#MLK50

It was 50 years ago today that the “shot rang out in the Memphis sky,” and Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I learned about MLK, of course, but growing up in Canada I didn’t learn a lot. And coming of age in the early ’90s as a white Evangelical, what I did learn was that Martin Luther King was one of those “iffy” Christians, one of those “social justice” Christians who didn’t preach the true gospel and whose salvation status was uncertain.

My perspective has changed a great deal in the last 25 years, of course, and over the last 10 years I have deliberately engaged MLK’s writing and preaching, learning from his life and legacy. He was a flawed man, no question, but he was just as certainly one of the great lights of the twentieth century, even of all human history.

Martin Luther King, Jr., has appeared in my preaching several times over the past few years. Here are the times he also made it into my blogging. Rest in peace, MLK, until the coming of our Lord and the renewal of all things, and the dream is fully realized.

God’s Dream for the World

“I have a dream.”

The words are iconic. I’m sure most of us know the speaker, and the context.

Martin Luther King, Jr. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. August 28, 1963.

Ground zero of the African-American civil rights movement.

It had been 100 years since Abraham Lincoln himself had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Almost 98 years since the U.S. Congress had passed the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery. A full century, in other words, to bring about full equality under the law for African Americans. But it hadn’t happened.

Three, four generations. And it still hadn’t happened. Bits and pieces, here and there, including a decade of rocky attempts at desegregating schools. But the 100-year old promise of freedom was far from fully realized.

And so African Americans were getting restless. Meetings were held, boycotts were enacted. People marched, people protested. Some began to think all this was not enough. A stronger voice was needed, a more powerful statement. Maybe even violence.

Into this world Martin Luther King came. Supporting Rosa Parks in her refusal to give her seat to a white passenger on an Alabama bus. Instrumental in organizing the civil rights movement. Preaching, speaking, rallying, lobbying. Insisting that, in their struggle for justice, African Americans must not resort to the same tactics as their oppressors: no hatred, no cruelty, no violence.

And this was how Martin Luther King, Jr., ended up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, in front of 200,000 people.

Ground zero of the African-American civil rights movement.

“I have a dream.”

Powerful words, these. Powerful things, dreams.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’”

Sounds biblical, these words. Sounds like God, these dreams.

And that’s because they are.

Nearly two thousand years earlier another prophet had stood on the other side of the world in very similar circumstances. He, too, had a dream.

His name was Jesus. He was from Nazareth, in Galilee. His people, the Jews, were coming up to 100 years under Roman occupation: nearly a century of economic exploitation, heavy taxation, no freedom to choose their own course. Galilee in particular was a simmering cauldron of unrest, always ready to boil over into outright revolt.

It had happened before. Not long after Jesus was born, after the death of King Herod, several people tried to claim the throne to take a run at Rome. Messiahs grew like wildflowers after a spring rain—but they were ruthlessly cut down.

Ten years later—about the time Luke’s Jesus was turning heads as a child in Jerusalem’s Temple—a man named Judah led an outright revolt against Rome, claiming Rome’s heavy taxes amounted to slavery. He and his followers were brutally crushed by the armies of Rome.

And now here Jesus stands, on those very hills of Galilee.

Ground zero of the Jewish resistance movement.

“I have a dream,” Jesus declares.

“I have a dream of God’s kingdom come, God’s will being done, on earth as it is in heaven. On that day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’”

Tissot - Jesus Teaching“I have a dream,” Jesus proclaims to his fellow Galileans buckling under the weight of Rome. “I have a dream that one day those who are now grieving will be comforted, those who are now lowly and downtrodden will be in charge, those who are right now starving for justice will have their craving satisfied. I have a dream that one day those who are humble in their spirit and pure in their motives, those who show mercy toward others, those who make peace instead of inflicting violence and waging war, these will live in the fullness of life.”

“I have a dream today!” The crowd rumbles its agreement.

“I have a dream,” Jesus shouts to the restless masses. “I have a dream that one day the last will be first and the first will be last, everyone on equal footing. The Jew will live alongside the Gentile, the rich will sit down with the poor, men and women and elders and children all will share their lives in mutual care and respect.”

“I have a dream today!” You can hear the “Amen!” shouted in the background.

“I have a dream that one day the lost will be found. The struggling, the sick, the stigmatized, the silent, the sinner, all will be brought in to the banquet of God’s great love, the very least feasting until they are satisfied. I have a dream that one day the poor will hear good news for a change, the unwell will know true healing, the outcasts will be embraced, and those left for dead will experience new life.”

“I have a dream that one day oppression will cease and wars will be no more. The powerful and proud will be humbled and the lowly will be lifted up, swords will be turned into plows and seeds of life will be planted for the flourishing of humanity.”

“I have a dream today!” And the applause echoes out over the waters of the Sea of Galilee.

It might seem strange to think about Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God as God’s dream for the world. But that’s essentially the idea: the kingdom of God is God’s vision for the world, what the world would be like if people lived out God’s will, God’s way for humanity. The kingdom of God is the best possible world God can imagine.

This still might seem odd, to imagine God dreaming, to think of God imagining a better world. But remember: God is the Creator of all things, and to speak of God as Creator is to speak of God as imagining. Before anything existed, God imagined it. Everything that is, exists because God imagined it first. To use the Apostle Paul’s words, God is the one who “calls into being the things that do not yet exist.”

But God is not done imagining. God is not done dreaming. God has a dream for a better world. And God’s dream for the world is what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”

And here’s the thing about God’s dreams: when God dreams something, you know it will become reality, even if it takes an eternity.

In fact, God has provided a way for us to see this dream become a reality: through Jesus. Jesus didn’t just stand on the steps of the halls of power and share God’s dream. He taught how this kingdom of God can come down to earth, and then he lived it out. Think back to our Scripture passages for today from Luke’s Gospel. Think back to the story of Jesus.

Title: The parable of the sower [Click for larger image view]God’s kingdom, Jesus says, starts small, like a mustard seed. God’s dream for the world begins in the insignificant spaces in our lives: the everyday, the ordinary, the mundane. God’s dream for the world starts in the hidden places of our lives: in small, unseen acts of empathy and humility and compassion.

The kingdom of God does not come about through flashy programs and glitzy marketing campaigns, but through the nitty-gritty, down-to-earth, day-by-day, moment-by-moment choices we make to be kind, to be patient, to welcome, to forgive, to trust, to rejoice, to persevere.

God’s kingdom, Jesus says, spreads quietly, like yeast in dough. As we do these ordinary acts of love in the hidden spaces of the world, God’s dream begins to spread. It’s contagious. Grace begets grace. Forgiving others leads to others forgiving. Practising empathy and compassion encourages others to do the same. Joyful hospitality and thankful generosity multiply, spawning a community of open-handed and open-hearted people.

The kingdom of God does not come about through guilt manipulation or aggressive coercion, but through the repeated, repeated, repeated practice of Christ-likeness: humbling ourselves, raising up others, seeking the good of all above our own whiny wants.

And this is where God’s dream gets really hard. Because living into God’s kingdom, Jesus says, requires us to lose our lives in order to truly live. If we really want to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice, to see God’s dream become reality, Jesus says we must “deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.”

The kingdom of God does not come about by an easy road, a life of comfort and ease, insisting on our rights and privileges. It comes about by a narrow path, the path of willingly putting others’ genuine needs before our own personal preferences, seeking the good of all rather than our own selfish whims, knowing that when we all thrive together, we will each thrive even more.

And this is where God’s dream moves beyond our private lives and into the public domain. Because living into God’s kingdom, Jesus says, requires us to stand fast against evil: both that within ourselves and that in the wider world. God’s dream confronts the nightmare of this world’s evil. It demands that we defy those impulses within ourselves that cause harm to the other, and also those larger patterns of hostility and injustice within our societies that cause harm to whole swaths of people.

Racism, sexism, and bigotry of all kinds. Physical, sexual, and other forms of abuse. Economic exploitation and political repression. All the human rulers and underlying ideologies and prevailing attitudes and social structures that support these and other terrible evils.

To seek first God’s dream for the world means we are committing ourselves to stand firm against all these spiritual forces of evil—but to do so through persuasion and not coercion, through compassion and not cruelty, through mercy and not vengeance, through peaceful means and not violence.

Jesus walked this path himself, this narrow path to God’s kingdom. He did the small things, off in a back corner of the Roman Empire. He lived out the infectious way of welcoming love and selfless compassion and grateful joy. He resisted the evil powers of his day, willing to die rather than kill, giving his own life to seek the good of all.

And through all this Jesus sowed the seed of God’s kingdom in the world. In Jesus this dream was plucked from the fertile imagination of God and planted in the earthy soil of our humanity.

This was why, when Jesus was asked when God’s kingdom would come, when God’s dream would become a reality, Jesus could say: “Don’t look for the big, flashy signs! The kingdom of God is already among you. It’s right here—if you’re ready to see it.”

Do you remember the story of Pentecost? After Jesus’ death and resurrection, after Jesus’ exaltation to his rightful place in the universe, the wind of God moved on the face of the deep, just like it did in the beginning. God’s Spirit came upon that ragtag band of Jesus-followers, all huddled together in hope and fear.

And when it came time for the Apostle Peter to explain what was going on to the bewildered crowds, do you remember what Peter said? He quoted the words of the prophet Joel:

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young ones shall see visions,
and your old ones shall dream dreams.

And so it has been ever since.

God’s daughters and sons are still prophesying, they are still dreaming. The young ones, even the old ones—did you hear that?—are still dreaming God’s dreams for the world.

For two thousand years God’s people have been dreaming the dreams of God, imagining God’s kingdom come, God’s will being done, on earth as it is in heaven. Martin Luther King’s dream is just one of those dreams, still awaiting its full realization. Like the dreams of Syrian refugees, and residential school survivors, and many, many others.

The kingdom of God starts small, like a mustard seed. And it can take an age until its branches provide nests for the birds and shade for all who seek it. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends surely toward justice.

But to see this become a reality we must dream the dreams of God. We must imagine the world as it can be, flowing with justice and peace and bursting with flourishing life. Only then can we step out in faith and love and hope in the footsteps of Jesus, and grasp the dream that stands before us.

Adapted from a sermon preached on October 30, 2016, at Morden Mennonite Church, as part of the “Stirring Our Imagination” worship series. Watch MLK’s full “I have a dream” speech; or listen to the audio recording. Images: 1) U.S. National Archives and Records Administration; 2) “Jesus Teaches By the Sea” by James Tissot; 3) “Parable of the Sower” by Jesus Mafa.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

MLK and “The Things that Make for Peace”

On December 20, 2015, I preached a sermon at Morden Mennonite Church on “The Things that Make for Peace.” I’ve excerpted some of that sermon already in a previous post, but in honour of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the U.S. I’m posting another excerpt, my conclusion to that sermon.

Many of you will know that a month ago I went to a theological conference down in Atlanta. While I was there I went to Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church Martin Luther King grew up in, the church he served as pastor for part of his career.

MLK Light LoveAs I’ve been reflecting on these “things that make for peace” this week, I’ve been reminded of Martin Luther King and his struggle for racial justice in the U.S. during the 1950s and 60s. King developed several principles of nonviolent resistance—principles of peacemaking, in other words—that sound a whole lot like what I’ve just described from Luke’s Gospel. This is no coincidence, as King based these principles in large part on the life and teachings of Jesus.

First, Martin Luther King emphasized that peacemaking is not passive, and it’s not for cowards. To use King’s words, peacemaking “is not passive nonresistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.” This takes tremendous moral courage, because it means standing against evil on one side while facing ridicule on the other. This takes tremendous inner strength, because it means resisting violence and injustice without resorting to violence or injustice oneself.

Another of King’s principles of peacemaking: in his words, it is “directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil.” The goal is to defeat injustice, not unjust persons. The goal is to defeat fear and ignorance and hatred, not fearful or ignorant or hateful persons. The goal is to bring peace, what King called the “beloved community.”

Here’s the next of MLK’s principles: we must be willing to accept suffering without retaliation. How can we do this? King says “the answer is found in the realization that unearned suffering is redemptive.” The goal is to reduce or even eliminate unearned suffering for everyone; but sometimes, this requires that some people—or even just one person—needs to suffer unjustly before the eyes of the world in order to bring about that redemptive transformation.

Underlying these principles of peacemaking are two further principles, spiritual principles. In King’s words, this brand of nonviolent peacemaking “avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit.” There’s an important correlation between inner peace and outward peace: peace among us requires peace within us.

We need to know forgiveness ourselves in order to forgive others. We need to have empathy awoken within ourselves if we want to have compassion for others. We need to rid our hearts of hatred if we want to see the world rid of violence. We need peace in our own souls if we hope to have lasting peace in society.

And underlying all this is one final principle: the principle of faith. This peacemaking, King says, is “based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice.” In our active struggle for peace, a struggle that may require our own suffering, we must believe that “there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.”

You see, Martin Luther King realized something that many of us miss: God has already revealed his peace in Jesus. God has shown us “the things that make for peace.” God has laid out for all to see God’s “way of peace,” peace within us, peace among us.

The question is, will we walk in it? Will we “recognize the things that make for peace”? Will we follow Jesus in “the way of peace”? Or does Jesus weep over us as he wept over Jerusalem?

May God give us eyes to see the path of peace laid out for us in Jesus. And may God give us the faith, the hope, the love—the moral courage and selfless compassion—to trust in God’s way of peace and walk in Jesus’ way of love.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl

“Turn the Other Cheek” ≠ “Be a Doormat”

This past Sunday I taught our adult Sunday Study class. As always, it turned into a wide-ranging discussion only remotely connected to the topic, in which we noted and immediately solved all the world’s problems. (Just kidding, of course. It took us at least 45 minutes to solve them all.)

Turn Other CheekOne of the things that came up along the way was Jesus’ famous “turn the other cheek” command. It was suggested that maybe this and other commands like it are for an ideal, future “kingdom of God” and aren’t expected to work in the real world right now. Or, maybe these sorts of commands are simply for our individual relationships and not for our wider social relationships.

“Turn the other cheek.” Yep, it’s a hard one. It seems utterly unrealistic, unworkable in the real world of playground bullies or abusive spouses or oppressive regimes or violent extremists.

Here’s the text from Matthew’s Gospel:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (Matt 5:38-41)

This is immediately followed by another seemingly impossible command:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:43-48)

What do we do with these commands? Is it true that they’re just for our individual relationships, or maybe that they’re simply for some time down the road, when God’s eternal kingdom comes to fruition?

To the idea that these commands are not intended for the real world right now, we have to say an unequivocal “No.” At least, that’s not the way Matthew sees them. The Sermon on the Mount concludes with Jesus’ emphatic declaration that he expects his followers to “hear these words of mine and act on them” (Matt 7:24-29), and the Gospel as a whole concludes with Jesus’ call for his followers to make disciples who will “obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:18-20). Everything. Even the hard bits.

But there’s something else from these teachings themselves that suggests these are not simply for some ideal “heavenly kingdom”: in that ideal kingdom there would be no need for these commands, because no one would strike you on the cheek to begin with. In fact, these commands of Jesus only make sense at the place where the kingdom of God collides with the kingdoms of this world. These commands only make sense in a world where there are oppressive enemies and violent retribution—clashing with a new world in which there are no enemies and there is no vengeance.

How would Jesus’ first disciples have heard these words? Who were their “enemies” who struck their cheeks or made them give up their cloaks or forced them to walk a mile? Probably, as time passed, there were several “enemies” who could be named. But for those first Jesus-followers the “enemies” that would have immediately come to mind were the Romans.

The Romans. Seen by many (by no means all) first-century Jews as godless oppressors, Gentile dogs trampling on God’s holy people all over God’s holy turf. And the immediate, flesh-and-blood symbol of this imperial oppression? The Roman soldier, with the power to knock heads and commandeer cloaks and force burden-bearing marches.

Suddenly Jesus’ commands here take on new meaning. “Turn the other cheek”? “Love your enemies”? This isn’t for some idealized future, nor is it just for our everyday relationships. This is about a clash of empires, a collision of kingdoms, two worlds coming head-to-head—and affecting all our real-world right-now relationships, from individuals to families to communities to societies to nation-states.

Think about this: if someone in a position of power over you “strikes you on the right cheek,” what are your options?

One option is to fight back, to strike them on the cheek, to go all “eye for eye” on them—but they have all that raw power behind them, and this is only going to get ugly fast. Violence, even “justified violence,” always, inevitably, begets violence—on you, on them, on innocent others.

A second option is to back away in abject submission, to be a “doormat.” This is what people typically think Jesus means here—just take your licks and accept your lot in life. But just as Jesus does not say, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, strike them back,” so also Jesus does not say, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, bow down to them in subjection.”

No, Jesus commands a third way, a way that is neither the “return evil with evil” way nor the “passively submit to evil” way. Jesus commands his followers to stand up with dignity, look the oppressor in the eye, and challenge them to expose their injustice and inhumanity by inflicting another gratuitous blow.

In other words, Jesus advocates what Walter Wink calls “defiant vulnerability,” or what Tom Yoder Neufeld perhaps better calls “creative non-violent resistance”: “creative” because giving the extra garment or walking the extra mile are outside the normal rules of enemy engagement (Killing Enmity, 25). Glen Stassen and David Gushee go even further, saying Jesus’ commands here are “transforming initiatives”: they “take a nonviolent initiative that confronts injustice and initiates the possibility of reconciliation” (Kingdom Ethics, 139).

Creative, transforming, non-violent resistance. Just like all those in recent history who, inspired to various degrees by Jesus’ life and teachings, initiated some of the most momentous changes ever seen toward more just societies: Mahatma Gandhi in British colonial India; Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Jim Crow-era southern United States; Lech Wałęsa and Karol Józef Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II) in Soviet Communist Poland; post-imprisonment Nelson Mandela under South Africa’s Apartheid.

It’s counter-intuitive, for sure. But contrary to popular opinion, “redemptive violence” is a myth while “turn the other cheek”—rightly understood—actually works.

It’s important to get this right. This is not a command to an abused wife that she should just stay with her husband and submissively accept the blows, whether physical or otherwise. This is not a command to terrorized Iraqi Christians that they should just accept what’s happening to them as God’s will. This is not a command to the boy being bullied after school that he should just take the black eye and slink away in fear. These kinds of things are most emphatically not what Jesus is saying here.

Rembrandt Christ on the CrossIt’s helpful to look to Jesus’ own example. It is clear in Matthew’s Gospel that the many things Jesus commands his followers to do in the Sermon on the Mount, he demonstrates for them as he goes to the cross. Turn the other cheek? Check. Love your enemies? Check. Pray for your persecutors? Check.

But here’s the thing: Jesus does not do these things for himself, but for others. For all the “poor in spirit” who are in “mourning,” for the “meek” who “hunger and thirst for justice” (Matt 5:3-6), Jesus steps into their place as “merciful peacemaker,” “persecuted for justice’s sake” (Matt 5:7-11).

Jesus becomes the champion of the oppressed, taking the blow aimed at them, standing up for them with dignity, looking the oppressor in the eye and exposing their injustice and inhumanity with every gratuitous blow—and this becomes the spark for true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life.

This is what the bullied child, the abused spouse, the oppressed people, need. They need a champion. And not a champion who will strike back blow for blow, and just make the problem worse. They need a champion who will stand up to their oppressor on their behalf, who will expose the oppressor’s injustice and inhumanity and initiate the process toward justice and peace and new life, whatever the cost.

So how do we “turn the other cheek”? Not by being a “doormat,” passively submitting to violence or oppression or abuse over and over again, spiraling downward until all involved are de-humanized and eventually destroyed.

We “turn the other cheek” with creative, transforming, non-violent resistance in the footsteps of Jesus—which means imagining and enacting ways to expose evil and injustice which maintain our dignity, which do not demonize our “enemies” but instead show compassion toward them, and which open the door to possibilities of reconciliation and a better future.

We “turn the other cheek” with creative, transforming, non-violent resistance in the footsteps of Jesus—on our own behalf if there is no one else to take up our cause, and certainly on behalf of others who are beaten down and need a champion.

None of this makes Jesus’ commands to “Turn the other cheek” and “Love your enemies” any easier. If anything it makes them harder—because it commits us to not just speak of justice, not just pray for justice, but to actually step out and work for justice.

Maybe I should go back to solving the world’s problems with my Sunday school class. This “walking in the way of Jesus” thing is way too convicting, way too challenging, way too hard. Kind of like walking on a really narrow way

A special note for abused spouses and children… Please hear this clearly: You are under no obligation to remain with your abusive partner or parent. “Turn the other cheek” does not mean that, neither does “Wives, submit to your husbands” or “Children, respect your parents,” and if someone tells you otherwise they are wrong. Contact an organization like Genesis House that can provide advice and shelter for you and initiate the process of healing for you and any others involved. I know this is easy to say and hard to do, and if you are unable to take this step then I pray you will know God’s sufficient grace through your suffering and God’s power through your weakness—and that you will again consider taking this step if the abuse continues.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Sermon from a Morden Church

“Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King JrOut of great struggle rise great women and men, to do great things. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of these. His voice gave dignity to African-Americans in a world that gave them none. His example of nonviolent resistance gave others the courage to stand for truth in love. His ideas fueled a movement toward freedom and equality that continues to this day.

MLK’s legacy is an American treasure. But it is a treasure big enough for all people to share.

I was reminded of the above quote from MLK’s book, Stride Toward Freedom, a couple of weeks ago when I preached on Epiphany Sunday. My sermon was on diversity, on the ways we “other” others. Sound odd? Here’s an excerpt…

“Others,” and How They Are Made

It happens all the time, and we’re all prone to it. We all like to be around people who are like us, people who generally think the same way we do, who dress much the same way we do, who speak the same language, like the same food, have similar interests. But then someone new arrives on the scene, someone who doesn’t quite fit the mould, someone who looks a little different, who speaks a little different, who likes different things.

It’s so easy for us to fear the different. Often this is motivated by ignorance—we just don’t know what to make of them, we don’t know what their presence might mean for us. And so we’re afraid: there’s something threatening about their differences, as if we think they might undermine our own comfortable life just by their presence, as if the fact that they think and do things differently might call into question the legitimacy of the way we think and do things.

At this point things are still salvageable. Difference is not the problem. But when, out of ignorance and fear, we push differences to the outside, we make the different into the outsider, then we have a problem. They are no longer “us”; they’re not even “you’s” anymore, people we address directly. They are simply “them,” “those people,” consigned to third person pronouns.

But things can even get worse. When someone we’ve labeled an outsider actually does something to us, or our family, or our community, when one of “those people” does something that threatens something we hold dear, the outsider can become the enemy. Then it’s not simply “us” and “them”: it’s “us versus them.” Suddenly “those people” get blamed for everything that’s going wrong. Suddenly the greatest threat to our world is Muslims, or evolutionists, or gays, or whatever we’ve made into our polar opposite—and if nothing is done, we believe, the world as we know it will be lost. Again, more ignorance and fear.

The different becomes the outsider, the outsider becomes the enemy—but we’re not done yet. In extreme cases, we then demonize these enemies, we de-humanize them. Think of Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden: by the time they died they were no longer seen as flesh-and-blood human beings, regular people who still had to get dressed every morning, who still laughed and loved with friends and family. Our greatest enemies become symbols of something greater, something more terrible; they become icons of evil. And then we can imagine horrible things done to them that we would never wish on any flesh-and-blood human being.

The different becomes the outsider, the outsider becomes the enemy, and the enemy is demonized, stripped of their humanity.

Reversing this “Othering”

But this is not the way of Jesus. This is not the gospel. Jesus is about breaking down walls, erasing lines in the sand, widening circles, extending tables.

Rembrandt Christ on the CrossIn a brilliant passage that deserves careful, repeated reading, Ephesians 2 describes how Jesus has come to “destroy the dividing wall of hostility” between Jews and Gentiles: he “preached peace to those who were far away and peace to those who were near,” in order to create “one new humanity” and thus “bring peace” (Eph 2:14-18).

Here’s the hard part, the more excellent way, the narrow road. Following in Jesus’ footsteps, motivated by love, we are called to reverse this process of “othering”: to humanize our enemies, to bring the outsider in, to celebrate our differences.

“There is no fear in love,” we’re told in 1 John 4, “but perfect love casts out fear.” So we begin to follow Jesus in this by replacing fear of others with love. We don’t fear those who are different simply because they are different; we love them.

This sounds so idealistic, and it is—the gospel is idealistic, the kingdom of God is the ultimate in idealistic, imagining a world better than the one we’ve got now. But this love can still take seriously the dangers around us. Sometimes we have legitimate reason to fear other people. Sometimes other people’s actions do threaten something or someone we hold dear. We should be cautious in a dangerous world. We still lock our doors at night; we don’t leave our keys in the ignition; we don’t let our kids walk alone across town. We promote just laws, and compassionate policing, and restorative justice.

Yet if this appropriate caution becomes a fear that drives us, defining the way we interact with those we meet day by day, defining the way we engage those who are different than us, making the different the outsider and the outsider the enemy—then we need love to drive out that fear. That kind of fear-based approach to those who are different just doesn’t work. It has got us as a human race into a mighty mess—polarized politics, radicalized religion, angry fundamentalism, culture wars, real wars—and we need love to drive that fear away.

This love is not a sentimental “smile and nod” kind of love. It is heartfelt, active, Jesus-love. It shows interest in the other person, in their loves and longings, their joys and sorrows. It learns about that person, where they’re from, what they eat, what they like to do, how they live. It reaches out to that person in their need—loneliness, despair, hunger, illness, grief—and accepts help from that person when we’re in need. This Jesus-love is a love that gives itself for the other, even when it hurts, even when the other is different, an outsider, an enemy.

And when we love like this, the process of “othering” someone else turns back on itself. That enemy we have demonized, is humanized. We see them for who they are: people just like us, just as frightened as we are behind their pomp and power, feeling just as threatened in their world, with things they value and people they love, longing for the basics of a meaningful human life—good and nourishing food, clean air and water, warm shelter and clothing, personal freedom, a safe home, loving relationships, dignity and respect.

And when we love like this, the outsider is brought in. It’s no longer “us versus them” or even just “us” and “them”—the third-person “those people” becomes a second-person “you” as we engage them directly, and then even a first-person “one of us.” We break down the walls that divide us, we erase the high-stakes lines in the sand, we widen the circle, we extend the table and invite them in for Faspa. Whatever “those people” we’ve created, we open our arms and say, “Welcome here.”

And when we love like this, the different are celebrated. Love doesn’t erase our differences. We recognize that just as we’re all the same—humans together on the same planet hurtling through the galaxy around the same sun—so we recognize that we’re all different. Different abilities, different ideas, different interests, different dreams, different clothes, different shades of skin, different shapes and sizes, different names, different people. And we celebrate this: we welcome the Magi from the East just as we’ve welcomed the shepherds from the hill country, and just as God welcomes slave and free, Gentile and Jew, male and female, from every tribe and nation and people and language.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.