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Readings: John 17:20-26, Matthew 5:23-24, 43-48, 10: 11-14, Divine Providence #18, True Christianity #409 (see below)
In the aftermath of a historic election, we being given an opportunity to recognize how deeply divided we are as a county. One does not have to go very far on social media to hear story after story of families and friends painfully cut off from each other due to disagreements about who to vote for.
And now that the winner of the election is clear, there have been many calls for unity, for political differences to be reconciled so that the country can move forward. On many levels this makes sense; we have so many pressing issues before us. It can hardly be beneficial to waste time and energy on that which divides us, and on tearing each other down.
And yet, I believe that the gospel prompts us to imagine how these calls for unity might be heard by the vulnerable members of our communities: (for example) people of color who have watched their brethren suffer under police brutality or systemic oppression; members of the LGBTQ community, who live on tenderhooks knowing that many of their basic rights hang in the balance each election; Dreamers, who are simply working hard to make a life for themselves in the only country they have ever known as home; or refugees and their children, over six hundred of whom have still not been reunited with their families.
Many people look at politics these days and see more than logistics, they see an expression of morality. Questions of tax rates and trade agreements, these could rightly be seen as political questions, but questions of human rights, the integrity of democratic ideals, who has a right to healthcare, dignity, personhood, agency - these, and many others questions, are also moral questions. And how do we approach unity on moral issues? This seems much more fraught, much more complicated. When human rights are in question, compromise can feel like being asked to ignore the evils of racism, homophobia, or xenophobia. Some disagreements are just so fundamental, that they cannot be settled with saying "to each their own.” What do we do with that reality?
So I thought we might try to consider some of these things in theological terms, and ask what does the Bible, Swedenborg, and others, have to say about unity, reconciliation, and loving our enemies?
First, let us consider the concept of unity. The desire for unity is understandable. These times have been so painful, who wouldn’t want a future that does away with all the tension that we have been experiencing. And one of Jesus’s most heartfelt personal prayers was for unity among his followers. Unity is a blessed state, one to be hoped for, dreamed of, and worked for.
But Swedenborg makes clear that true unity between opposites is not possible.(1) Truth and goodness cannot be united with evil and falsity, for they are like magnets shying away from each other. And while, in this world, we all are given the freedom to exist in grey in-between states, as we figure out our priorities and work through our baggage, true unity as it exists in heaven is the natural cooperation between things are in fundamental agreement. Now, unity is not the same thing as “sameness” and I quote again: “a form makes a unity more perfectly as its constituents are distinguishably different, and yet united.”(2) But this is talking about the kind of differentiation that exists in the human body for example, distinguishable parts in agreement about the cause of keeping the body alive. It is not considered a good thing when a part of the body starts to work against that cause, like an auto-immune disease, or stops playing by the rules, like cancer.
Perhaps in our current political situation then, unity is just not the right word for the moment. It’s use is understandable, for it is in the very name of our country, which has always been about bringing together in balance the needs and desires of semi-autonomous states. But the execution of that historical unity has thrown many people under the bus over time, and this needs to be recognized. Perhaps a phrase like “conscious partnership” is more appropriate now, representing a pragmatic choice to work together for the common good in places of agreement, but does not necessarily imply a forgetting or smoothing over of fundamental disagreements.
So let us now consider the question of reconciliation and its necessary companion: forgiveness. As author Austin Channing Brown has astutely noted: we are not going to hug our way to justice.(3) Calls for unity can sound like they want to skip over repentance in order get to the reconciliation. And this feels fundamentally wrong to those who have suffered under, for example, racist systems and attitudes as they have existed for a long time. How would we feel personally if someone who has hurt us, who has brought into question our worthiness and dignity, started acting like we should just forget what they had done? It can be easy to ask for unity when you have nothing to lose by giving it.
What do our traditions have to say about reconciliation and forgiveness? Well, Jesus is very clear that we should be generous with our forgiveness, way way more generous than we might otherwise feel comfortable with. He famously tells his disciples to forgive their brethren seventy times seven times, or as in our reading today, to not offer worship until they are reconciled with their neighbor. Context is important though. Both of these instances are about not allowing our own selfish feelings to be an obstacle when true reconciliation is on the table. But what is it that makes true reconciliation possible?
Repentance is an indispensable part of the process of reconciliation. Swedenborg is very clear that repentance must precede forgiveness, and that without repentance there can be no forgiveness.(4) This is not anywhere near as transactional as it might sound on its face. God forgives everyone their sins. It is already done, for everyone, out of the abundance of God’s love, in every moment. But that forgiveness has no reality or meaning in the life of the person being forgiven, unless they have an understanding of what they are being forgiven for. Forgiveness is activated for us, as a force that forges the repairing of relationship, when repentance allows it to do so.
And so for those who have been hurt, it may well reduce their own emotional burden to grant forgiveness. But without repentance on the part of the transgressor, coupled with the change in behavior that comes from true repentance, how can there be any functional moving forward together in relationship? How can there be real reconciliation or unity?
Which brings us now to the question of love. The author James Baldwin has famously said: "We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” Jesus has even more famously said: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. The juxtaposition of these statements begs the question: what kind of love are each of them talking about?
Martin Luther King Jr was adamant that the Christian discipline of loving enemies was absolutely indispensable to the civil rights movement, and to the future of humanity going forward. He deemed it “an absolute necessity for our survival.” He wrote:
“I am certain that Jesus understood the difficulty inherent in the act of loving one’s enemy. He never joined the ranks of those who talk glibly about the easiness of the moral life. He realized that every genuine expression of love grows out of a consistent and total surrender to God. So when Jesus said “love your enemy,” he was not unmindful of its stringent qualities. Yet he meant every word of it. Our responsibility as Christians is to discover the meaning of this command and seek passionately to live it out in our daily lives.”(5)
King made a crucial distinction however. In the Greek New Testament, when Jesus says to love your enemy, the word used is agape. There were three words for love in the new testament: eros, meaning either romantic love, or a yearning for the divine; philia, meaning the love found in friendship and collegiality; and finally, agape, meaning (in King’s words) “an understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill towards all [people].”(6) So importantly, Jesus wasn’t asking anyone to “like” their enemies…but calling his disciples to align with a greater principle of trust in the Divine. If all people are made in God’s image, then all people are beloved by God, period. And this doesn’t mean that God condones evil actions, but rather, that God holds a greater hope for, and a greater sight of, each person’s own trajectory than we possibly can. In practicing the discipline of Christian love, we are invited to step outside of the way hatred and domination naturally multiplies itself within the human heart.
Sikh activist and author Valarie Kaur, herself having been the target of racist attacks, also writes movingly about revolutionary love being that which births new realities:
“Love is more than a feeling. Love is a form of sweet labor: fierce, bloody, imperfect, and life-giving—a choice we make over and over again…This labor engages all our emotions. Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger protects that which is loved. And when we think we have reached our limit, wonder is the act that returns us to love.
“Revolutionary love” is the choice to enter into wonder and labor for others, for our opponents, and for ourselves in order to transform the world around us. It is not a formal code or prescription but an orientation to life that is personal and political and rooted in joy. Loving only ourselves is escapism; loving only our opponents is self-loathing; loving only others is ineffective. All three practices together make love revolutionary, and revolutionary love can only be practiced in community.”(7)
Kaur crucially recognizes the three-strong foundation that is necessary for the discipline of revolutionary love: fierce and compassionate love for others, sacrificial love for opponents, and healthy, healing love for ourselves. And it is in this last one that we reference our final bible reading. Jesus sent his disciples out into the world, schooled them in openness but also advised them to know when to draw a boundary. Sending love out into the world, and working for its transformation, must rely on a dynamic balance between love for others and love for the self. The work of love can only be sustainable when we are each able to draw the necessary boundaries that protect the holy tenderness of our hearts and minds. Reaching out balanced by reaching in, like the breathing that gives life, a sacred balance of community and interiority.
So here we are, and after a consideration of these topics (which rightly should probably have been three sermons instead of one!) I’m as disappointed as anyone to find that there is no clear answer, or as Kaur says, no formal code or prescription. But that should not be surprising. The reason that the Bible sounds like it contradicts itself at times is because it is both idealistic and contextual, and such contradiction is exactly what we would expect to happen when principles meet real life. What I am taking away from this exploration, is that I believe the word to focus on rather than unity is community. Unity is beautiful but it can sound somewhat static; community however suggests something more dynamic, something that we continually create rather than finally achieve.
As we as a nation go forward in to these days and years together, my hope is that we continue to stay focused on the practice of revolutionary love. And because this practice is dynamic, it will look different for different people. But if there is anything to unite us, let it be this. Amen.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Divine Providence #18
(2) Ibid #4
(4) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Divine Providence #280
(5) Martin Luther King, Jr, Strength to Love (Fortress Press, 2010), 44.
(6) Ibid, 47.
(7) Valarie Kaur, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love (One World, 2020), xv-xvi.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
11 Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. 12 As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.
Divine Providence #18
The reason everyone must be engaged in what is good and what is true together after death or in what is evil and what is false is that good and evil cannot be united. Neither can good and any falsity that is prompted by evil, or evil and any truth that is prompted by anything good. Such things are opposites, and opposites battle with each other…
True Christianity #409
I have been told from heaven that the Lord forgives everyone our sins, and never punishes us for them, or even imputes them to us, because [God] is love itself and good itself. Nevertheless the sins are not wiped away by this, for it is only by repentance that they can be wiped away. For if [Jesus] told Peter to forgive up to seventy times seven times, is there anything that the Lord Himself would not do?