Enemies and Victims
We are spending this season of Lent in worship series called Peaceable Kingdom, which is the section heading in the King James Bible for these verses from Isaiah chapter 11:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see
or decide by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge for the poor
and decide with equity for the oppressed of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. (words, not weapons)
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb;
the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the lion will feed together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
The Peaceable Kingdom. Another part of this vision includes the images of beating our swords into plows and our spears into pruning shears because nation shall no longe rise up against nation and we no longer train for war. The Peaceable Kingdom is rooted in nonviolence, which requires that we do not treat others the way we have been treated, because we have been converted to the radical love of our enemies. Fighting fire with fire will not work. We can’t just change the rulers; we have to change the rules.
That’s a quote from an incredible Christian theologian named Walter Wink. If you still haven’t started any new spiritual practices this Lent, if you didn’t pick up Dr King’s book Strength to Love, I recommend you pick up this one because it will blow your mind. Much of what I’m sharing with you is laid out very clearly in this book, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millenium, by Walter Wink.
We can’t just change the rulers; we have to change the rules. We have to be converted to a new way of thinking and a new way of living. And so together in this season of Lent when we are especially aware of God’s call to release some of our own comfort, safety, and power, we are exploring together Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s six principles of nonviolence and several of parables of the Kingdom of God from the Gospel of Matthew.
The first principle is that “Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil.” Pacifism, not passive-ism. It’s not that we do nothing. We do something different. We explored Jesus’ parable of the absurdly generous boss who pays all the workers the same daily wage regardless of how long they worked. To act nonviolently, we have to start thinking about the world in a different way.
The second principle is “Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation.” Last week we explored the parable of the servant who was released from an unrepayable debt he owed to his employer but refused to release a fellow servant from a modest debt. This is part of Jesus’ teaching on how to sustain relationships in community. Forgiveness opens the door for friendship and understanding with our enemy.
This week we are going to stick with that same parable because the principles from last week and this week are so woven together. Before I show you what this principle is, I need you to pause and think about the person you hate. Now I know that you would never say that you hate that person, but you have someone that makes your blood pressure go up when you think about them. Maybe it’s not an individual you know; maybe it’s a public figure. Or it could even be a group of people. There is someone you would erase if you could. Don’t try to trick yourself out of it. And if you really are so holy that you insist there’s no one like that for you, then think about whoever it is that you dislike the most, OK? None of us are exempt from these very human feelings of having enemies. So, whoever it is, get them in your mind and allow yourself a few deliciously judgmental moments to dwell on what it is that bugs you so much about that person. I’m doing it too. I have several options to choose from!
You got it? OK. Here’s the third principle:
“Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims.” Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims.
I think this is one of the most important shifts in thinking if we are going to be nonviolent. Unfortunately, it is also the most difficult. And friends, it is difficult whether your enemy is intensely personal or intensely impersonal. The abuser is also a victim. I won’t say too much about this because I have not been abused, but Jesus said of the ones who put the nails in his hands and feet, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And if you’re really mad right now, please hang with me for a few more minutes.
The 1% are also victims. So are the titans of industry. So is President Trump. So is President Biden. Those who hurt us personally and those who are our enemies ideologically, they are all victims. AND in no way shape or form does that “let them off the hook.” We are each and all responsible for our actions and we are held to account by one another and by God. Being a victim is not an excuse. But it is a reason. Because guess what, I’m a victim too. And so are you. In the things that are done to us and in the things we do to others, we are victims.
The point is, we are all victims of a larger system that is not designed for human flourishing. It affects us in different ways, but it affects us all. None of us escape from it, no matter what color our skin is or how much money we have or how loved we are by our parents, we are all locked in the same system. This is the best interpretation of the doctrine of original sin: not that everyone is bad but that everyone is the same. Everyone is a victim of the system, both the oppressed and the oppressors. Which is why nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people. It’s not enough to change the rulers; we must change the rules because the way things are hurts everyone.
Let’s read again the story we read last week. This is from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 18, verses 21 through 35. If you’re using the Bibles in your pews, it’s page 1527.
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”
Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.
“When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’
“Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.
“When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.
“My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
The man with the unrepayable debt was also a victim. We must keep this in mind when we ask ourselves, “Why wouldn’t he pay it forward?” He had been so lavishly forgiven — why wouldn’t he forgive? Perhaps it was because he had been living under the weight of his own debt for so long. He knew what it was to wake up terrified every day that this might be the day the debt is called in. There was some reason he got so far in debt in the first place and he was still a servant so whatever he did with that money, it clearly didn’t have lasting benefits for him. Living in a social system that is driven by debt, not that we would know anything about that, it would be nearly impossible to trust that such a huge debt was really just gone. I mean he’s just supposed to take his employer’s word for it? The system has trained him to fight and hustle to survive and it’s not going to be easy to give that up. Should he have been more generous? Oh heck yes. But if we allow him to be a real person, can we understand why maybe he wasn’t more generous? I can.
In order to see evildoers as victims we must allow them to be as human as we are, which is so hard. We must acknowledge that they have childhoods and families and experiences that have shaped their values, just like we have. They have had opportunities and missed opportunities that have shaped their perspectives of the world, just like we have. They have made choices that have shaped their path, just like we have. They are responsible, just like we are. And they are victims, just like we are.
And once we realize that we share the human experience of having been shaped by the system we live in, we can shift our animosity from them to the wider system that has shaped us both. The New Testament book of Ephesians says that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. Things must change so that everyone can be free.
Think again of the story which indicates the debt I owe to God is far greater than the debt anyone else owes to me. We are all tempted to keep those kind of accounts, and the minute we assume that someone else is inherently worse or less human or less worthy than we are is the moment when we will be willing to use violence against them. We are the same. We are all created in God’s image. We all fall short of the glory of God. We are all victims. We are all responsible. We are all lavishly forgiven.
I want to close with a story Walter Wink tells in one of his other books. It is the letter from a nonviolent activist to his torturer in 1976.
“You have beaten me, arrested me, insulted me very often. Do you know what I think, for example, when I am crouching on the ground with my hands on my head, protecting myself from your dreadful truncheon-blows? I feel extremely sad to see you obliged to hit me. It grieves me to be the occasion through which you lose your human dignity by hitting an innocent, defenseless companion. I am ashamed at the accumulation of advantages which have enabled me to choose not to go into the police under this regime, whereas you, because there was no other way out, because you come from a region which is exploited by people from my class, find yourself obliged to play this wretched part. On the one hand, myself, full of possibilities, on the other, you, having fallen into the fateful trap, and reduced to being the hired strongman of the truly privileged. Injustice has made me into a man of studies, and has made you into men of violence.” 1
Wink closes by saying:
“The command to love our enemies reminds us that our first task toward oppressors is pastoral: to help them recover their humanity. Quite possibly the struggle, and the oppression that gave it rise, have dehumanized the oppressed as well, causing them to demonize their enemies. … We must pray for our enemies, because somewhere within them is a profound longing to become synchronized with the divine Source of us both. And deep within them, that Source is trying to stir up the desire to be just.” 2
- Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1992) 273-274, originally cited in Jean and Hildegard Goss-Mayr, A Non-Violent Lifestyle, ed. Gérard Houver (London: Marshall Morgan Scott, 1989) 91-92.
- Ibid., 276.