/social-action/justice-initiatives/anti-racism/about-anti-racism
© 2022 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.