February 11, 2007


For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you. – Luke 6: 38

On the face of it, the injunctions in today’s Gospel seem staggeringly stupid. They go beyond the common sense law of reciprocity. Loving enemies just gives them a chance to hit you one more time. Doing good to those who hate you is codependency at best & masochism at worst. When we are attacked, there is an instinctive drive to protect ourselves & fight back. The following event was reported in the New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper:

Archbishop Hannan of New Orleans was on a street in Rome dressed in clericals. A young man asked him for money, but when he reached into his pocket to retrieve some, the young man grabbed the chain with his pectoral cross draped across his chest. He probably thought the old man would be an easy mark, but he was sadly mistaken. The Archbishop had been a chaplain in the 101st Airborne in WWII & was known as the Jumpin’ Padre. He slugged his attacker, knocking him down & causing him to drop the cross. When the fellow jumped up & started to run, he gave chase until youth won out. When asked by a reporter, “What about turning the other cheek?” the Archbishop replied, “There was a relic in that cross. I didn’t have time to think about that.”

The negative pressures of the outer world do not give us much time to think. They want us on their own terms. Those terms may not be what we would choose, but they are often how we act. Our Lord’s shocking advice is not social naiveté, but spiritual courage of a high order. Jesus has seen quite clearly into the never-ending nature of violence & the never-ending nature of God. The two are incompatible, & He has opted to play the game of unconditional love rather than the game of reprisal.

There is a distinction between reaction & response. Reaction is a knee-jerk, mindless, mechanistic imitation of what is presented to us. Response, however, is mindful, a bringing forth of who we really are to engage what has happened to us. We have a transcendent freedom that opens a space between what acts on us & how we act back. The ability to inhabit this space is the beginning of spiritual development. Yet there is more: it is not just that we are free from compulsive reaction – we are free to embody the loving identity that is at our core. It is called the image of God.

Engaging in consistent spiritual practices can help us to widen this space & extend our dwelling time there. That is why we have Lent. If we use this time creatively, it can help us to create the space of freedom & love between stimulus & response. More than that, it can help us figure out the response.

By his insistence on non-violence, Martin Luther King, Jr. showed that he had this freedom, which is the first step of transcendent loving. He wasn’t after reprisal, but making the world a better place for all of us to live in. What we think is harmful to other people is really harmful to us because we are trying to fight evil on evil’s terms. As Flannery O’Connor once said, the truth will make us odd. AMEN!