Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

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.

Today’s Gospel reading continues the Sermon on the Mount that began with the Beatitudes about which I preached three weeks ago. Having begun his sermon with that serene call to be with those who mourn, those who are poor, those who hunger &c, Jesus had attained a momentum that would take his preaching to unexpected places, which must have had his listeners wondering.

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.

His listeners probably had felt comforted by the opening words of the Sermon on the Mount, but now that Jesus was calling on them to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors, they may well have started to feel perplexed. What were they to make of these calls that went contrary to every cultural prejudice that they had received from their forebears?

It was probably calls such as these by Jesus that led David Horton, Parish Council Chair in the Vicar of Dibley TV show, to say that “Jesus had some wacky ideas.” Love your enemies? Pray for those that persecute you? Are you serious? It goes against all logic.

Whether or not his listeners that day by the shores of Lake Galilee were perplexed or understood what Jesus was getting at, the intervening centuries have seen continuous efforts by Christians to shoehorn these troubling words into a pragmatic theology that would take into account a ‘real’ world that understood such altruistic idealism was simply not practical. The result has been that, two millennia later, most of us just ‘hear’ these words when they are read but do not actually ‘listen’ to them.

If you doubt me, may I ask you to ask yourselves when you last exhibited an act of love to an enemy or prayed for someone who, in the words of the King James version of the Bible, despitefully used you? I don’t know how you are answering that question in your own mind, but I can say that I am not very comfortable with the answer I am giving in my own head. I’ve certainly prayed for those persecuting others – but those who have offended me? I’ve prayed for the grace to forgive, but actually prayed for them? The best I can say is that it has been a while.

It brings us to the fundamental question of ‘to love or to hate’. Love does not countenance hate and hate cannot countenance love. We can’t, for example, imagine a loving hate or a hating love – the closest we can come to it is to love to hate or to hate to love, which are irreconcilable polar opposites. Which brings me to the world that we seem to find ourselves in today, and about which I have preached before – a world that loves to hate.

Recently the cartoonist Larry Pickering said to a meeting of the Q Society:

Let’s be honest, I can’t stand Muslims.

If that wasn’t phobic enough, he then went on to add another piece of hate speech by exempting some Muslims from his focus of odium, exonerating them because they t least murdered homosexuals by throwing them off buildings.

Pickering’s comments had been made as his contribution to an intense debate within our community about the merit or otherwise of anti-villification laws, in particular Clause 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. In this debate, the key focus has been on the right to freedom of speech in the face of the rights of individuals not to be offended. In such debates it has often been alleged that Voltaire said:

I wholly disapprove of what you say – but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

I say ‘alleged’ as the contention that Voltaire ever said such words wasn’t made until the early Twentieth Century. Whatever the case, those words have become the rallying cry for the Freedom of Speech movement.

Now, let me hasten to state, that I do believe in Freedom of Speech but I have absolutely no intention of defending to the death Larry Pickering’s right to be so odiously offensive.

You may well have decided a stance either for or against the retention of 18C. However, what worries me about this national debate is actually that it seriously misses the real point. There is a fabulous Dilbert cartoon that records a conversation between the hapless Dilbert and his boss:

Dilbert: Why are you sending me to teach Cobol to the Elbonians? Wally is the one who knows Cobol, not me?

Boss: Wally said he is busy that day.

Dilbert: Can’t you reschedule the class?

Boss: Okay … does tomorrow work for you?

Dilbert (exasperatedly): You’re solving the wrong problem!

The current national debate pits the right to freedom of speech against the right to feel offended. What has got lost, however, in this debate is the point that the Public Affairs Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia has made on a couple of occasions to the Federal Parliament on the subject:

If we want to contribute to a civil society by promoting peaceful, harmonious and mutually supportive communities, then we must learn to treat others in the way we ourselves would wish to be treated.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus ignored the issue of the right to freedom of speech and went straight to the issue of love versus hate.

Mark Labberton, in his book “The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbour: Seeing others through the eyes of Jesus” has written:

In our names for one another, for better and for worse, lies the evidence of what is in our hearts. Our distorted sight of God, ourselves and our neighbour leads us to name wrongly. [p112]

In Genesis, we read that God gave to humanity the right to name. This right was limited to objective identification of objects – to name the plants and animals of God’s Creation. As our myriad languages show, we took up that right. But in addition, we assumed for ourselves another right – the right to name subjectively, not just objectively. The right to define others and use that right to limit them, not treat them as equal. And so we ‘named’ race and gender and caste and and sexuality and belief and so on.

Let’s be honest, I can’t stand Muslims.

Larry Pickering had said, so exercising a perceived right to subjectively name. I’m picking on Pickering, but the truth is that there is a widespread, contemporary passion to be free with such loaded labelling. Jonathan Sachs, former Chief Rabbi in the UK, on the subject of the ‘globalisation of hate’ has written (in “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence”):

A provocation somewhere can create anger everywhere. Never has paranoia been easier to create and communicate. [p21]

And this easy globalisation of hate is a faithless act that has been achieved by ignoring what Jonathan Sachs refers to as:

Faith (being) God’s call to see his trace in the face of the Other. [p25]

This faith in the Other is more than just seeing some ‘right’ in another – the Other – such as identified in the title of a book by American evangelist Tony Campolo – “We have met the enemy and they are partly right.” It is a much more existential recognition of the universality of God’s Creation. And fundamental to understanding this is to comprehend the weakness of our very human perception that cannot see God loving us as well as the Other whom we hate. Indeed, this offends our human perceptions that there might be any suggestion that God might also love our enemy. The key point being that this very human perception is the antithesis of the divine perception; again quoting Sachs:

To be secure in my relationship with God does not depend on negating the possibility that others too may have a relationship with him … We can only know our own relationships; we can never know another’s. [p142]

Returning to Mark Labberton’s point about subjective naming, he writes:

Misnaming creates the verbal landscape that contributes to the rife injustice in our world. [p125]

Misnaming represents a deliberate depersonalising, or dehumanising of the other. Thinking of this, I was reminded of the late Jewish writer, Yehiel De-Nur. At birth he had been named Yehiel Feiner but changed his name after escaping from a death march out of Auschwitz in 1945. He then adopted two names – one for his personal daily living – Yehiel De-Nur, with his surname meaning ‘from the fire’ symbolic of the fire of the death camp ovens which he had only just managed to escape. His other name was Ka-Tzetnik 135633, the label and number he had been given by the camp commandant in the concentration camp.

In fact, he also had a third label when he was in the camp – for he was one of the ‘mussulmen’. Hannah Allen has written that this was the name given to:

Those people (who) were seen as having given up entirely … and so everyone gave up on them. [p69]

The Mussulmen were those who, so weakened to the point of exhaustion and despair, were always the first amongst those selected to feed the ovens by their own bodies. The Nazi guards couldn’t stand these Mussulmen whilst those inmates who were stronger and could still work invariably turned embarrassedly away from the fate of their brothers and sisters whom they labelled ‘muslims’ in act of separating them from themselves.

Years later, Ka-Tzetnik 135633 would be sitting in the courtroom where Adolf Eichmann was being tried. He watched day after day the prosecuting of the case against the man who had been responsible for mass murder; but also whose crimes had included personally tearing up papers that would have allowed Ka-Tzetnik 135633 to escape the death camp. Understandably, the trial was a traumatic experience for him; and towards the end he collapsed in the courtroom. How do you think he reacted afterwards? This is what was written about an interview he did in 1983 recalling the fainting incident at the Eichmann trial:

Was De-Nur overcome by hatred? Fear? Horrid memories? No; it was none of these. Rather, as De-Nur explained, all at once he realised Eichmann was not the god-like army officer who had sent many to their deaths. This Eichmann was an ordinary man. ‘I was afraid about myself,’ said De-Nur, ‘… I saw that I am capable to do this. I am … exactly like he.’

I don’t know how you react to this report but I know I found it not only incredible, but almost offensive. What right did he have to make such an exonerating statement on behalf of a mass murderer? But it was not I who had been on that march of death that he trod. So what right did I have to judge his own opinion. Indeed his confronting conclusion would lead him to a changed life after the trial. Ka-Tzetnik 135633, a non-Christian, would live out the second greatest commandment – to love our neighbour as ourself.

An obituary written on his life that appeared in the UK Independent in 2001 noted the profundity of that changed life:

At the heart of his work are the famous descriptions of perpetrators’ cruelty and victims’ pain, and yet the hard-won lesson the author eventually brought to the world from Auschwitz as neither hate nor cynicism but a positive and universal one concerning tolerance for the stranger in a strange land, in this instance a passionate belief in the need to work for mutual understanding between Jew and Arab in the shared homeland.

Voltaire may have been prepared to defend to the death someone else’s right to freedom of speech; but in considering our Gospel reading today, we should remember the ‘to the death’ moment that Jesus would prove by his own life.

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.

Jesus had said these words early in his ministry. Nearly three years later his enemies would entrap him and persecute him. Now was his time to abide by his own words or change his tune. Would he love his enemies and pray for his persecutors? From our worldly point of view, we would have understood if he had recanted his earlier teaching; but, as we all know, there on the cross, Jesus’ cried out:

Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

By these words Jesus gave power to what he had said those years earlier – ought we to do any less than reflect his example by our own loving and praying for those whom it seems so impossible, so unreasonable and so offensive to do so?