Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
February 19, 2017
The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany – Year A
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119: 33-44
1 Corinthians 3: 10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5: 38-48
Of the many so-called hard sayings of Jesus, his commands in this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew may well be the hardest of all. It is challenge enough to love and to forgive your neighbor or your kin; it’s quite another matter to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Jesus’ clear admonition has perplexed and challenged the individual Christian conscience for millennia, and it has vexed nations and empires since the beginning of the Christian era. Is it a categorical mandate for pacifism, or just a caution to individuals and nations contemplating the use of violence and war as “an extension of politics by other means,” to use the apt and famous phrase of Karl von Clausewitz? God knows that we have witnessed both aplenty during the blood-soaked twentieth and twenty-first centuries, ranging from Gandhi’s non-violent movement to drive the British Raj from India, followed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s struggle for American civil rights in the 1960s; to World War l, that so-called war to end all wars, and its extension known as World War ll—the “good war” fought by “the greatest generation.” And what about the horror of the Shoah, and the train of genocides during the second half of the twentieth century in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur in the wake of that “good” war? Should the international community have decisively invoked its “obligation to protect” and have used effective military force to end the carnage in those places? And what should the United Nations Security Council do right now about the ISIS genocide of Christians, Yazidis, and Shi’a Muslims in areas under its control, together with the war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated every day for nearly six years in Syria, together with the genocide about to break out in South Sudan? Try as we may, we cannot and, as Christians, we may not duck these difficult moral dilemmas with a quick reference to Jesus’ words in this morning’s Gospel. Our time and place in human history demand answers and urgent action, not soothing evasions, for in a world awash in nuclear weapons, and in the midst of the greatest migration and refugee crisis since World War ll, even inaction is a moral decision demanding a moral reckoning.
When we Christians look to the Church’s extensive social teachings on these matters, we find very deep and insightful writing and reflections on these critical matters, but, alas, no firm answers or definitive rulings concerning Jesus’ command to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” In the early Church, strict non-violence and pacifism were the rule. For example, a gentile soldier seeking to follow Christ was required to resign from the army before receiving Holy Baptism. Once Christianity became part and parcel of the Roman Empire with the Emperor Constantine’s “Edict of Milan,” the Church developed the “Just War Theory.” Formulated by Saint Augustine, it set forth very strict conditions and rules for the resort to violence and war. War may only be undertaken as a “last resort” and in “self-defense.” His “Just War” theory also enshrined the principles of “proportionality” of response and required every effort to protect civilian populations” during the conduct of war—two factors that many moral philosophers and theologians say are impossible to uphold in our urbanized world of modern weaponry and nuclear arms. Such weapons, many say, render any illusions about a so-called just war absurd and entirely moot in the modern world. So, for the Christian Church, pacifism or the “just war” of self-defense, authorized by a competent authority and only as a last resort, are still, according to the teaching of the Church, really the only legitimate options for Christians seeking to live by Jesus’ challenging and categorical demands in this morning’s Gospel.
These options underwent significant qualification in the wake of the two world wars when the international community sought to outlaw—or, at least, to mitigate—total war by adopting the Geneva Conventions. They outlawed war for territorial expansion, prohibited the permanent annexation of conquered territory, and established rules for modern warfare, including the serious offenses of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.” In the wake of World War ll and the unprecedented horrors of the Shoah, the nascent United Nations went even further by adopting Raphael Lemkin’s Genocide Convention. It charges the international community and the UN Security Council with “an obligation to protect” by undertaking humanitarian interventions—including the use of military force—to prevent genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Several wars and at least six genocides later, this “obligation” of the international community has been largely and sadly ignored. The United States refused even to sign that Genocide Convention until October 1988 for fear of undue constraints on our formulation and implementation of American foreign policy.
So, here we are, on the proverbial “horns of a dilemma”: On one hand, we Christians have Jesus’ stern counsel of perfection ringing in our ears, with his unambiguous and unequivocal demand to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven”; on the other hand, we have the solemn duty as world citizens to protect the innocent from genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, aptly dubbed as “a problem from Hell.” And this is no abstract consideration for arm-chair moral philosophers and theologians. We are now living in an extremely dangerous world with genocide, crimes against humanity, and egregious war crimes happening daily in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and South Sudan—some of them directed at our Christian co-religionists—even as we worship together in relative safety and security here this morning. In fact, since the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency, the atomic scientists who keep the so-called Doomsday Clock tell us that the hands of that ominous marker of nuclear peril now stand, for the first time since 1952, at just two and one-half minutes to midnight!
My sisters and brothers in Christ, I wish that I had some comfort or sage advice to offer this morning about putting Jesus’ command into practice in our fraught, morally ambiguous, and very dangerous times and world. Regrettably, I do not. I can only tell you what I often told the students in my moral philosophy course: The really difficult choices in a moral life are seldom between good and evil; far more often, our existential choices involve choosing among competing goods. In the Christian life, prayerful discernment is indispensible for “moving forward through the gray of life according to the will of God,” as the Jesuit Pope Francis recently expressed it. We cannot avoid or ignore our moral agency because it is fundamental to the human condition and the spiritual journey. And moral reasons for our actions always trump any other legitimate considerations. Sooner or later, we, as “acting persons,” must choose, and we must act in the corrupted currents of this world with a conscience informed and shaped by the teachings of Jesus and the Church’s magisterium. In an imperfect and unfinished world, we will probably never “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We can only be conscientiously human in a world still very much disordered by sin and still ruled by violence and a culture of death.
Ordinarily, I am loath to speak in the pulpit about my own spiritual journey. It seems unseemly to do so before a captive audience. On rare occasions, however, a homilist’s vulnerability and, even, presumption may serve at least to illuminate the depth and define the contours of the issue for fellow travelers on the spiritual journey. So this morning, I’m hoping that my own halting effort to reconcile Jesus’ command to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” with the reality of Christian discipleship in our often convulsed and dangerous world might shed some light on the moral dilemma created by Jesus’ unequivocal command. It has been my life’s greatest anguish and most consequential moral struggle, and I have been walking in this moral “grey zone” for most of that life.
As a disciple of Jesus, I was attracted from early adolescence to Gandhi’s ethic of “ahimsa” or “non-harming” and his advocacy of non-violent, direct action to oppose evil. Like Jesus in today’s Gospel, Gandhi also believed in the extraordinary power of love and truth—what he termed “soul-force”—to transform the heart of the enemy through direct action combined with humility and prayer. Gandhi advocated a steely determination to suffer hostility and violence when necessary without ever resorting to them. Because my high-school years coincided with the civil rights movement of the 1960s and, subsequently, the Vietnam War, I ardently followed and supported Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s advocacy of non-violent social change, and I was determined to apply for conscientious-objector status rather than to kill in an unjust war. I was fully prepared to go to Vietnam as a medic, but my draft-lottery number was never reached in 1969. I was crystal clear and determined then: under no circumstances would I, as a follower of Jesus Christ, kill an enemy, even in self-defense. In those days, I was not a moral absolutist about many things except killing another human person, especially in an unjust war. I went to jail along with others to protest that war by blocking the entrance to a Strategic Air Command base in western Massachusetts, and I had completed the paperwork for conscientious-objector status with alternative service if drafted.
All of this changed much later in my life when I became a student and then a teacher of the Holocaust and genocide studies. In the wake of the genocides perpetrated just during my own lifetime in Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur, Rwanda, and now, Syria, I simply cannot support an ethic of strict and categorical non-violence any longer. If Saint Thomas Aquinas is correct, and love is not fundamentally the feeling of affection, but an act of will; if, in his words, love is “to will for another every true and possible good,” then I can and, indeed, I should, forgive, love, and pray for my enemies after the example of Jesus Christ. But, ironically, I may have to kill that enemy—not in my own defense, but to defend the innocent from genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Like the great Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who reluctantly joined the failed plot to kill Adolf Hitler in 1944, I ought even, given the right circumstances, be prepared to do anything—including assassination—to remove a tyrant and butcher such as Syrian “president” Bashar Assad and his minions from power given the opportunity and a reasonable chance of success. And in the absence of his death, I long and also pray for the day when I see him hauled before a tribunal at the International Criminal Court to be tried, convicted, and sentenced for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Simply put, after Auschwitz, I recognize that the international community has a strict and categorical “obligation to protect” against genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. It must undertake humanitarian interventions—including the use of military force as a last resort—to protect the innocent from such depredations. Violence and war may never be justified as “an extension of politics by other means,” and the moral philosophers and theologians are right—there probably can be no classical “just war” in the age of militarized drones and nuclear weaponry. But that does not free us from the force of international law with its “obligation to protect” the innocent from individual or state perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
So, that’s my journey: from a strict advocate of non-violence as a civil rights activist, a jailed war-protester, and a would-be conscientious objector, to a strong advocate of humanitarian interventions by the international community in cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes such as those taking place in Iraq and Syria right now. I will as a committed disciple of Jesus Christ always and ardently wish for all people every truly good thing, and I will pray for and forgive my enemies in a spirit of genuine humility after Jesus’ command and his own example as the “suffering servant” of “extreme humility.” But, as long as we humans are still living very imperfectly “east of Eden,” I must also, like Job, be “reconciled to dust and ashes,” begging God to “in your righteousness preserve my life” (Psalm 119). AMEN.
“Those who wish to even focus on the problem of a Christian ethic are faced with an outrageous demand—from the outset they must give up, as inappropriate to this topic, the very two questions that led them to deal with the ethical problem: ‘How can I be good?’ and ‘How can I do something good?’ Instead, they must ask the wholly other, completely different question: ‘What is the will of God?’… All things appear as in a distorted mirror if they are not seen and recognized in God.”
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison