On having enemies

In May last year, the police in Massachusetts had a problem. They had the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston bombers, but nowhere to bury it. Cemeteries in three states had refused to provide a plot for his remains. The chief of police even went on national television to ask for help. He said, ‘There is a need to do the right thing. We are not barbarians. We bury the dead.’

In the end, help came from a 48-year-old woman called Martha Mullen, who said, ‘Jesus says [to] love our enemies.’

Last week was a terrible week.

It began with a siege that ended in despair and the deaths of three people, including two hostages. Then 145, including 132 children, were killed at a school in Peshawar in Pakistan. Finally, in altogether different circumstances, 8 children were murdered in Cairns.

Last week was a terrible week.

I’m not suggesting that worse things haven’t happened elsewhere at other times, or that there aren’t things happening all the time in which we are complicit. But to everyone I’ve spoken to, the events of this week have felt particularly present and palpable. Whether it is meetings cancelled, offices locked down, walking past a sea of flowers in Martin Place or just waking up to a tragic weight of inevitability on Tuesday morning, many of us have become more caught up than ever before.

As a result, many Christians with whom I have spoken have struggled with how to respond or what to feel.

Jesus taught (see Luke 6:20-36) those who call him Master to ‘Love your enemies.’

Now, it’s pretty unusual to reject Jesus’ teaching on love outright. Even secular Sydneysiders accord Jesus a degree of moral authority as a good teacher.

But I want to suggest that there are two ways in which we can effectively dodge Jesus’ teaching on this one. The most obvious way is by setting bounds on love. That’s probably a subject for another post.

But there is another way we can avoid Jesus’ teaching on love, and this is by pretending that we don’t have enemies. This is the great liberal middle class conceit: that we don’t have enemies, and we don’t deserve them. We have evolved past this primitive idea of enmity.

Sure, we have people who cause us grief and hurt, but we just shut them out. We choose not to be dragged down by them. We put their negativity on ice. But call what we have enmity – that’s just giving them a dignity that they don’t deserve.

And it’s a great solution, because without enemies, there is no one difficult to love.

This is how it has played out with Man Haron Monis. Already it has been suggested that he was simply mentally ill. Apart from the fact that this diminishes those who battle to do good in and through their mental illness, it also pathologises the issue and puts it in a box. Haron wasn’t our enemy. He was just a very sick man.

But let’s dump the veneer and acknowledge that Man Haron Monis was our enemy: any one of us might have been in that café, and there’s no reason to think he would have cared. Anyone who chooses people indiscriminately for violence is the enemy of all people.

John Dickson rightly wrote: ‘I have no doubt that almost all the Muslims we’re likely to meet in Sydney wish us no harm. They want what we want – health, safety, education, and a future for their kids. Those that are religiously observant – remember, many Muslims are nominal – are of course keen to see Islam spread throughout Australia. They naturally think sharia law is wiser than secular democracy (and this is an argument we may increasingly need to have). But they do not want to hurt us to achieve their ends.’

Haron was not representative of Islam as a whole. He was not even representative of Islamists. But he was fairly representative of militant Wahabist Islamists with a jihadist mentality. And they are our enemies.

For the last 6 months I have been engaged in a running dialogue via email and text with two Muslim teachers in Saudi Arabia who contacted me out of the blue. I cannot read to you the text one of them sent me in response to the murders of the 8 children in Cairns, because it is just too distressing. However, the teacher rejoiced that, from his perspective, 8 ‘Christian’ children had been killed in Australia.

We have enemies.

But not just we, in a national or community sense. The horror and violence of this kind of enmity catches our attention, but the truth is that most of us experience a much lower temperature of banal and ordinary enmity in our everyday lives.

Many of you work in environments where your employers or colleagues have sought to use and mistreat you. They’d happily climb over you on their way to the top, or just in pursuit of their agendas.

I’ve spoken to some of you who dread Christmas gatherings because of the family members who will go out of their way to hurt you out of simple spite.

Many of you have experienced malicious gossip, where stories and misrepresentations of you are gleefully traded behind your back.

This kind of enmity lacks drama. It doesn’t make the evening news. The nation doesn’t hold its collective breath as it waits for the outcome. But it is a corrosive assault on your humanity, destructive and dispiriting. I know it seems can seem like overkill putting it up against the horror of these other things, but they are of the same basic quality.

So let’s start by being honest: whatever the scale or the mode, we have enemies. And therefore, no excuse not to love.

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Christmas, violence & Sainsbury’s

‘Is this the greatest Christmas ad ever?’

A month ago, the British supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, released an ad commemorating the famous Christmas Day football match between British and German forces in 1914.

In this ad, the celebration of Christmas becomes a universally shared circuit-breaker in the constancy of violence. This connection of Christmas Day and the temporary ceasefire or hiatus in conflict is well established in the Western cultural memory.

So it is no surprise that many have commented on the shocking juxtaposition in the image we have been seeing again and again over the last 24 hours. There is a red and gold Lindt chocolate sign on a glass window, wishing ‘Merry Christmas’; and there are the faces of two frightened hostages, holding up a black and white flag under threat of harm.

Our prayers go out on behalf of everyone affected by this terrible action: for the families, friends & colleagues of those killed; for those who have survived the ordeal, both hostages & police; for protection against similar, isolated incidents; for our Muslim neighbours – both for the vast majority who do not see non-Muslims as their enemy, and equally for those who do.

Many good and helpful things have already been written about these events. I want to add just one more thing.

Christmas is about peace; but it has always been surrounded by violence.

This morning I spoke at the Anglicare Christmas Service on the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem, in Matthew 2:1-18. It is a beautiful & moving story, with a shattering close:

‘When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.’

Herod, named King of the Jews in 40BC by the Roman Senate, grew increasingly paranoid about his position between 8 & 4BC. When he heard that another King of the Jews – the true King – had been born, he acted as swiftly as he could. Since the events of Matthew 2 happened over more than a year, Herod couldn’t be sure exactly when Jesus Christ was born. So, to be safe, he had every child born in Bethlehem within a window of 2 years executed.

Christmas has been associated with violence from the beginning. And this is unsurprising, though tragic, since Christmas is the story of the true King coming to bring peace by claiming the throne that is his. And that throne is contested – by our own idolatrous hearts, by states and institutions and corporations, by the spirit of our age.

The very violence that we have just witnessed is the overflow of this contest. It is the manifestation of the brokenness of a world that has rebelled against its Creator to seek prosperity elsewhere, but has found only fear & suffering. And it is to this violence that Jesus Christ comes, the King who will bring peace precisely because he will bring his glorious, universal & eternal rule.

Phil 2:5       In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6    Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7     rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8     And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9     Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10     that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11     and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Self-esteem, fear of people & Christmas

Are you over-committed? Is self-esteem a critical issue for you? Do you ever feel as if you might be exposed as an impostor? Do you get easily embarrassed? Do you ever tell ‘white’ lies? Are you jealous of other people? Do you avoid certain people?

Do you find it hard to invite people to church, even at Christmas?

I answer ‘yes’ to far too many of the above, so I’ve found a remarkable little book by Edward Welch called When People are Big and God is Small to be very helpful.

In this book, Welch explores the omnipresent issue of self-esteem in the light of Christ. His argument is that our problem is that we tend to fear people more than we fear God.

  1. We fear people because they can explore and humiliate us (shame-fear).
  2. We fear people because they can reject, ridicule or despise us (rejection-fear).
  3. We fear people because they can attack, oppress, or threaten us (threat-fear).

Along the way, Welch charges that when we fear people rather than God, we show that

  • …we need people (for ourselves) more than we love them (for the glory of God).
  • …we are more concerned with looking stupid (a fear of people) than we are about acting sinfully (fear of the Lord).

The good news is that there is hope. Jesus Christ himself comes into our little world of people-fear. He walks in it, feels its weight. Jesus comes to bear away our guilt so that we may be holy and without shame. Jesus comes to win our acceptance by God so that we may be unafraid of rejection and ridicule by the unimportant. Jesus comes to conquer death so that we may have a glorious future that assuages our fear of harm.

This is a great book – and a great theme – for Christmas.