Loving Our Enemies?

Homily from February 24 2019 by Jo Connelly

In our first reading from Genesis, Joseph clearly had enemies. In preparation for this homily I re-read Joseph’s history, going back as far as Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel—what tales of treachery and deceit! Joseph was the favoured son of Jacob’s favoured wife Rachel. Not only was he given a very special cloak but he announced to his brothers, dreams suggesting they would bow down to him. His brothers seethed with jealousy and somehow Joseph seemed a bit clueless in the lead up to their plot. Though they had originally schemed to kill Joseph, in the end they put him in a cistern and decided to sell him into slavery. They brought the hated cloak back to their father Jacob covered in animal blood to convince him that Joseph had been killed by an animal.

Our reading begins with Joseph meeting with his brothers after many years and after all he had been through, he wept over and kissed each of his brothers. If ever anyone had an enemy, surely Joseph’s brothers were enemies. And yet, he not only forgave them he took care of them and ensured their safety. How was Joseph able to do that? He didn’t diminish what they had done to him, but he repaid their deceit with love. I am amazed both by his earlier lack of guile and also by his later strength.

Perhaps it is sometimes in our struggles that strength is born. Maybe in our troubles and inevitable suffering we can find courage. The courage to love.

The poem we heard today is a challenging one by W.S. Merwin. Merwin was an activist poet who began his career in the late 1950s, and came into prominence in the 70s. “Thanks” starts out with understandable gratitude, but then begins to sound almost cynical or frantic saying “thank you” for the horrors in our modern life. Is this telling us to give thanks no matter what? Maybe, but I’d like to take a deeper look at this a little later.

In the Gospel of Luke Jesus says “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. For the measure you measure with will be measured back to you.”

How do we do this? I don’t believe we do this by covering up the hatred but by refusing to give back hatred. We don’t cover up lies, and we stand with integrity and we also refuse to offer back falsehood and violence. Joseph and Jesus certainly showed us this clearly, but what about us ordinary folk?

Years ago, I was part of a Boston Peace Group called “Ailanthus” made up of Catholic Workers, Radical Episcopalians (American style Anglicans) and Quakers. After bringing two doves inside Draper Weapons Laboratory – a missile guidance company connected to MIT, I served 30 days inside a Women’s Penitentiary, called Framingham, in Massachusetts. The women called me “one of them protestors” and I found myself amidst a group of mostly poor women who had been caught trafficking– dealing drugs or soliciting—sex work. A few of the women serving longer sentences had been convicted of murder–usually abusive partners or pimps. Mostly while in prison, I listened to their stories. Some of the women’s pain and suffering I carried in my heart for years afterwards, trying to support them after I left Framingham and went back to the soup kitchen and peace work.

In general, I found being in prison less dangerous than my male peace counterparts found being inside men’s prisons, but I did have one particularly scary time. Peaches, as she was known, was well known to the other women and she came back to Framingham for trafficking in drugs again while I was there. The day Peaches arrived, I had a few friends inside Framingham. That day I happened to be sitting with Gina in the cafeteria, a white woman in for drunk driving who was part of a biker club. Peaches sized me up right away as someone she could bully to regain her status among the other women upon arrival. Peaches announced that she could tell I was a racist and she let it be known that she’d “mess me up” later that night when our large dorm full of cots dimmed the lights after “count.” I was terrified; Peaches, was terrifying. She became my enemy and I was afraid. I walked back to the dorm wondering if there was anything I could do beside pray, when two other friends, Slim and Cynthia, both of whom were black and were “wife-in-laws” which meant “married” to the same pimp, confronted Peaches. “Jo’s our friend. You mess with her, Peaches, and you have to mess with both of us too.” Peaches backed down but the rest of my sentence I could feel her watching me. I mused if there was anything, I could do to show her some kindness; to “love” her but nothing came to me, I just stayed out of her way. In that prison world, I thought doing some kindness to Peaches, unless the right situation presented itself, would just provoke her. The best I could come up with at that point in my life was not doing her any harm. I wonder whatever happened to Peaches. Thank you Slim and Cynthia for standing up for me. And thank you God, for teaching me not only about fear but about gratitude too.

In today’s world, many of us have been horrified by the politics of hate that has gripped not only the US but here in Ontario, too, by the on slot of cutbacks to programs serving our most disenfranchised. Cuts to programs for people with autism, breaking promises towards our indigenous brothers and sisters, slashing programs for the homeless, funding not provided to rape crisis centres. What do we do when our enemies are our leaders? In Faith and Resistance in the Age of Trump edited by Miguel De La Torre, authors discuss various ways of approaching global evil.

In the chapter “The Earth, Property, Pipeline and Resistance” author George “Tink” Tinker quotes Yascha Mounk, a German Jewish scholar: “When a candidate who promises to inflict extraordinary cruelty on the despised and the abject wins high office, he will (surprise, surprise) use his new-won powers to inflict cruelty on the abject and despised.”

In the chapter “Draw the Circle Queerly” Marvin Ellison says: “While it is tempting to focus on Trump’s disordered personality as if the problem at hand is primarily psychological, it is imperative to pay even closer attention to Trump’s disordered politics of fear and contagion and his administration’s authoritarian agenda.” He later writes “In the age of Trump, we need vision, we need to stay in the struggle, and, I would argue, we need a grounding spirituality to claim—and be claimed by—a fierce, holy power that is life giving and life transforming.” He then describes how we need a clear sense of “the power of disbelief” when faced with lies and then “the power of coming together” to stand united. He finishes the chapter by calling us to: “steadfastly commit to justice-making as the rebuilding of community, and all the while refuse to turn others into enemies… to insist that, no, Trump is not lord, and, yes, change is possible.” I think our Homeless Memorial here at Holy Trinity is an example of this—we disbelieve claims that “enough” is being done to help our citizens without homes, and we try to stand united. Thank you, De La Torre, for your words of Hope.

How can we love our enemies and believe in the goodness in the world, even see the beauty of the world when we see such darkness? I am not only talking here about leaders spouting lies, bombastically and crudely promoting racism and evil, but just dealing with the people we have trouble with, argue with, or feel belittled by; just people we have a hard time loving the way we are called to by our God.

The word “enemy” comes from the Old French enemi which comes from the Latin in-amicus “not a friend.”

Not a friend, doesn’t have the punch that enemy has, does it? But maybe “not a friend” describes some of the people in our lives we have trouble loving.

All of us have had trouble with others—perhaps calling them “enemies” is a bit strong, although some of us were bullied as kids, or worse, abused or victimized. We certainly all know other people who suffered abuse. We have had people in our workplaces who were challenging to work with at best, and were competitive and cutthroat at worse. I have certainly noticed in my non-profit and healthcare world, we used to collaborate more—in a time of shrinking resources it seems there is more and more of a competitive spirit afoot. These are the politics that wear me down the most in my job, unfortunately sometimes colouring the love I have for this work.

In these day to day struggles I pray that we can reach out in love to each other, working through areas where we disagree. It is sometimes in the nitty gritty of our lives where we are challenged the most to love each other. And when we are faced with people who confront us with aggression in any form, I pray for the strength to not retaliate other than speaking the truth when confronted. Thank you for this resolve in all of us to love those whom it is hard to love.

Back to Faith and Resistance in the Age of Trump where in the Conclusion Miguel de la Torre writes: “The question is how are we going to resist? Perhaps one answer is in what I call an ethics or praxis of joder. Joder is a Spanish word never used in polite company; it can be translated as ‘to screw with.’ An ethics para joder is an ethics that screws with the prevailing institutional violence. .. History demonstrates the futility of simply denouncing unjust social structures, for those whom the structures privilege will never willingly abdicate what they consider to be their birthright. The trickster act of overturning the tables might lead to new possibilities, unavailable while established tables remain stable. . . In the praxis of joder the disenfranchised are not motivated by a desire for vengeance. To joder is an act of love toward the oppressors, forcing them to confront their complicity with oppressive structures, and thereby leading them toward their own salvation. To joder is thus a nonviolent survival strategy based on love designed to liberate both the abused from death-dealing social structures that deny their humanity, as well as the abuser whose own humanity is lost through complicity with those same structures.” Thank you again de la Torre for teaching me this ethics of joder.

Now I come back to the poem “Thanks.” I believe the poem by W. D. Merwin is an example of joder in action—the thank yous mess with us, showing us the absurdity of our world, giving us the eyes to see, our thank yous the gratitude for clarity. saying thank you after muggings, funerals, wars, police at the door, beatings and abuse from the rich… saying thank you with animals and forests dying, and people not listening…” Thank you for the gift of seeing injustice and not closing our eyes to it. Thank you for the clarity to say “no.”

Seeing Jesus over turning the tables in the Temple, then, is not inconsistent, then with his call to “love our enemies.” It is a type of truth-telling in a dynamic “joder” kind of way. In my own small way, that’s what we were trying to do by bringing doves inside Draper Weapons Lab.

Maybe that’s what Joseph did, and maybe that’s the power of love of enemies that Jesus showed us most powerfully from the cross— “forgive them for they know not what they do.”

My challenge to all of us as we head towards Lent is to choose one “enemy” or “not a friend” in our life, someone we are having trouble loving, and try to feel compassion instead of feelings of revenge or disgust. Hold that person in your heart and try to feel their woundedness and offer love, if only in your heart.

And then look more widely and deeply, and feel more compassion globally–to remember to also stand in solidarity with all the world’s people, and call out the lies that seek to oppress and divide. And maybe try a little bit of “joder…”