Monday, September 12, 2011

As We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us

Trust is a two-way street. This may sound like a given, but its role in establishing equality cannot be reduced to understatement. As I often do to illustrate a greater point, I'll use my own life as an example. Some years ago, I read up on Feminist theory and discourse, finding both much to my liking. Seeking a community where I could contribute to the greater dialogue and learn even more, I found two helpful internet-based communities. I had one slight hindrance. I was a man. It wasn't an obstacle I did not eventually overcome, but I deliberately put myself into a situation where there wasn't an established pattern of men contributing. Male voices were more often than not opposed and skeptical.

By this I don't mean that I was greeted with hostility, but rather that my own ignorance was a stumbling block. Having not been socialized as a woman, I had to radically reshape my perception of myself and my role in the world. In hindsight, this was a very healthy exercise. With this in mind, I still work to address the still-evident inequality between men and women. As I progressed, I learned the value of listening and asking questions. Presuming to know the answers and the proper outcome before all the facts were in--these were attitudes I quickly shelved. But even then, sometimes I made errors along these lines without even realizing what I had done. I think most well-meaning allies do the same thing, regardless of cause or calling, and not just once or twice. But this process of falling short can also be instructive, and it surely was for me.

Marginalized groups and individuals regularly have decisions made for them by someone or something else. In the beginning, without an adequate base of trust established, my views and opinions were sometimes called into question. But before I dwell on failure, they were nonetheless evolving constantly. I rejoiced at every breakthrough, no matter how small it was. I learned to forgive myself should I fall short and resolved to further my education even more. This work was hard and not immediate, which is why, to expand outward, I think we simply don't have the responsible discussions we need to hold around hot button issues of race, class, privilege, wealth, sexual orientation, and gender. When one of these injustices becomes newsworthy, the twenty-four hour cable news networks will gingerly brush alongside these topics. Periodicals and newspapers might go a few degrees deeper than that. Afraid that these controversial topics would grow explosive if fully explored, as a result we never go deep enough to further anyone's true understanding.

Opportunities to grow and nurture trust will never be solved this way. Without trust, the intense, but essential topics we must discuss are hindered by internal prejudice. It is much easier to project one's own life experiences, fears, and phobias. This is why bigotry exists in the proportions it does, across the world. The United States has no sole claim to this conduct. These days, in certain communities, I can confront sensitive subjects without fear of being taken completely out of context. But this is only because I challenged myself up front to do some hard work. The tribalism that is often our undoing insulates and isolates. Those who seem out of place at first are often treated like a stranger in a strange land. But with enough learning and listening, trust grows. It may even be grudging in the beginning, but eventually a healthy working relationship springs up in place of the suspicion.

Despite all the distortions and manipulation over the years, the words of the prophets and notable religious figures have laid out before us a suitable blueprint. To use the words of one:

Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. "You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you not to resist an evildoer. On the contrary, whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to the person who asks you for something, and do not turn away from the person who wants to borrow something from you."

"You have heard that it was said, 'You must love your neighbor' and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that.

These words might not pass the censors or producers today. It might upset the advertisers. It might even threaten the demographics, God forbid. So, imagine, if you will, a radical religious leader speaking to a group of long-suffering people. They could almost be forgiven for wanting blood justice against a long string of persecutors. Subjugated and under the thumb of a hostile foreign power, tempers were high and tension could be found everywhere. The memories of past misdeeds and criminal acts were likely in the minds of many. And yet, Jesus says here to treat occupying forces with love and to resist violence. Trust is crucial here, too. No one said the message was easy.

Another prophet echoed this remarks some two thousand years later. And accordingly, I will conclude this post with them.

And this is what Jesus means, I think, in this very passage when he says, "Love your enemy." And it’s significant that he does not say, "Like your enemy." Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, "Love your enemy." This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.

Now for the few moments left, let us move from the practical how to the theoretical why. It’s not only necessary to know how to go about loving your enemies, but also to go down into the question of why we should love our enemies. I think the first reason that we should love our enemies, and I think this was at the very center of Jesus’ thinking, is this: that hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. [tapping on pulpit] It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. And that is the tragedy of hate, that it doesn’t cut it off. It only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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