Text: Matthew 5:38-48 (love your enemies)
Do you get the impression that the number of people seeing each other as enemies has grown lately? There seems to be a lot of fighting going on these days between opposing viewpoints — in the media, in the church, and on the streets.
One of the news stories that upset me last week was about a debate in Parliament. On Thursday, members of Parliament debated a motion by MP Iqra Khalid that calls on the government to “condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination.” During the debate, Khalid read out some of the 50,000 hate-filled responses she has received so far about her motion.
Perhaps many of those 50,000 messages come from a small group of damaged people with too much time on their hands. It could be that many of them are the work of Twitter bots that have been programmed by racists to generate insults and threaten violence. But 50,000 still seems like an awful lot of hate-filled messages sent to oppose a motion about tolerance and inclusion.
Last Wednesday evening, more than 1,000 people met at Canada Christian College in Toronto to denounce Khalid’s motion, including four candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party. At the meeting, the president of this evangelical college, Charles McVety, said “Jesus Christ teaches us to love everyone including Muslims, but we do not have to love Islam.”
Today we heard the section from the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus urges us to love our enemies. As a follower of Jesus, I suppose this means that I should try to love Charles McVety despite his efforts for the last 25 years to oppose same-sex marriage and the teaching of Darwinism in schools and his role today as a leader of the anti-Muslim movement.
I consider McVety to be an enemy of truth and compassion regardless of his Christian credentials. For this reason, it is not easy for me to love him.
To help reflect on Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies, I now turn to a movie that is nominated for eight Academy awards and that has already won the Golden Globe award for the best dramatic picture of 2016 — Moonlight.
Moonlight is about the struggles of Chiron, a Black boy growing up in a poor part of Miami. In the first third of the film, Chiron is nine years old. He is small, slight and different. One day while fleeing bullies, Chiron is rescued by a drug dealer named Juan. Despite Juan’s life of crime, he and his girlfriend provide crucial support for Chiron, including their reassurance that it is OK to be gay despite the hatred of gays voiced by bullies in the schoolyard.
In the middle section of the film, Chiron is 17 years old. He is still slight and still the victim of bullies. But despite his mother Paula’s addiction to crack, and despite a lack of awareness about sex, sexuality, and how to communicate, Chiron takes his first tentative steps towards romantic love with another boy.
In the final section of the film, Chiron is 27 years old and active in the criminal drug trade. He has become large, strong and imposing, but he is still searching for identity, tenderness and love.
I recommend the movie. Although the life of a young, poor, drug-involved person in Miami is far from my own, I was moved by the insights it offered on the things that encourage or discourage learning, growth, and the ability to give and receive love.
Many people in the United States would consider Chiron, his mother Paula, and his mentor Juan to be the enemy. Poor black people involved in the criminal drug trade are low on the social order of modern America.
For this reason, I was pleased how Moonlight made it easy for me to identify with and admire characters whom I might instead have seen as enemies. They are struggling with conditions they did not choose and doing the best they can.
A major context of their lives is the War on Drugs. Since President Richard Nixon started the War on Drugs in 1971, tens of millions of mostly Black men have been incarcerated, billions of dollars have been spent, and criminal violence has spread throughout Latin America and the US. In an article in Harpers magazine published last April, author Dan Baum noted that one in eight Black men in the United States can no longer vote because of felony convictions, mostly for drugs. Since 1971, the US incarceration rate has soared until it is now five times higher than Canada’s.
In 1994, Baum interviewed John Ehrlichman, who was President Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser and a chief architect of the War on Drugs. Ehrlichman said, “The Nixon White House had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be against the war or to be black. But by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then penalizing both drugs heavily, we could disrupt both communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”
In the context of today’s growing racism, I find it helpful to remember that the prohibition of recreational drugs other than alcohol is not only destructive, expensive and ineffective. It has also been central in perpetuating racial oppression.
Unfortunately, the government often seems to be more concerned with controlling racialized communities than it is in helping them.
I like how South African comic Trevor Noah, who is the host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, describes it. Last year, Noah published a memoir of growing up with his mother in the 1980’s and 1990’s in Apartheid South Africa. He called the memoir Born a Crime, because his mother was Black, his father was White, and sex between Blacks and Whites was illegal in South Africa until 1994.
When Noah was in his late teens, he made money by selling bootleg CDs in a crime-ridden neighbourhood in Johannesburg. Here is what he wrote about crime based on that experience.
“One of the first things I learned in the hood is that there is a very fine line between civilian and criminal. We like to believe we live in a world of good guys and bad guys; and in the suburbs, it’s easy to believe this because getting to know a career criminal there is a difficult thing. But then you go to the hood and you see that there are so many shades in between.
In the hood, gangsters were your friends and neighbours. You knew them. You talked to them on the corner, saw them at parties. They were a part of your work. You knew them from before they became gangsters. It wasn’t, ‘Hey, that’s a crack dealer.’ It was, ‘Oh, little Jimmy’s selling crack now.’ . . .
In the hood, even if you’re not a hardcore criminal, crime is in your life in some way or another. It’s everyone from the mom buying some food that ‘fell off the back of a truck’ to feed her family, all the way up to the gangs selling military-grade weapons and hardware.
The hood made me realize that crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn’t do: crime cares. Crime is grassroots. Crime looks for the young kids who need support and a lifting hand. Crime offers internship programs and summer jobs and opportunities for advancement. Crime gets involved in the community. Crime doesn’t discriminate” (p. 209).
Just as in Trevor Noah’s neighbourhood in Johannesburg, the schools and police in Chiron’s neighbourhood in Miami didn’t seem to care for him. But “crime” did care for Chiron, especially in the person of the crack dealer Juan.
I loved the portrayal of both Chiron in the movie and Trevor Noah in the memoir of life with his mother even though they are very different than myself.
Here is what Mershala Ali, the actor who portrayed Juan in Moonlight, said about our differences when he accepted a Golden Globe Award for his work in Moonlight on January 29: “Sometimes we get caught up in the minutiae and the details that make us all different. But I think there are two ways of seeing those differences. There’s an opportunity to see the texture of that person, the characteristics that make them unique. There’s also the opportunity to go to war about it — to say that person is different from me, and I don’t like him, so let’s battle.
My mother is an ordained Christian minister. I’m a Muslim. Now, she didn’t do backflips when I called her to tell her I converted. But we have put our differences to the side. I’m able to see her, she’s able to see me, and we love each other. That other stuff is minutiae. It’s not that important.”
Sometimes it might be difficult for descendants of European settlers to love a poor First Nations person in Edmonton, a petty criminal in Johannesburg, or a drug dealer in Miami. But when we pay attention to the texture of the lives of our so-called enemies, we might find ourselves seeing an inner Sacred light in each other.
Further, when we find ourselves loving people who are oppressed, we may also find ourselves called to resist the social systems that make life hard for them: things like Apartheid in South Africa, the legacy of residential schools in Canada, and the War on Drugs in the United States.
The same thing holds true for Muslims in Canada. A growing segment of church leaders and politicians call us to fear and hate Muslims as our enemies. Instead, I believe that Jesus calls us to reach out in love to refugees and racialized communities of immigrants regardless of their faith. They are not our enemies. They are our sacred brothers and sisters.
More difficult for me is loving leaders who spread fear and hatred of Muslims. I pray this might be possible by being open to engagement and mutual understanding while resisting their ideas and actions.
When descendants of European settlers created Apartheid in South Africa in the 1940’s some of their motives might have been worthy even though the results were horrendous. When the War on Drugs began in 1971, President Nixon might have hidden his motives. But many people who have prosecuted the War on Drugs ever since have done so for worthy reasons. The results have been devastating, I believe, but the people who maintain the system are not necessarily evil.
None of us will ever achieve the perfection that Jesus raised up as an ideal in today’s reading. In my case, this means I may find myself unable to love anti-Muslim leaders like Charles McVety.
But as followers of Jesus and as supporters of peace with justice, I pray that we will continue to stand in solidarity with the marginal and the oppressed. May we resist the calls of church and civic leaders who support racism and instead walk together a path of hope and love.
May it be so. Amen.