Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Incarnating Lawful Love among Enemies

A Personal Note: every person has suffered from conflict in his/her life. No one of us is exempted, although some have certainly experienced more destructive conflict than others. Extreme alienation is produced by relentless, destructive and violent enmity. Recovering from a toxic environment which breeds enmity and murderous stress takes a while, and without God’s love, presence and strong support from wise companions, complete healing is unreachable. Whether we’re cognizant of the reality or not, most of us have seen Jesus’ warning in Matt. 12:43-45 manifested in people we have known. Many, if not all, of us have experienced the stress of people who seek to harm us, personally or professionally, and who try to fracture the peace and harmony we have within our families and relationships. These people imagine personal gain to be in others' destruction. Two of my closest genetic relatives have attempted to destroy my marriage, undermine my family, relationships and career for many years & decades. My background is highly academic, and so I’ve wrestled to understand their actions and enmity from the perspective of my faith journey with Jesus Christ, and as a thorough-going intellectual with degrees in politics, economics and theology, with training and work in biblical conflict resolution. (Though I try to write simply, in other words, I frequently fail! This is a looong post. (o: ) As a Christ-follower, Jesus called me to love God, neighbors and enemies in my thoughts, prayers, words and actions. Jesus’ call kills me. Simply put, I don’t want to love these people who actively seek the destruction of my life and family relationships. But, to follow Jesus, my natural self and its demands must die. Sometimes, that death has felt like hell. Forgiving is the biblical process of letting go of our natural self’s demands, and allowing God to judge others in God’s time. Enemies, by definition, continuously trespass healthy boundaries. (Let Christ-followers remind ourselves, again, all of us have trespassed against others!) In Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, I have chosen love, not enmity. What I reflect about my journey, below, is meant to encourage others. Perhaps, the patterns observed in those who love and those who hate might resonate with others’ observations, too. May this encourage those who love God to keep following Jesus.  To those who don’t know him, Jesus lives. He is God’s lawful love incarnate – steadfast, faithful, trustworthy, grace-filled and true. God is good. Jesus said,
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5)
When most of us think about laws, we think about a list of rules external to us, actions we should or should not take based on criteria about which most of us had no influence. The prophets, Jesus, and his apostles, however, clearly indicate that humans already embody laws in our bodies – thoughts, words, tastes, preferences, actions, experiences, reactions and interactions. By our words, actions, and choices we are constantly revealing whom or what we worship. In our bodies, we are constantly judging and assessing whether others measure up to our norms of what is “good”, right, fair, just, moral, appropriate or “tasteful” to do. However, as do speed limits, traffic regulations, societal expectations and criminal laws, human norms are constantly fluctuating, formed, hardened and softened through good and bad experiences, affected by good, bad, persuasive, manipulative &/or powerful people, across cultures, within the course of time. This simplistic (& reductionist) 3-dimensional grid gives an idea of how we naturally embody “laws”. Imagine the diamonds on the grid representing one person measured according to a set of standards, at a certain point in time…

 The horizontal plane gives the subjective measure of how little/much a person has and accumulates, and the vertical ordering gives the ranking a person enacts at any given day or period in life, by priorities of time, energy and resources. If we add the 3rd dimension of the depth of time, the fluidity and inter-relationships of the points becomes more obvious, and we begin to perceive that our life has markers at certain moments (the diamonds), but also assumes a shape and direction over time. Imagine this dynamic continually being enacted in our body and choices, and the dimensions take shape in the person we see in the mirror. The person I am lives within a far more complex developing constellation of people, culture, race, ethnicity and history.

As we naturally interact according to our own & others’ relative positions on the grid of our bodies & human positions, we will fail to meet people on the holy ground of God’s saving grace, mercy and welcome in Christ. We cannot see ourselves, or know what God knows of us. We cannot fully see who others are in God’s sight, where they need God, where they struggle, now, and how they long for healing and wholeness. We’re stuck assessing them and ourselves according to human measurements from our relative scale which is subject to time and our bodies. (Rom. 8:5-7) Just as one person has one view from the floor of a canyon, so another person has a different view when stuck on a cliff, even if both views are reflected “truly” at that moment & immediate context. Every aspect of and each behavioral choice we’ve made in our whole life affects the angles from which we justify, measure and/or condemn ourselves and others. Metaphorically, as soon as we freeze time’s passage to measure and judge ourselves or others, we’ve measured inaccurately and untruthfully.  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle provides a physical metaphor for this spiritual truth: the more accurately a scientist calculates the position of a particle in physics, the less accurately the particle’s speed can be measured, and vice versa.

We cannot see the activity of God in our assessments of our own or others’ positions on the grid. We can only perceive the Holy Spirit’s continuing breath & life by maintaining our connection to Godself, and inasmuch as possible from our side, with one another.  We cannot know others’ hearts, yet we should discern developing fruit (or lack) and our own or others’ motion toward light or darkness, toward confessing or hiding of sins, toward growing peace and unity or harboring alienation. 

Maintaining enmity absolutely depends upon the stoppage of time at particular points, so that our human grid positions freeze in our subjective position of judgment/approval, condemnation/release, divorce/affinity, murder, alienation, gossip, slander and perceptions of morality/ immorality. Of course, the judging one claims the “higher” law or principle by which he/she condemns others, permanently. That law/principle, however externally supported (even with scriptural principles), becomes the unrighteous, hammering gavel by which people demand satisfaction, condemn or approve of one another. (Rom. 7:5) The ongoing suffering of people in the land of Palestine/Israel is one manifestation of an ancient “good” promise held sacrosanct to harm others, today.  That shard of time can become a prism of refracted light, or an icicle to stab someone with.

One peculiar manifestation of persons frozen in enmity is an irrational inability to perceive anyone and even time itself from outside of her/his singular viewpoint from a particular past grid position & perspective. S/he continues bringing the past into the present, with human words puffing breath vainly into the past’s rotting glory or shame. All the referents are from within her/his body’s grid, then, and even verifiable, subsequent and superseding facts are ignored, warped, omitted and denied so s/he can maintain that position of self-justified condemnation and enmity. “Evidence” is fabricated out of nothing. Real and imagined “facts”, deliberately isolated from time & others’ perspectives, and deliberately positioned as the scope through which all else is viewed, become the warped weapons by which s/he fight people. S/he will not be reconciled to God, self or others. She or he holds that position in their grid as if life itself depended on it. However, Life is truly lived elsewhere. Sadly, the grid’s triumph, his/her fixed position, and the enmity produced manifests death, not life. The breath humans puff at the past and death is lifeless and without power to create new life. 

Another peculiar manifestation of sworn enemies is that they demand the ultimate word. S/he cannot “lose”; every encounter is win/lose. The only resolution for them is in a declaration of their right-ness, not reconciliation on any other ground but that of the false god of their “principle” within their singular view and story of some “reality”. Her/his view becomes the meta-narrative by which others should live and view all of life. (For philosopher friends, the breakdown of post-modernism is that its denial of over-arching meta-narratives requires the replacement of a common meta-narrative with an individualistic one. “What’s ethical to you is your ‘good’ choice, and what’s good for me is fine, too.”) Such a resolution violates any reconciliation possible in Christ, which is founded on the rock of God’s steadfast love, grace, truth, mercy, justice and redemption. Neither truth nor reality itself has any effect on his/her demand for the offender to return to the ground of his/her enmity, unforgiven. There, on that ground, the offender must bow down to the enemy’s principle, story, demand, and sacrifice their own. That demand is the very crux of idolatry and false worship. Followers of Christ know the forgiveness of God that permeates all of life, present, past and future, in all of its health and brokenness, and they rejoice that the power of God’s love surely triumphed over death in Jesus Christ. Even the Hebrew psalmists knew that our forgiveness is grounded on God’s love:
6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!
8 Good and upright is the LORD;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way. (Psalm 25)

There is no humanly accessible life, truth, grace, love, justice and mercy outside of time, because we ourselves live subject to time. Mercy requires ongoing love; we needed the self-emptying incarnation to see the living God-beyond-time, truly, here, now, in future hope, and then. We worship the LORD God, “I AM, I WAS, and I WILL BE”; we serve the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last Word full of grace and truth. This helps explain why reconciliation is improbable with certain people. The true law of love which reflects the living, changing and moving reality is subjected to and falsified by his/her demands that everyone see through his/her scope of a frozen interpretative grid. As Proverb 29:9 clarifies,
If the wise go to law with fools,
There is ranting and ridicule without relief.

Paul didn’t allow his weaknesses (1 Cor. 15:8-9) or his strengths (Phil. 3:4-6) to determine how he understood himself or others; rather, all believers are “crucified with Christ”. Paul refused to judge himself or relate to believers according to his legalistic flesh.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as crap*, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law [my position on any human grid], but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. (Phil. 3:7-9)  [ *lit. Greek, BDAG]

Paul clearly interpreted life, reality, other people and himself from the foundation of and through God’s grace revealed sufficient in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He focused on the continuing work of God in Christ for them and called them to live by the power of the Holy Spirit being revealed in them. “And this [batch of sinners] is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6: 11)

The lens through which faithful Christians read life, people and scripture is God’s love incarnate in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We who follow him have chosen, by grace in the Holy Spirit, to receive the death which our sins have wrought, and now rejoice in our deliverance through death into new life. As we are being conformed to God’s law of love, we bear Christ and one another, we continue to be set free from our own and their human legalistic grid – free to see others with God’s loving eyes as the Holy Spirit enables us, apart from our sins and their sins, and free to call them to the freedom and life we celebrate “in Christ”. We seek to be conformed to him by the power of the Holy Spirit, so our embodied law evidences God’s steadfast love, eternal life and super-abundant grace. (Rom. 5:15-21)

When we freeze our viewpoints and our human actions of justification or judgment outside of time’s and others’ reach, we have elevated ourselves to an unmerciful, unforgiving, condemning, self-justifying false and frozen idol.
1 Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.
2 Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?”
3 Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.
4 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
5 They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.
6 They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.
7 They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they make no sound in their throats.
8 Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them. (Psalm 115)

As Christians, we call on one another to worship, love and honor the one and only living God whose very redemptive love is grace-filled incarnate Word. God lives! Jesus lives! This God continues to sanctify, to speak, to guide, to wash, to conform us to Christ, by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit and to make us holy in the course of life, in this time. We await this God’s advent, we seek his kingdom come, now. May the church be the Body of Christ, building up and encouraging one another to persevere in picking up our crosses and following Jesus. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

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