Choosing to Love Our Enemies

by Kurt Willems

*reprinted from the Summer 2015 edition of Shalom!

THERE ONCE WAS a boy who lived in the tension between joy and pain; happiness and hurt; light and darkness. At an early age, his parents who loved him dearly got a divorce. He would go on to live primarily with his mom and visit his dad every other weekend. This happened at such an early age that he did not know anything different. Having an intact family only existed in his clouded dream-like memories.

Around the time that this boy was getting ready to begin school, his mom began a relationship with another man. She needed the financial stability, because she struggled to maintain a job and mostly relied on welfare. Soon after, this new man began to show his true colors of anger, alcoholism, and abuse. Sporadically but regularly, the man would beat the boy’s mom and would even take his rage out on the child. At home with mom and the man, the boy’s life became a constant nightmare from which he couldn’t wake up.

Along with the pain, the boy experienced joy. His dad, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and church gave him opportunities to know love. Unfortunately, the boy didn’t tell them what was happening at home because he wanted to protect his mother. Nevertheless, as he grew older he knew that the time would come when he would be strong enough, brave enough, and big enough to fight back. If this man, his greatest enemy, continued to make life hellish, a day of vengeance would come when the boy would be able to defend his mom.

There is a story in the Bible that we don’t know much about. In Genesis, immediately after Cain kills Abel, God has mercy on this murderer and makes known to all people that “anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over” (Gen. 4:15). After this, a character named Lamech enters the story and admits to having committed murder. He claims for himself what God  said about Cain: “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (v. 24). Notice that this story is a warning to the enemies of Lamech. Anyone who kills or tries to harm Lamech will receive vengeance 77 times worse. This is a story rooted in the fear of retaliation.

But then there came a man who taught about a way of God that was rooted not in vengeance, but forgiveness and love toward enemies. One day he was approached by a disciple named Peter who asked: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matt 18:21). Listen to Jesus’ rabbinic response: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (v. 22). Can you imagine how revolutionary his words would have sounded if you were a first century Jew for whom the story of Lamech was part of your heritage? You would be saying: so… in the same way that the story of Lamech claimed vengeance toward enemies, Jesus says this is how often we ought to forgive our enemies! Wow!

This is not the first time Jesus said something like this. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus taught the lesson in another way. He said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” This would be an acceptable ethic to the Lamechs of the world. But the Jesus ethic is different: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matt 5:43-44). Jesus’ way is never about vengeance but is always about reconciliation and forgiveness. He demonstrated that in the most compelling fashion in his journey to the cross. 1 Peter reminds us: “But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps…. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threat” (2:20-21, 23).

Now think back to the boy and the pain he endured in his life. How would he respond to his enemy, the man who all that pain? Eventually he would be strong enough, brave enough, and big enough. But maybe the question should not be about how the boy should respond. Perhaps a different question is required.

What if the answer is not embedded in the question of the boy’s response, but rather is rooted in this question: what has God done in response to his enemies? Then the question is: who exactly are God’s enemies? Romans 5:10 answers:  “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life.” But then notice how God responded to his enemies (aka: humanity). He initiated relationship with us by absorbing the violence of evil through the obedient action of his Son Jesus! Jesus not only taught forgiveness (which has the ultimate goal of reconciliation); on God’s behalf, he reconciled his enemies to a properly centered relationship with him. He could have fought back. Jesus was strong enough, brave enough, and big enough, but instead of retaliation, he chose the cross. We, who were the enemies of God, have been reconciled by the faithful action of Jesus!

Let’s return to the boy in our story. He finally became strong enough, brave enough, and big enough to fight back. By this time, the man was far removed from the family that he had once hurt. Even so, in the back of the boy-turned-young-man’s mind was the thought that if this enemy ever were to creep back into the picture, he could now fight back. But then this boy-turned-young-man had an encounter with Jesus that changed the question from how to respond to how God has responded. God through Christ’s faithfulness offers forgiveness to reconcile his enemies to himself. Having received such a generous and restorative gift, the young man came to realize that he could not help but give it away, even to his childhood enemy. God’s attitude and action toward his enemies not only served as an example for him, but also became the overflow of his heart. How could he not pay forward the generosity that he had experienced from his heavenly father to forgive this quasi-earthly-father?

The boy, whose name is Kurt, eventually (with God’s help) decided to let go of vengeance and to extend forgiveness. I let go of the need to be ready to defend, and chose to learn to love my enemy. Because of this, I have been able to pray for my childhood enemy. I have been able to wish God’s best for him. This is not always easy and at times in my journey the temptation has been to return to hatred and un-forgiveness. However, as I grow into the love of God, I cannot help dreaming of the day when my childhood enemy will experience the reconciling love of Jesus and will encounter the possibility of turning enemies into friends.

So, who is your enemy? A co-worker, a boss, a relative, an abusive person from the past, a spouse? Or perhaps your enemy is a group of people: conservatives, liberals, terrorists, gays, non-Christian religions? Can you imagine the possibilities if you chose to respond to your enemies out of gratitude for how God has responded to us? Can you envision the healing that could take place in your life and in our communities if those who are our enemies were reconciled to us through sacrificial forgiveness? May we respond to our enemies in the same way that God has responded to us. May we choose to live less like the Lamechs of the world, and to embrace the reality of reconciliation that has ultimately been accomplished through the self-sacrificial love of the cross. May we show our enemies a nonsensical love that is rooted in the nonsensical love of God. May we choose to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute” us.

Kurt Willems lives in Seattle, Washington, with his wife and daughter, and is the Brethren in Christ church-planting pastor of Pangea Communities. This article is adapted by permission from Kurt’s blog at http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog.

Everyone Needs a Place at the Table

by Zach Spidel

*Reprinted from the Fall 2015 edition of Shalom!

AS BROTHER JOSE gave us instructions for serving the meal, he emphasized several things: how important it was that we remain calm even when the crush of people began to make their way inside for what might be their only meal of the day, that no one but servers were to be let through the large locked doors at the front of the church’s undercroft before the noon meal, and that we were to not merely hand them food, but to treat the homeless men and women we were serving like the patrons of an upscale dining establishment. We were to make them feel welcome, valued, and catered to. They were not a burden, and though we might be a charity, we were not to treat these hungry people like “charity-cases.” They were sons and daughters of the King.

Brother Jose had intimidated me with his description of the large and often unruly crowds of needy people who would be streaming through the doors of this Bronx church in a short while. So, as I wiped off tables and chairs, I kept glancing toward those doors, through which I could already hear a gathering crowd. Thus it was my heart leapt into my throat when I heard the doors creak open a full half hour early and watched as about a dozen disheveled people shambled into the main room. I could tell immediately that most of these people were either mentally handicapped or mentally ill. Some shuffled as they walked and most wore old and tattered clothing. As they walked in, there was no one else in the main room to address them. Brother Jose had run out on an errand and the rest of the Messiah College students on this service trip with me were back in the kitchen.

I approached the group unsure of what to say or how to say it, afraid that some of them might be unstable enough to make a scene if told to go back out, and concerned about how they got in to begin with. I halted them halfway through the main room and mumbled something apologetically about the meal not being for another half hour. My comment and blocking body posture were met only with confused faces and blank stares. No one seemed to comprehend my point and one man actually just began to walk around me. I felt a twinge of panic as he bypassed me; I hadn’t asked for this duty and didn’t know what I should do now or if it really mattered enough for me to do anything at all.

As I silently and anxiously deliberated about my options, the doors swung open yet again as Brother Jose rushed into the church running behind schedule. His eyes lit up when he saw the early diners and he called out their names as he slapped high-fives with them or embraced them each in turn. I was confused. Brother Jose had been so adamant about no early admittances, but he seemed positively delighted by these early birds. Seeing my confusion, Jose came over to me.

“These, my brother, are your fellow volunteers,” he said, with a smile and a mischievous glint in his eyes.

And sure enough, I watched as the whole lot of them moved with familiarity toward the kitchen where they all donned aprons, just like the one I was wearing, and set to work finishing preparations. These brothers and sisters were from a large group home a few blocks over and they came every week to help with this meal. A few minutes later a group of women arrived to help as well; they lived in a community for recovering addicts, most of them being former prostitutes. They too donned aprons as they joked loudly with one another in their boisterous Bronx voices and took their places alongside us fresh-faced college students from central Pennsylvania.

We servers – the college students, drug addicts, prostitutes, and mentally handicapped group home residents – all circled up for prayer just before noon. Brother Jose, unexpectedly, turned to me and asked if I would lead us. After a moment of hesitation, I closed my eyes and began to pray. I do not remember what I said to God in that moment. I doubt anyone else could either, since my words were rendered mostly unintelligible due to my tears.

I was crying because, once again, God and his kingdom had proven more beautiful than my heart could bear. My chest ached from the goodness of this moment, of this particular circle of disciples. Who else but Jesus could bring together this mix of races, and backgrounds, and stations of life?  Who else but Jesus would make of recovering addicts, and the disheveled group home residents, not just passive receptacles of other people’s aid, but servants themselves – full citizens of the kingdom and key participants in this ministry? My heart burst with love for the wild menagerie of people around me and for the Shepherd who had brought us all together.

I knew that we belonged together because we belonged to Jesus. I knew that this was what the church was always and everywhere meant to be like, and I yearned for that divine intention to become a reality more often. I prayed for his will to be done and his kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.

Immediately after that prayer, with tears still in my eyes, I couldn’t help but make several slow passes with my eyes over the circle of people around me – soaking in this beautiful sight. And I knew that while in some ways I had never been more out of place or out of my element, in another and more important way, I had never been more at home.

Zach Spidel is the pastor of The Shpeherd’s Table congregation in Dayton, OH.

Personal Reflections on the Justice System

by Ken Abell

*reprinted from the Winter 2016 edition of Shalom!

I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”  – Jesus of Nazareth

AFTER AN EXTENDED and ongoing close sojourn through the labyrinthine criminal justice system, I have dismal and jaded moments when I consider the phrase “criminal justice” to be an epic oxymoron. The commonplace dysfunctions in the institutions tasked with doling out penalties to wrongdoers would likely shock the average person – I know I was astounded at the beginning of our journey.

My wife Anita and I have a son who has been incarcerated since 2003. His outdate is July 2019. There have been a few rare exceptions, but the norm for our visits is to be treated with a presumption of guilt or suspicion by corrections officers who are, as we have been repeatedly told, simply doing their job. Though quite frankly, in the famous words of Cool Hand Luke, “Calling it your job don’t make it right, boss.”

Car shakedowns can range from laughable to outrageous. Imagine having your briefcase opened and being asked to explain ordinary articles in it; overnight luggage in the trunk sorted through with no regard for decency or personal privacy; bowling balls removed from their bags to have the three holes methodically probed; CDs in the glove compartment taken out and scrutinized one at a time; a uniformed guard on her hands and knees examining the undercarriage of the vehicle.

All of this and much more has happened to us in the parking lot on the freedom side of razor-wire fences, which at the very least, begs the question: If this is how visitors are handled in the full glare of daylight, how are inmates in the dark confines behind prison walls dealt with and managed?

The reality is that whether it is county jail or state prison, the acceptable norms put in place to dehumanize prisoners are intentional and systemic. The punishment for being a lawbreaker is to be removed from society and incarcerated, which in itself, has degrading consequences, but is only the beginning because of the all too human compulsion for authorities to intimidate the imprisoned population.

A slap in the face discovery happens almost immediately to newbie convicts  – all God-given rights are revoked and replaced by the ofttimes arbitrary whim of those in authority. There are unwritten mandates and an unspoken code that give great leeway to jailers. Every newcomer to a lockup must learn the ebbs and flows, and how to walk on egg-shells to avoid being badgered by those corrections officers who routinely choose to empower their inner bully.

Consider this from the Bureau of Justice Statistics: 1,561,500 prisoners were held by state and federal correctional authorities on December 31, 2014. Those figures fluctuate incrementally up and down from year to year, but remain in the million and a half ballpark. Each number represents an individual created in the image of God and someone for whom Jesus died, so tell me again: how is the warehousing of human beings truly the best a supposedly civilized and enlightened society can do?

The courts are backlogged, so wheeling and dealing is a linchpin of the criminal justice system. For the express purpose of clearing the docket, a quid for quo environment is promoted and honed to an oily smooth edge that greases the customary and usual practice of trading sentences. The cronyism and blatant tit-for-tat favors between attorneys and judges are typical of how cases are decided and business is done.

Another problematic issue that must be addressed is judicial prerogative and activism, which because of the almost incestuous relationships within the corridors of power, requires comprehensive oversight that involves private citizens not beholden to any county, state or federal agency.

What follows are three snapshots that I have eye-witnessed in courtrooms.

On Christmas Eve, a judge wearing a white-fringed red Santa Claus hat presiding over a series of criminal cases and passing sentences accompanied by a sarcastic, “Ho, ho, ho.” In bad taste? Unseemly? The bailiff and lawyers on both sides of the aisle were grinning and chuckling, so evidently this was deemed to be appropriate behavior.

In another courtroom and a different time, the mother of the defendant shakily read a tearful and heartfelt statement in which she simply asked for a small measure of fairness. Afterwards, while the woman sat weeping, the judge reprimanded the grieving mother and father for their failures and inadequacies as parents that, according to the black-robed pontificator, resulted in the criminal conduct of their adult child.

Or, how about a magistrate from family court officiating at the sentencing hearing in a three-year long criminal case that had complexities and numerous delays, which he was introduced to that morning. Six or so hours of testimony later, in passing judgment on the first-time offender, the judge declared that he was going to make an example of the defendant, then threw the proverbial book at him.

As to recommendations for reform, I am not optimistic. Due to a lifetime of observing the self-serving sleight of hand machinations of public officials which are inextricably linked to Jeremiah’s prophetic pronouncement regarding the heart of humankind being deceitful above all things and beyond cure, I am persuaded that there are no political solutions. Is that cynical? Or gritty realism?

I do have a suggestion, which is fueled by the power of hope and redemption. The church in affluent North America must honestly evaluate its role in all of this because we are the ones entrusted with the truth about setting the captives free. The church, living and breathing stones formed into cells in the body of Christ, must continually soldier on and be a voice for the voiceless and an advocate for the powerless.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” When these words of Isaiah are coupled with the compelling parable of Jesus about tending to the needs of the least among us, the Old Testament is wedded to the New Testament to become a call and command for the church to be the church. Individually and corporately we must be purposeful in shouldering the responsibility of visiting prisoners and breaking the chains of injustice in whatever people to people ministry ways we can.

Ken Abell and his wife serve with the Overcomers Program at Navajo Mission, Bloomfield, NM.

One Church’s Conversations About Race

*Reprinted from the Spring 2015 edition of Shalom!

Hank Johnson is pastor of discipleship and youth ministries at the Harrisburg Brethren in Christ Church, where he has been on staff since 2008. In Monrovia, Liberia, where he was born, his family was part of the power structure—directly descended from the African American families that moved from the United States in the 1800s as freed slaves to create the nation of Liberia. He moved to the United States when he was nine years old. “I came to the U.S. as an African, but living here made me African American,” he says. The northern New Jersey town that was his first home in the U.S. was mostly white, with a large Asian population and some Latinos. As a child perceived to be African American, he was in the minority, an outsider, and not part of the power structure.

When he was in seventh grade, he moved to Philadelphia, and eventually attended Central High School which was very diverse and where he was once again an African and not an African American. He eventually attended Messiah College. He didn’t know anything about the college or its theological history (including Anabaptism, which immediately resonated with him), but was attracted to it because it was Christian, had a wrestling program, and he liked the campus. All of these experiences have given him perspective on race in America and in the church, and a valuable vantage point from which to talk about the congregation where he now serves.

Referring to the church in Antioch, where many non-Jews became believers and Christians were first called Christians, Hank notes that wherever the church has grown, it has become more diverse. He gave a number of examples of this, and agreed that the Harrisburg Brethren in Christ Church is another example of how when the church has grown it has become more diverse. The church was predominantly white for many years, despite its previous location in a racially mixed neighborhood in the city. The church prayed many times over the years that they would begin to better reflect the diversity of the community, but it didn’t happen. They eventually had what some call a “come to Jesus” moment, when they decided they needed to either “get in or get out” (stay in the city and “diversify” or relocate), and still there was very little progress.

Then one day an African American grandmother from the neighborhood came to the door and told senior pastor Woody Dalton that God had told her and her husband they should start attending the church. This couple was followed by several other African Americans. In 2000, Cedra Washington, also African American, became part of the pastoral staff. Pastor Cedra, with deep roots in the city, knew the needs of the community, and spearheaded the development of various ministries that directly met those needs. All of those ministries became part of an emerging brand for the church. In the years since the “come to Jesus” moment, the church has moved to a larger location in the city (a refurbished car dealership), had an explosion of growth, and in the process become perhaps the most culturally, ethnically, and racially diverse congregation in the denomination.

The congregational vision statement reads: “Our vision is to be a thriving diverse urban church sharing Christ’s love and serving the needs of our local and global communities.” That they are accomplishing the vision can easily be seen just by observing the diversity of the congregation on a typical Sunday morning and by the variety of practical ministries, such as a food pantry, recovery support group, an English-as -a-second-language class, a “meet and greet” alternative to Halloween, and Thanksgiving and Christmas outreaches that draw people of many races and nationalities to the church.

These more obvious outward markers of diversity are reinforced by a number of intentional internal structural activities: 1) An intentionally diverse staff and church board. Currently, there are more people of color on the church board than white, including Liberian, Indian, Guyanese, Haitian, and African American. 2) Five worship teams, all of which reflect not only different worship styles but racial and ethnic diversity. 3) A series of classes on racial reconciliation. The church does not assume an understanding of racial reconciliation, but actively engages people in conversation about what it means practically. The introductory class is based on the book, More Than Equals, by Spencer Perkins, an African American, and Chris Rice, a white, who as two friends of different races talk about racial reconciliation in terms of relationship. This class allows people to hear each other’s stories and engage in personal conversations about race.

A second class, called “Next Steps,” delves more deeply into some of the systemic issues that undergird racial inequalities in the U.S. This class is based on the book, The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Divide, by Meizhu Lui, et al., which “makes the case that until government policy tackles disparities in wealth, not just income, the United States will never have racial or economic justice.” Through case studies, the book helps people understand the strengths of various ethnic groups and the challenges they face. Another class is based on the book The Skin You Live In: Building Friendships Across Cultural Lines, by David Ireland, which provides an introduction to multiculturalism and is more introspective.

Hank believes that racial reconciliation is a spiritual endeavor. We are one in Christ, and our unity in Christ is what matters most, even though often our natural inclinations are separated by race. What’s most important is valuing that unity and working intentionally to maintain it. Unity doesn’t mean being color-blind, but it does mean that whites need to let go of white privilege, and blacks need to let go of the idea that white people are not trustworthy. At Harrisburg, they work hard to create settings where people can have conversations about race and hear each other’s pain; they pray regularly for situations where racial tensions are high, such as in Ferguson, Missouri last year, or more recently in Baltimore, Maryland. And they build relationships, one person at a time and as a church community. While some might say that such an emphasis on the personal avoids the tough and seemingly intractable systemic issues that perpetuate the racial divide in America, Hank’s response is that we need to “be faithful to what’s on our plate,” to do what we can with what we know and can control. If we are faithful in small ways, racial reconciliation will happen.

This article is based on a conversation between Hank Johnson, pastor of discipleship and youth ministries at the Harrisburg (PA) Brethren in Christ Church, and Harriet Bicksler, Shalom! editor.