--The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire
Have you ever had an enemy?
I know I have had a few people in my life who I have realized did NOT to put it mildly, have my well-being at heart. The worst ones have been relatives, or better, “frenemies”—people who to your face pretend to be your friend, but behind your back undermine you and work against you at any opportunity.
The problem is, how can you avoid granting them power in your life?
What if the first step is refusing to allow them the position of “enemy” to begin with?
I ask this question, because this may be the nub of so much of the division we suffer from in our lives.
And this ends up being something our readings are asking us to consider this weekend.
Last week, in our epistle from Romans 12:1-8, Paul urged us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to God.
This week, in urging us to bend over backwards being kind to those who seek to hurt us, it almost sounds like Paul is now demanding our sanity.
In 205 words in Romans 12:9-21, there is a rapid-fire list of 27 specific commandments about how we are called as followers of Jesus to live in relationship with others. Twenty-seven! And seven of those begin with either “do not” (six times) or “never” (once). All the rest are stated positively, centering around the words “love,” “bless,” and “rejoice.” Under all of this are commands to give: to “contribute to the needs of the saints (fellow church members),” and to give your enemies food and drink if they hunger or thirst. There’s a lot there that absolutely sounds doable, though.
Until we get to that last bit there.
It is obvious that Paul himself understands that the standards of behavior here ARE incredibly demanding. Probably the most difficult is being not only not vengeful, but actually kind and solicitous to your enemies. Perhaps that’s why he includes that little bit that, if you are loving toward your enemies, it will actually “heap burning coals upon their heads.” We used to call it “killing them with kindness.” And that’s a pretty bizarre collection of words, if you stop and look at them. Are we really being kind if we are also “killing them?”
But then that brings up a conundrum: do I gain anything by doing these kindnesses, if that “heaping of burning coals” on their heads is then something I can’t avoid enjoying? I think that Paul is trying to toss us, and our human nature, a bone there. I also think this lines up nicely with our earliest view of Paul back when he was the Pharisee and persecutor Saul, and he held everyone’s coats when they stoned the first martyr of the Church, Stephen, to death in the Book of Acts. Paul definitely loved himself some vengeance.
And of course, Paul assumes that our enemies even HAVE consciences or feel healthy shame, which is a big assumption, then or now. Too many people have made selfishness and contempt their real gods.
This section of the letter to the church in Rome emphatically urges us to live into a paradox as people of faith. We live in a world that we believe is based largely on punishment and negative reinforcement, or motivation out of fear-- but we pray (at least when it comes to ourselves) for a God that uses a different accounting method; listen closely when we pray the Lord’s prayer, and you will see what I mean. Many of us know that we fall short of doing what we ought to do in all our relationships. Most of us believe we could be better children, better parents, better friends, and better Christians. Knowing our faults and failings, we also want to believe in grace for ourselves—but all too often we want to believe in judgment and condemnation for others.
The point is not to heap burning coals upon our enemies but to be kind and loving to them—it’s the kindness and love that should be emphasized. If we’re not careful, enjoying heaping burning coals on the heads of those who have wronged us approaches schadenfreude—a great German word for the phrase “enjoying another’s misfortune.” Satisfying as that may be, it also is antithetical to a real spirit of compassion and forgiveness. Schadenfreude leads us right back to contempt and dehumanization.
Remember the command that began chapter 12 in this letter: to not be “conformed to the spirit of the world” around us, because the spirit of this world—one WE humans have created mind you, and keep reinforcing by our willing participation in it—is one of misery for the vast majority of people. Even to just begin to live by the golden rule would be a radical act of defiance against this cruel calculus. We are, through our baptism and discipleship, called to be better people through Christ who strengthens us, and models for us this kind of self-giving love.
Being a Christian cannot ever be about oppressing anyone—that’s the party the gospel demands we leave. It’s part of making generosity and grace a true part of our lives. Christianity should make loving others the central act—no matter what we think of their behavior, rather than only loving those who conform to our notions of belief. Just like Jesus, we are in the “never give up on others” business.
We live awash with messages of hatred and fear. We live in a time of name-calling and dehumanization of anyone who is different from you.
And I think, at the root of it, is not just a lack but an attack on empathy, which is then an attack on compassion. Think on it. And that’s the first step in defeating this terrible division in our world, which transcends national barriers. Because the minute you think about who is pushing the division, and then ask yourself why, you take the first step toward defeating them.
I love the work of Brene Brown, a teacher and social worker (and Episcopalian!) who works to help people live wildly compassionate, brave lives. I ran across an interview where she discussed the work of Dr. Chris Germer and Dr. Kristin Neff (1). They are psychologists who study compassion, and they name the enemies of compassion, which is a vital step in defeating the forces of division that seek to divide us. Germer and Neff identify two kinds of compassion: soft compassion, and fierce compassion. Both are necessary to effect change not just for ourselves, but for others, especially groups being marginalized.
Soft compassion is gentle, nurturing compassion, and God knows we need lots of that. It’s the kind of compassion that many of us need to practice for ourselves: giving ourselves a break when we fall short or mess up or struggle. It’s acknowledging where we ourselves are hurting and giving ourselves grace, so that we may do the same to others.
Fierce compassion is more active, more filed with agency. And it is this compassion that fomenters of hatred fear the most, because it leads to not just weakly accepting injustice as they “way things are” but urges us to action. Real action. Even if we have to start off slow, like feeding our enemies and giving them something to drink, so that we can realize they aren’t our enemies after all.
But there are many things that stand in the way of us practicing this kind of compassion. They list these as both far enemies and near enemies of fierce compassion. Far enemies are opposite of what we are trying to cultivate, and they include:
Anger and Fear (emotional reactivity, as opposed to attention and mindfulness)
Demonizing (Other-ing, as opposed to empathy)
Hostility (versus kindness)
Near enemies are more tricky, however. Near enemies seem harmless, but are meant to roadblock any real change. The near enemies of practicing true compassion include:
Complacency (can’t we all just get along?)
Sameness (the claim that we are all the same—the “all lives matter argument” or “I don’t see color” claim that blocks the acknowledgement of oppression)
Pity (feeling bad for someone in a way that makes you also feel superior) (2)
I would probably add here shame, like when some leaders claim that truths and facts that might inspire “feeling bad” should be suppressed in school.
I wonder if what Paul is getting at here is the same thing Germer and Neff are talking about. If we refuse to allow ourselves to dehumanize our enemies, and instead refuse to react to them in ways that cedes to them our own power, we free ourselves from the endless cycles of division and vengeances that weakens us all.
I know it sounds hard. To change this cycle of reaction and vengeance requires incredible mindfulness, empathy, and compassion—compassion for both ourselves, and for those around us. But here is a universal truth: hurt people hurt people. Breaking that cycle of hurt is a gift to ourselves beyond price.
Maybe THIS is the cross Jesus is urging us to take up in order to follow him in our gospel. I think we flinch when we hear that commandment from Jesus because we literally associate the cross with death and pain. Of course, that is why crucifixion was invented. But for Christians, the cross means something different. It means emptying ourselves of all our privileges, just like Jesus did, and reacting to those who have hurt us with the grace that we ourselves do not deserve but receive a million times over from Jesus.
This not only is a gift we give to ourselves, because there is nothing worse than allowing someone who has hurt you to live rent-free in your head and heart. It also denies our enemies their power to hurt us in the ways that matter most—inside our own hearts and spirits.
To be clear: neither Paul nor Jesus are telling us let people abuse us. Instead, we are being given the power to refuse to allow ourselves to be defined by those who attempt to hurt us. Instead of sinking to the level of our opponents, we expose their injustice, and free ourselves from carrying the boulders of hatred they are attempting to place on our backs.
The heaping burning coals upon their heads thing is just a bonus.
We are seeing a lot of hateful acts being perpetrated right now by people who claim to be Christian, and that cruelty and contempt is part of why so many people are turning away from religious belief of any kind, as we discussed last week in the result of the “Jesus in America” survey the Episcopal Church commissioned a year ago.
The cross is not just a symbol of torture—if it were, why would we place them over our hearts or wear them on our clothes or hang them over our altars?
The cross, instead, is a symbol of fierce compassion—the compassion that didn’t just see the injustice and the violence of the world, but met that violence and injustice with love—and with ACTION. The kind of action Martin Luther King Jr called “soul force.” The kind of compassion that refuses to conform itself to the world but actively seeks to change the world to relieve the suffering of others—because when one person suffers, we are ALL diminished. Even if they are so-called “enemies.” That’s why wars happen.
The cross we are being urged to take up is a sign of victory, and a sign of enlightenment on the path of love.
And there’s no time like now to rededicate ourselves to living in the Way of Jesus.
And that doesn’t just involve believing, but doing.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” and your spirit. Let us take up our crosses and learn from Jesus. To take up our cross, we put down the burdens of fear and division that paralyze our souls.
The world will know we are Christian by this fiercely compassionate love. Then we will carry the cross of Jesus with honor.
1) “Interview with Dr. Chris Germer on the Near and Far Enemies of Fierce Compassion, Part 1 and 2,” on Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast, November 2022, found at https://brenebrown.com/podcast/the-near-and-far-enemies-of-fierce-compassion-part-1-of-2/
2) Dr. Chris Germer, “The Near and Far Enemies of Fierce Compassion,” October 22, 2020, at Mindfulness Teacher Training, https://mbsr.website/news/near-and-far-enemies-fierce-compassion