Many of us grew up on Saturday mornings watching awesome cartoons like the “Bugs Bunny Roadrunner Hour” and “Tom and Jerry.” I loved how Elmer, Sylvester, Wile E Coyote and Tom the Cat tried endlessly to get one over on Bugs, Tweety Bird, the Roadrunner and Jerry the mouse. It was entertaining to see these characters interact with one another, sometimes teaching us about “good and evil,” “right and wrong,” or maybe we just needed to see something different displayed in living color. Maybe what really entertained us were some misguided lessons about how we treat people with whom, we are in conflict, or how we interact with people we sometimes call our adversaries.
Behavior between adversaries often looks like when someone does you wrong, and you retaliate. That would be like when Wile E Coyote dropped an anvil on that poor Roadrunner, and the whole thing backfired and the Coyote suffered a flattening experience. That would be like when Sylvester climbed up on a stool to snatch the little Tweety Bird from his cage, but the Cat stumbled and fell and suffered the consequences of his ill-gotten gains.
People can often behave this way, out of our own animalistic natures. Charles Darwin called this self-preservation, the “Survival of the Fittest.” We are inclined to improve our own individual standing, to get what we need/want/desire, all at the expense of the well being of the other.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus describes how we can revert to our natural tendencies through violent acts, hatred, and emotional/mental abuse (curses) inflicted upon others. We are more than mere cartoon characters, and are we more than mere animals trying to get to the top of the food chain.
Christians believe that we are beloved creatures of God created out of love, for the purpose of love. Jesus says that we should be defined, not by how we love in response to those who reciprocate love to us, but how we love, even those who might do us harm. That is a very difficult kind of love for most of us. It rubs up against what our culture tells us about being on top,and living the “dog eat dog” world of competition and success.
Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” “Expect nothing in return.” Could you imagine what lessons we might have learned as children, if Bugs, Tweety Bird, Roadrunner, and Jerry the Mouse, turned the other cheek, and loved their enemies Elmer Fudd, Sylvester the Cat, Wile E Coyote, and Tom the Cat the way they wanted to be loved; or did they?
To love one’s enemies is as counter-cultural today as it was in the violent and oppressive times of the first century Roman Empire, but Jesus teaches us a new way of loving one another. He says to pray for others, return violence with non-violence, and give more, when people desire to take away what little we have. How many of us really want to do these things? But if we were to really follow Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies, we could literally shift power away from the oppressor, and toward the oppressed.
We can literally thwart the evil imposed by oppressors without resorting to retaliation, but that change does not begin with changing the mind of the oppressor, it begins with changing the oppressed. When we change ourselves and refuse to retaliate, then the bully’s power is spoiled.
Gary Simpson wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent protest against racism in the U.S. in the 1960’s. He wrote, “Loving one’s enemies begins by confronting the hate response in the soul of the one oppressed.”(2) Simpson elaborates, “Nonviolent direct action seeks reconciliation, not the defeat of an adversary.” (2) He adds, “Nonviolent direct action is directed at removing evil forces, not at destroying persons who perpetrate evil deeds.” (2)
We can bring the unquenchable power of love through peaceful resolve, holy strength in responsive love, and spiritual life change in the midst of the actions of misguided cartoon behavior, and we do so when we name the behavior and call others to account, in love.
In other words, when we “bless those who curse, pray for those who hurt, give to those who take, and do unto others as we would have them do unto to us,” we change the circumstances, or rather God changes them.
Listen closely, Jesus is not suggesting we roll over and be a good victim if someone is abusing us, and he is not calling us to some perfect utopian society where we all walk around with fake smiles and happy clappy attitudes, and just let others continue their evil ways.
Let me give you an example. Have you ever met folks in church who just put on a fake Christian face on Sunday mornings, then act differently throughout the week? Honestly, I have been a little guilty of that cartoon behavior myself. You do know that we all don’t always get along perfectly in church, and if we did, I would be very concerned, and wonder about the authenticity of our community.
Webster defines conflict as, “the opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to dramatic action.” Church conflict is not unusual and it is not really a bad thing. Most of us arrived at church this morning because of the conflicting forces between the rubber on our car tires, and the heat and rigidity of the asphalt pavement we drove on.
Conflict is a natural, necessary occurrence because it makes change happen and it moves us forward. Conflict elicits new ideas, initiatives, growth, and change. However, conflict can be destructive depending on how we Christians deal with it. Unhealthy conflict results in anvils being dropped on heads, the making of an emotional meal of the innocent (like Tweety Bird), or going on a character assault hunting expedition (like Elmer Fudd) chasing a wabbit who is just trying to enjoy a good carrot. . The healthy way of dealing with conflict, disagreements, little spats, and our own personal wants and desires can be found in the teachings of our Lord, and the example of loving others (even enemies) found in the narratives of the lives of his many sainted followers through the centuries.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” We the church must show the world the possibility of “Beloved Community.” We Jesus followers must work in partnership with God, to make God’s Kingdom present now, and we can do that by how we love one another.
Cartoons or Church
So, “How are we doing?” When we do not like a sister or brother in church, do we avoid them or refuse to talk to them? Do we gossip and undermine a sister or brother behind their backs? Do we refuse to reconcile with a sister or brother who may have slighted us, or spoke badly of us, or hurt us in some way? Do we have an unhealthy self-serving agenda, and do we use tactics and strategies to get our own way regardless of who gets hurt? We must always ask if we are really following Jesus, who teaches a way of being beloved community that stands in direct conflict with our very human nature.
Jesus calls us to a mutual vulnerability that can only be actuated and manifested by love as Jesus demonstrated during his trial and beatings, and later on that cross on Calvary. Jesus suffered at the hands of his enemies. They spat on him, beat him, slapped him, and then nailed him to a tree and he died, but love overcame even death. Jesus did not return violence for violence, nor did he direct vile name calling at those who rejected him and called him a Blasphemer. Jesus said to those who killed him, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”
Life in this beloved community must be different from how we may have and may often still do live,out there in our every day worlds. Church is not a Tom and Jerry, Roadrunner/Bugs Bunny, Tweety and Sylvester cartoon hour on Sundays, or any other day of the week. Church is community in which we struggle every day to do the hard work of trying to love as Jesus loves.
How do we do it? We follow the one who commanded us to “Love, do good, bless, and pray” for those, whom we may call our enemies, but with God’s help maybe in time, we will be able to call them our sisters and brothers in Christ. So, give up that old “tit for tat,” “competition,” and “survival of the fittest,” way of life. Rather, in the words of one of my favorite cartoon characters Bugs Bunny, just simply love one another and “that’s All Folks.”
(1) Carter, Warren. “Love Your Enemies.” Word & World, vol. 28, no. 1, Wint 2008, pp. 13–21
(2) Simpson, Gary M. “‘Changing the Face of the Enemy’: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Beloved Community.” Word & World, vol. 28, no. 1, Wint 2008, pp. 57–65.