The mother of a friend of mine is a brilliant pastry chef in the grand Southern tradition, producing insanely sweet and luscious desserts: pecan pie, sweet potato pie, Mississippi Mud Pie (which, take my word for it, tastes a LOT better than it sounds), and so on. This was a great joy to her family, but also created some significant tension when she was growing up.
At the end of special meals, negotiating the distribution of dessert took on the gravity of a high-level diplomatic peace mission. She and her brother would eye each other across the table, the pie sitting between them. Her mother had learned early on to remove herself from the direct process, and functioned only as a neutral observer and mediator.
Behind her back, she held up either one or two fingers for one of them to see. The other would guess which number she had chosen; this would determine who sliced the pie. Slowly, carefully, the pie would be divided into equal parts with surgical precision, for the one who was not slicing got the first choice of the pieces.
With negotiations concluded, they would all sit back, grateful that hostilities had been avoided and a just and lasting peace had been achieved…at least until the next pie. It was actually quite a brilliant piece of shuttle diplomacy on her mother’s part, because she had managed to create a situation of perfect justice. Both of the kids would have been happy with more than their share; both would have been unhappy if the other one got more than his or her share, so they compromised and accepted absolute, precise fairness based on mutual self-interest.
We negotiate reciprocity, tit-for-tat, even-steven, as a means for fairly dividing goods, privileges, and responsibilities all the time, because if we don’t, then somebody starts keeping score of all the times that they’ve gotten short-changed. Keeping score, then, leads to trying to even the score whenever the game is not a tie, but most problems cannot be solved with the precision of slicing a pie. And that’s what a whole lot of relationship fights are about, whether with siblings, friends, spouses, partners, parents, or children: somebody who has been keeping score feels that that they’re losing, and they want to even things up. It’s not fair, and we want it to be; we want the score evened out, even reversed.
Things weren’t that different when Jesus offered this up in his teachings. There was a big group of disciples there, not just the Twelve, and a much bigger crowd of people gathering around to see what he would do or say next. He started off strong: “blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God; blessed are you who are hungry, for you will be filled.” They start elbowing each other and nodding; yeah, that’s good stuff. This Jesus, he’s a good preacher.
Then it gets better: “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation; woe to you who are full, for you will be hungry.” Yeah! says the crowd, that’s what we’re talking about. We get the kingdom, and the rich get nothing. That’s good news. He’s on a roll! But then he starts talking about the way of life for those who are in the kingdom. Love your enemies? Turn the other cheek? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you? Um, sure, those are great ideas, I guess, but could we hear a little more about our blessings and our enemies’ woes? That’s the good stuff, when the tables are turned and things get evened out.
The problem is, the Golden Rule is not reciprocal. It is not “do to others as they have done to you,” basing your behavior on the best or the worst of what others have done, and usually the latter. It is not, “do unto others as they would do to you;” this is the rule of pre-emptive strikes, basing your behavior on what you assume they will do, but just haven’t gotten a chance to yet. It is not even, “do to others as you would have them do to you, in order that they will do what you would have them do to you;” there’s no guarantee that the other will respond in kind to you. These are the patterns that we fall into so quickly: retribution, assumption, manipulation, all drawn from and justified by the conduct and attitude of others. All of them, in their own way, are ways we try to even the score on our own.
It’s also not just a good idea. Jesus isn’t saying, “Here’s a thought. You should do this. Wouldn’t it be nice if everybody lived this way? The world would be such a better place.” It’s not a helpful hint or a nugget of wisdom to be filed away with all the other things we know we should be better at doing, like flossing our teeth twice a day or never going to bed when we’re angry with someone we love. No, the Golden Rule is a rule for disciples of Christ; it’s a command, a call to action, a way of living out the life of faith.
But perhaps the greatest misunderstanding of these teachings is the idea that Christian love is a kind of passive, abstract, otherworldly love. In the 1980’s, Darryl Strawberry was one of the great young players in Major League baseball. He was an explosive player who could crush home runs, make spectacular diving catches, throw the ball like a missile, and steal bases in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, he responded to the stress of his massive success by developing a drug addiction that he struggled to conquer ever after, controlling it for a while and then relapsing into his habit.
In between bouts, though, he somehow managed to remain a fairly productive ballplayer. There was a big exception, though, in the early 1990’s. He returned to baseball after another period in rehab, expecting to pick up where he had left off. But he didn’t: for months, his hitting was weak and inconsistent, his fielding was sloppy, and he had virtually no stolen bases. Finally, when an interviewer pushed for an explanation, he explained why his play was so anemic. “I became a Christian in rehab,” he said, “and I’m too full of love and peace. My faith has made me passive.”
It seems like a very strange explanation, but Strawberry isn’t the first person to equate the Christian life with passivity. Everyone from Karl Marx famously suggested that Christian faith is “the opiate of the masses,” numbing people to the realities of life, making them sedate and accepting of injustice. One might think Jesus is telling his disciples to accept whatever happens to them, to stand by serenely and let themselves be abused and taken advantage of by others.
True passivity is refusing to take action when you know something is wrong, refusing to resist injustice and even evil, allowing yourself to be a bystander or even complicit in it. In the famous Milgram experiments in the 1960’s, there was an infamous series of tests done on human responses to authority. An unwitting subject was brought into a windowless, white room with a chair and a console. A man in a white lab coat with a clipboard was standing next to the chair and ordered the person to sit. On the console was a knob, a gauge with a needle on it, a microphone, and a loudspeaker. The person was asked to read a series of questions into the microphone, and a person in the next room, the supposed subject, would answer.
If the answer was incorrect, the man in the lab coat would tell the questioner to turn the dial to a certain level, which would administer an electric shock to the subject in the next room. Each wrong answer would result in a higher shock. Of course, the subject answering the questions was just an actor, but the person at the console didn’t know that. As the wrong answers piled up, the shock levels would get higher and the voice over the speaker would begin screaming in pain. The person at the console would get upset, and suggest that they stop. “The experiment must continue,” is all the man in the coat would say. And they would turn back to the console, turning the dial higher, watching the needle go into the red danger zone. Of the scores of people tested, only two people actually got up and left. Only two.
This is precisely the kind of passivity that Christ will not permit from his disciples. Christian love is proactive, assertive, tenacious, insistent. A reporter asked Darryl Strawberry’s teammate Brett Butler, a devout evangelical Christian, about Strawberry’s comments that Jesus make him passive. Butler snorted. “Jesus would break up the double play,” he responded. I always loved that answer. If you’re a baseball fan, you know that is when a baserunner coming from first base slides hard into second base to keep the fielder from being able to make the throw from second to first for the second out of a double play. It is not only allowed, but encouraged as a sign of playing the game hard and selflessly. And I agree with Butler; I think a guy that upends tables in the Temple would probably upend a shortstop trying to turn two with the game on the line.
But what about when it’s not a game? What about when you’re squaring off not simply against a worthy opponent, but an adversary, an enemy? What Jesus tells us here is that Christian love is proactive, assertive, tenacious, insistent: it takes the initiative, engages the enemy, and keeps hammering away regardless of the enemy’s response. But it does so by refusing to accept the enemy as an enemy, even if the enemy defines himself that way; that is how it breaks the cycle of reciprocity.
The original grammar here is revealing. Literally, “love your enemies” is translated better as “keep loving your hated ones.” It’s an imperative statement, and it is a command to constant or repeated action. And the same goes for the specifics he offers to explain how to love your enemies: keep doing good, keep blessing, praying, offering, giving. Jesus is utterly realistic: he assumes that our enemies will not reciprocate, certainly not immediately. But by continuing to love them, we break the cycle of hatred that reciprocity demands.
But even more than that, it’s a paradox. How can you love one whom you hate? Because as I and many other have said many times, the Christian understanding of love is an action, not an emotion. Loving your hated ones helps us recognize that how we treat others does not have to depend on how we want to treat them, on how we feel like treating them. Loving your hated ones means that you do not ignore or accept or even tolerate what it is that makes this person your enemy, but it also doesn’t determine how you treat them in return. Love alone determines that.
Martin Luther King, Jr. used to sum up his theology of Christian love and non-violent resistance by saying, “Brothers and sisters, we have to love the hell out them!” I could just stop the sermon right there, because I’m not going to do better than Martin Luther King, but I want to first point out that IS exactly what Jesus is saying here in his sermon: that it is only through love that we can bridge the gap between ourselves and one another and God, the gap that has been created by all those things that seek to separate us from the love of God, as we say in our Baptismal vows.
And it doesn’t always work, at least in this life. Some enemies want to stay enemies with us, and we can’t make them change. But if we keep praying, if we keep blessing, if we keep doing good, if we keep loving, then we are agents and conduits of God’s love into this world, which means that we are both surrounded and filled by that love, and regardless of how our enemies see themselves and act towards us, the cycle is broken, and love persists, and sometimes even enemies will finally throw down their weapons, and sink to their knees, and surrender to love.