When I was in preschool, I wasn’t able to see very clearly until I got a pair of large, coke bottle glasses (thanks, Lenscrafters). Before the glasses, I could kind of see hazy silhouettes of people and things, but I couldn’t tell who was who and that made me scared to engage with people. I didn’t know who or what I was dealing with. My worldview was skewed. It was important that I recognized who was safe and who wasn’t. Were those my parents or strangers? Was that my cat or a possum that I was rubbing (cats hiss and foam at the mouth, right?)? Being able to categorize things like that were important. They kept me safe and free of rabies. The right lenses refocused my distorted view of the world and gave me the ability to actually see what was in front of me. The right lenses gave me the clarity to discern who and what was safe and what wasn’t.
Who are our friends? Who are our enemies? These are questions that are dripping with fear and are often asked in the wake of trauma and tragedy. Who are our friends, friends we can trust? Who are our enemies, the ones who seek to do us harm? These are certainly important questions for us to ask in the context of a global society in which devastating acts of terror and violence have become the norm. It’s a bad sign when terror attacks are so frequent and ubiquitous in our culture that folks argue about which of the slew of terrible atrocities has gotten its fair share of news coverage. So, we ask, the media asks, our government asks, who are our friends and who are our enemies?
Christ was asked a question like this from a lawyer who also wondered how to categorize folks whom he should love as much as he loved himself. This question instigated a mind-bending parable of a man who was robbed,beaten, and left for dead being helped,not by religious leaders but instead by the person whose ethnicity would easily deem him an enemy.
The parable concludes with, among other things, the notion that our neat and tidy categories for people are warped a bit when Christ serves as our lens.
Jesus is an interesting lens to view the world through because his M.O. was challenging the rules and assumptions of the status quo. One who becomes acquainted with Jesus through black and red letters in the Gospels comes to expect Jesus, and faith in Jesus, to turn convention and long-standing norms on their heads.
I wonder then, what kind of response should our faith illicit in the wake of a string of high-profile and deadly terror attacks? How will our faith in Christ warp social conventions and our fear-fueled and visceral responses to terror and hate? How do we have faith in Christ when we’re scared of what that faith might call us to do? How do we discern who are our friends and who are our enemies in a faithful way?
Sigh. So many good questions. So few good answers.
We can’t know for certain what the most faithful response should be in the midst of a truly fearful world. I mean, Jesus didn’t live in a world in which acts of terror were used as a means of control. Oh, yeah, Rome. I forgot. Well we can’t be certain as to exactly how Christ would have called us to handle our present crisis, but what we can be certain of is that our response to terrorism and hate may be a little unconventional with Christ as our lens.
In the days since the terrorist attack in Paris, we have seen a few trends in the way folks around the world and in our country have responded. In the presence of fear, there have been increasingly amicable feelings toward a military response and decreasing feelings of hospitality and trust toward the Syrian refugees who are, like us, scared.
This sort of response does make sense. We’re scared so we want to kill the folks who, we fear, will kill us or simply not let them in because a terrorist might slip through with the flood of refugees fleeing their war-torn home. It seems like this is the most logical and comfortable response, as we fear a similar attack on American soil.
That was pretty easy, how about we just go with those responses and just pack it up.
Done and done.
Oh, wait a minute. Jesus usually throws a wrench in easy decisions like this.
I wonder if Jesus said anything about who enemies are and how we’re supposed to relate to them. Certainly not, right? Uh oh, he did.
In Matthew 5:38-48, Jesus, speaking in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, takes our safe and natural responses to fear and evil, turns them around, and pushes them right back into our dumbfounded faces. Instead of, naturally, hating our enemies, Jesus challenges us to love them as a counter-cultural witness to God’s love. Love. Enemies. Love enemies who kill? Love enemies who kill. Love our enemies who hate us and wish to do us harm? Love enemies who hate us and wish to do us harm.
This is hard, maybe too hard. What does that love look like, practically speaking? Certainly it doesn’t look like the compassion and forgiveness of God manifest in Christ? Uh, it does. This is tough. So rather than only loving folks it makes sense to love (that’s so easy a tax collector can do it!), Christ calls us to the dangerous and perplexing task of loving our enemies. Geez.
If you’re thinking, well, that’s an interesting concept and it’s best if it stays that way, you’re out of luck. Jesus makes the concept painfully clear a few verses before (Matthew 5:38-42) when he blatantly states that we aren’t to return evil for evil through retaliation. That’s dangerous, right? Later, in the 25th chapter of Matthew (ironically within a parable that is very much about putting folks into categories), Jesus talks very practically about how dangerous living a faithful life can be. Within the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus connects providing sustenance and welcoming a stranger with showing love to him.
We show our love for Jesus by doing dangerous stuff like not retaliating to violence, welcoming strangers, and giving what we have to help sustain the lives of others. All of this is really tough, especially in our very scary and very uncertain context. We take heart in knowing that the context from which these words were spoken were just as dangerous and uncertain. Empathy is good, but it doesn’t alleviate fear. Certainly the first and second century Christians were scared and had inclinations toward self-preservation. Self-preservation makes sense.
It’s almost like the very response that makes the most sense to protect our selves, like bombing the daylights out of ISIS and other terror organizations and closing our borders to people who potentially want to do us harm, is skewed or made more complicated with faith in Christ as the lens through which we are viewing the situation and our response to it. Come on, Jesus, why do you always have to make things so complicated?
But you know, on second thought, I think back to what few memories I have before I got my glasses in preschool. My worldview was skewed and everything I did in response to that view was skewed. Putting on glasses for the first time was jarring and unsettling.
Maybe it isn’t that the lens of Christ is warping what seems to be the most natural response in times like these, but instead our worldview is so warped that we can’t even tell that such natural and visceral responses, like killing people before they kill us and shutting our doors to people who are scared for their lives because we are scared for our lives, undermines the very basic notion of our faith that everyone is a child of God with whom we can hope to be in community with in God’s coming reign.
Perhaps Jesus isn’t skewing our vision. Maybe our faith in God through Christ serves as the thick-rimmed glasses that help us to discern that those foggy silhouettes that we desire to kill and keep out of our communities are actually children of God, like us.
Following Jesus is tough.