When our daughters were growing up, I don’t think a week went by when one of them didn’t complain how a decision either Maureen or I had made was not fair. To this I would often reply, “I am the parent, I don’t have to be fair, I just have to look out for your best interest.”
In this morning’s reading from First Timothy, I could almost hear Paul’s original audience complaining “that’s not fair” when Paul tells Timothy to pray for everyone, and then goes on to tell him to pray for kings and those in high places. I can only imagine how hard it was for the early Christians to pray for those who held offices of authority. After all, the kings of Palestine were not friends of the Christians. Then,as you move up to the ladder, one finds Paul writing these words while the Emperor was scape-goading Christians in Rome and executing them as entertainment for the masses.
When Paul instructs Timothy to pray for everyone, he is reminding Timothy, and each of us, to pray for our enemies.
Actively showing concern for our enemies is not unique to St. Paul. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers, 5:43 ‘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. . .6For 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.
Why the emphasis on loving and praying for our enemies? In short, because when we choose to pray for someone by name, it is hard, if not impossible, to hate and dehumanize them.
One of the most poignant moments I remember from the World War I novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, is when Paul Baumer kills an enemy soldier. For hours he is forced to remain in the fox hole watching the man slowly die. As time passes, Baumer decides to search the other man’s pockets. There he finds pictures of the wife and family the soldier will never return to. Then suddenly, from the faceless and nameless enemy, emerged a fellow human being. As the reality of what he has done sinks in, Baumer is riddled with guilt and finds himself compelled to apologize to the dead man for taking his life.
It is so easy for us, when we feel threatened or hurt by another, to deny them their humanity, to forget, or better yet, to overlook the fact the other person is as much a beloved child of God as we are.
On the cover of the July issue of Rolling Stone Magazine, a picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was published. An uproar followed the issue’s release. The primary complaint was that the image “romanticized” terrorism. The publisher chose not to use the familiar mug shot of Dzhokhar, instead he used a different, obviously private photo, which depicted a handsome, perhaps even seductive, nineteen year old. The problem with the picture. . it did not depict the hardened or deranged terrorist we need, or perhaps even want, in order to separate ourselves from Dzhokhar so we can comprehend and explain why he chose to do what he did. Instead, what Rolling Stone gave us was a picture of a vulnerable, young man who could be anyone of our sons or grandsons. It is an image that makes it difficult to justify ithe death penalty which many want for him.
St. Paul tells Timothy to pray for everyone. Praying for everyone means not just praying for our loved ones and those we care for, but for those we fear. We are called to pray for the Dzhokhar’s of this world as well as Bashar al-Asaad, for those who fight with the Taliban, and the list can go on and on. To make matters more difficult, we are called to pray for them to lead quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness and dignity. This advice seems to go against our own sense of justice. Why shouldn’t we pray for those who have chosen to live by the sword, to die by the sword? After all, aren’t we called to seek justice?
Just prior to Jesus instructing us to love our enemies he debunks the laws of punitive justice by telling his followers “38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.
As Christians we are called to seek peace and not revenge. To forgive where we have been offended against. Both pieces of instruction are hard for us to hear. It seems survival and dominance is more a part of our nature than forgiveness and vulnerability.
This is at the heart of why Christ calls us to love our enemies and Paul instructs Timothy to pray for everyone. The ability to forgive those who have offended us and the ability to love our enemies is not a natural part of who we are. The fight or flight reflex is instinctively part of who we are. It is what allowed the human race to survive its earliest days. When this is coupled with the popular belief that we live in a “dog eat dog world” it is only with God’s help that we are able to forgive and to love our enemy.
As St. Paul points out, praying for our enemy is not about praying for God to change them, but for God to soften or even change our hearts towards them. Praying for our enemy, especially by name, holds us accountable to our Baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human being. Praying for our enemy also opens our hearts towards God and provides us a vehicle through which to purge the dis-ease which anger and hatred builds within us.
Marie Fortune, when discussing the healing process for those who are victims of sexual assault, mentions how a victim often suffers a second victimization. The first victimization is physical, the second is emotional. Often the result of the physical assault leads to a long period of fear and anger. It is a fear and anger that can, and often does, cripple the victim emotionally. Fortune writes that until the victim is able to let go of the anger, and the hatred, and forgive, I repeat, forgive, not forget, but forgive, the victim is held in an emotional bondage by her perpetrator.
It has been twelve years since 9/11. Despite the fact the physical damage has been removed and new buildings have risen from the rubble. And despite the fact the dead have long been buried and the families have moved on, as a country, we have not moved on. It is as if the smoke and flames released a fear and anger twelve years ago that has taken control of the very ethos of our nation. It is a fear that has justified many to openly disrespect our Moslem brothers and sisters. A fear that has justified public burnings of the Quran.
The true goal of terrorism is not the act itself but the lingering fear it instills in its victims. Until we, as a country, work towards praying for our enemies, we will forever be controlled by our fear of our enemies.
This morning we heard St. Paul tell Timothy to pray for everybody, in essence to pray for those we love and to pray for our enemies as well. When we choose to pray for our enemies, we open our hearts to God and are given the opportunity to be released from the control of our fears and anger, and allow God to replace it with the freedom only God’s peace and love can afford.