The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
Will you join with me in prayer? May the words of my mouth and the meditations and transformations of each of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God, our peacemaker and creator. Amen.
Today is the Academy Awards, or the “Oscars” as we also know them. Gerhard, my husband, and I love the Academy Awards! We love watching the interviews on the red carpet, the live music, sometimes the jokes (that varies a lot depending on the host), and we love rooting for our favorite films. As a minister, though, it makes me reflect deeply on the power these movies and particular genres of film have over us and our ethics and national values.
Movies can be a force for good and social change, but often over time, through repetition of themes and motifs, they have formed some of our worst collective ways of dealing with love, with conflict, and how to “deal with” and “take care of” a perceived enemy. Thanks to Westerns, in particular, our collective American Conflict Resolution looks more like the John Wayne film True Grit than it does the ways of Jesus. True Grit and the ways of US Marshall Rooster Cogburn hold more weight than the ways of Jesus of Nazareth in our culture. Movies and television often drive values or ethics more than meditation, places of worship, friendships, or Spiritual teachings like today’s absolutely fabulous Scripture from the Gospel of Luke.
When we think about what forms our idea of an enemy, we think of the movies and classic American Westerns above all where there are clear lines between the good and the bad. These formulaic, overly simplistic films that Hollywood is still producing have generated a popular way of thinking about enemies and how to deal with them. Violence and division seem to be the resolution in most cases. Regardless of if you have ever even watched a Western, they are enculturated into our mores and values.
Love him or hate him, disregarding his politics, still one of the top ten most popular movie stars of all time, according to a recent poll, is still John Wayne and his Westerns. Huffington Post movie critic and film expert John Farr tried to get to the bottom of the question: “Why [does] John Wayne still rank among today’s most popular stars?”
Farr writes, “What accounts for this actor’s uncanny endurance? Other better actors played cowboys, like Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart. Other bigger stars like Clark Gable and Gregory Peck played soldiers. But around the world, whenever John Wayne played a cowboy or a soldier, he was America. Wayne’s persona—its bigness, roughness…literally came to define our heritage. And to a surprising degree, it still does.” This cultural identity power is still with us and our politics. We all are trying to live like John Wayne in a Western in how we respond to perceived enemies—as both progressives and conservatives.
Think about it: How does Conflict Resolution usually work in a Western? Does it end in transformation and wisdom seeking understanding? Is the community better off or transformed because of discourse and problem-solving out there on the range? Are different sides seeking common ground or shared space? Can one town tolerate two authorities? No, none of that mushy, highfalutin European stuff! Is there resolution? Is there resolution to the dispute? Yes! Always! There is always resolution—usually with a rifle, a duel, or a high plains shootout. My thesis this morning: American Conflict Resolution is not the same as the Conflict Transformation of Jesus.
Where does our Scripture today fit within this overwhelming cultural narrative of power to oppose enemies rather than transform community?
Today, in Luke Chapter Six, we find ourselves in the Wild West of the Ancient World, and we are on the side of the outlaw. We are with a wanted outlaw named Jesus or “Jesus the Kid” as he was probably referred to by local authorities. Chapter Six of The Gospel According to Luke is a somewhat lawless, Wild West chapter of the Bible for the Jesus of Nazareth story. In most of this chapter, the writer of Luke lets us know that Jesus and his small band of disciples were popularly viewed as the outlaws, the problem, and the enemy. Yes, what is often missed about Jesus’ discourse on “Love Your Enemies” is that it appears in the middle of a chapter where he and his band are the Wild West Outlaws.
In the first verse of this chapter, Jesus and his disciples take some grain from a field and work it and eat it on their way. The Pharisee Sheriff stops him, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath around these parts?” Jesus replies, “The son of man is lord of the Sabbath.” There is a new sheriff in town!
A couple of verses later, in verses 6-11, we read that Jesus got in a fight with the local authorities in another small town while healing a man’s hand on the sabbath. He says to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save a life or destroy it?” Jesus is a theological and legal outlaw on the high plains of Ancient Israel. Truly, I tell you this is Wild West sort of material, and with Jesus there is a new Sheriff in town.
In my reading of Chapter Six, by the time we get to the Enemies Discourse from today’s lectionary, Jesus is breaking down and going on a verbal rampage. He is tired of being called an enemy everywhere he goes. I view this as a sort of exasperated Jesus who is tired of being chased down, on the run, and accused of breaking the law and being the enemy all the time. He is ready to set the record straight.
Jesus responds to his reputation as an outlaw of the powers that be by proving it to be true. In a world or tribalism, divisions, and enemies at every turn, Jesus announces that there is a new sheriff in town with a new set of rules. Jesus posts these new rules on the swinging door of the saloon:
“But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.[a] Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
There are at least three overlooked points about this passage that will help us better understand it and how to live under by the rules of Sheriff Jesus rather than Sheriff John Wayne.
First, as I have already alluded to, if read correctly within the context of Luke, Chapter 6, Jesus is the one who is constantly being accused of being the enemy. They were the outlaws of the Empire, the sheriff, and the religious powers of the time. Love your enemies, friends, is about how we hope people might even treat us. It is a reversal of perspective.
Here is the resulting, useful spiritual practice for the Progressive Church in the time of divisive politics: In moments of local, personal, or national disagreement give yourself the label of enemy. We love to be the Wild West heroes. We love the be the saviors of the town on the side of the good, but it is powerful to try to see how we are challenging for others or even threatening.
This doesn’t mean that we as progressives give up or weaken in our resolve, especially in the face of so much injustice, but it does mean that we find the humanity, the love, the need for our enemies again. We need to disengage from the script of a Wild West Western we are all living through politically. It is an enculturated script we all follow. For every enemy you make, you make of yourself an enemy.
This does not mean that we are wrong or let go of our work and justice advocacy, but it is a practice of self-evaluation and self-awareness that opens conversation.
In Western movies, good guys vs. bad guys is always dualistic. We must reject these dualistic world views—even the one we so often live into by calling ourselves “Progressive Christian” rather than just “Christian.” We pick the camp of politics rather than a camp of Christ.
The word enemy used in this passage comes from a Greek word meaning either someone who is actively hostile or passively odious. All of us are enemies of someone either actively or unconscious passively.
An example in my work: I know that when I go into a room where I am meeting with Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christians for Habitat for other reasons (there are a lot of these opportunities in affordable housing), they know that I am a gay minister. Therefore, in some way, I know that I am perceived as enemy even if we have common cause in other areas.
The only way I am able to speak with them and show compassion is to remember how challenging I am to their world view, their systems, their entire theological framework. I own who I am in the space, and I find compassion for the anxiety or change I must represent. All of us understand what fear of change or anxiety can feel like and can find compassion for that human quality rather than the cause itself.
If, for an instant, I look for how I might be seen as the enemy, it can change how I enter the room or engage conflict. I know that I represent pain, change, and fear of the unknown as the world and culture changes. That must be hard. While I will never agree with them or change who I am, I can find compassion for their experience. Rather than blaming them for their theology and context and cutting them off and refusing community or connection, isn’t it more powerful to come in with compassion for their fear while also owning who I am? Who knows where those relationships might lead?
In American Conflict Resolution, we always view ourselves as the hero cowboy or cowgirl on a high horse with a penultimate right to win and to resolve that conflict once and for all for the benefit of our understanding of good.
Where in your life do you know you are perceived as the enemy? Can you take the time to think of how you or what you represent might make that other person feel—even if you totally know that it is ridiculous or unfounded? Can you for even a second imagine their vantage point? Remembering always that Jesus was the perceived enemy rather than hero.
Now you are doing transformative work!
Secondly, we see Jesus in verses 32-35 making sure that the enemy is humanized. It is like a mirror. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.” Jesus is calling their and our bluff. He is really asking: Are you sure you are always the hero of this story? He points out that love for primary community and for family is a common value we all can relate to—so what makes a true hero?
Thirdly, and I love this, notice in this passage God hath not promise a life without enemies. A world without those who disagree with us is not promised. We like to pray for peace on earth, but it would appear God does not see uniformity of perspective or a lack of enemies as the way to achieve peace. “If only everyone saw the world exactly the way we see it here at Plymouth, then the Realm of God would be realized” … is theological fallacy. In fact, it appears that God’s will might be a world where we have to find compromise—maybe that is where the Sacred is found. The Peace of Christ lies in learning somewhere in living well with difference.
This brings me back to the problem with the True Grit and the American idea of Conflict Resolution. Resolution implies that there is one right outcome. It implies that conflict can be resolved once and for all. Resolutions result in violence, in arbitrary end, and in pain. At the end of the movie True Grit pretty much everything is resolved, but everyone except Wayne’s character and one other are pretty much dead. Is that really the model we want to follow even as progressives who are sure we are right?
I believe what Jesus is talking today about is akin to Conflict Transformation. One scholar writes, “[Conflict transformation] is something more than conflict management or conflict resolution. The goal of conflict transformation…is not only to end or prevent something bad but also to begin something new and good. Transformation asserts the belief that conflict can be a catalyst for deep-rooted, enduring, positive change in individuals, relationships, and the structure of human community.”
A couple of weeks ago, I received a text that I thought was a joke at first asking me to serve on Governor Polis’ Clergy Council. It is a small group of 11 interfaith clergy from across the state who meet with the governor several times a year to offer support, ideas, and perspective. I spent an hour with the governor and the group last week. During that meeting, a fellow clergyperson from Denver asked, “What can we do most to make a difference for good?” The governor thought for a minute and then asked us to do everything we can to help change this adversarial culture in our society of partisanship, artificial divisions, and the rampant creation of enemies. I agree with the new governor on this and am willing to work for a new civil discourse in our state and country. I see our Scripture today as God and Outlaw Jesus calling us to do better in trying to have compassion for and get to know our enemies in both personal and political settings.
In Colorado, the Wild West history is at our core. This True Grit Conflict Resolution is embedded in the DNA of our state history. It is every rancher for her or himself mentality. In some ways that means we have less open conflict than other states, but we are great good at putting up emotional barriers, riding people off and riding into the sunset. “You stay on your ranch and I’ll stay on mine and we be just fine so long as we don’t speak.”
In reality we need each other, we need transformation that comes from authenticity in conflict, and we need our enemies to start talking to us again more than ever. We can’t just stay on our separate Fox News or MSNBC ranches and stop engaging in real community. We can’t do that and just hope we will wake-up to a different world in the morning.
At the end of the movie True Grit… almost everyone is dead. That is not the outcome of Christ. Conflict Transformation calls us to not resolve things with violence and reinforcing divisions but to engage, forgive, and truly love our enemies. The proliferation of enemies and the “enemyification” of society will only slow down when we are willing to see our own role in being the enemy as Outlaw Jesus is in our story today. For it is only in learning to see ourselves both as hero and outlaw that we truly can come into conversation ready to be transformed.
Happy Trails to you—until we meet again! Amen.
3. Thomas Porter, The Spirit and Art of Conflict Transformation: Creating a Culture of JustPeace (Nashville: Upper Room, 2010), 5.
Related Original Liturgies
* Call to Worship
Leader: But I say to you that listen, love your enemies!
People: Do good to those who hate you.
Leader: Bless those who curse you.
People: Do to others as you would have them do unto you.
Leader: The word of God for the people of God is not always easy to hear. It is often against the grain of our popular culture and learned behavior.
All: May we rediscover the truly counter-cultural meaning of Christian love and learn to find goodness and God even in our worst enemies.
* Unison Prayer
Sometimes, God, we think we are Wild West heroes—take no prisoners, leave no question, lasso ambiguity, get things done, demonstrate true grit. Here on the Ranch of Life we confuse the values in movies for the ethics of Jesus. We know that is not your way. Today, we commit to a new way that seeks reconciliation where there is pain, self-reflection where there is pride, and an end to the building wave of enmity in our time. Amen.
* Unison Prayer of Thanksgiving and Dedication
May this table be a corral of forgiveness, a chuckwagon feast of grace, a pasture of plenty, and a reminder of your presence in and among our lives no matter what trails we may wander or paths we may trace. Help us to give with a sense of common good and remember always that we give not for ourselves but for your realm where enmity is no longer, and where love endures forever. Amen.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.