Today’s gospel is that passage of the Sermon on the Mount that most clearly spells out Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence. Here is the essence of my homily.
A week ago I was talking to my colleague Fr Mark Byrne. A few days earlier he had gone up the stairs and looked towards my bedroom door. Just next to the door was a RED fire extinguisher. He had been looking at it for the last 2.5 years since we came to the parish and had never noticed it! Shortly afterwards he went downstairs and noticed in the hall another RED fire extinguisher that he had never noticed either. He said that if there had been a fire in the parochial house up til that point, he wouldn’t have known where to find a fire extinguisher.
I tell you that story because if we look at our lives there are many things that have been right before our eyes and we have never noticed – for one reason or another. They have been cloaked with invisibility until we come to an explicit awareness of them.
One such matter that affects many Christians is found in today’s gospel.
Jesus tells us in the plainest possible terms that we are to love our enemies. This is probably the most challenging of all his teachings. In the ways of the world and our base human nature, the thing to do is to conquer our enemies and kill them if necessary. Given the challenge involved in following Jesus, we must make the greatest possible effort to love our enemies – and never contemplate killing them.
Jesus attaches the highest possible importance to this, so much so, that it is required for us being counted as true children of God: “I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way [of loving enemies], you will be sons (and daughters) of your Father in heaven.”
Jesus didn’t just TALK about loving enemies, he PRACTICED it in the most dire of circumstances. One of his 7 Last Words on Good Friday was: Father forgive them for they know not what they do.
Early Christians didn’t argue with or try to modify what Jesus had taught. The first martyr St Stephen prayed for his killers too. As he was being stoned to death, he said: “Lord do not hold this sin against them.”
For the first 3 centuries, Christians went through a number of brutal persecutions by the Roman authorities and many thousands – and perhaps even tens of thousands – were martyred. Many were thrown to the lions in the Colosseum. Emperor Nero in 64AD scapegoated Christians for the city fire and burned many of them alive as human torches. Yet there are no recorded instances of Christians departing from Jesus’ teachings and starting an army or militia to defend themselves with violent force.
Love of enemies got turned on its head in the early 4th century when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. If Jesus’ teachings didn’t fit in with this new mandate, it either got dropped or modified.
WHY is this such an important issue for Jesus and the Kingdom? Well Jesus says in today’s gospel that our love for enemies is to be a witness of God’s unconditional love for everybody. It’s like the saying “You will know the parents by the children.” To quote Jesus directly: “… your Father in heaven… causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike. For if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even the tax collectors do as much, do they not?”
We tend to see the world in terms of good guys and bad guys. But any parent – most especially God – doesn’t see good children and bad children. What they see is their sons and daughters – period. God’s universal embrace for ALL humanity is shown forth in the outstretched arms of Jesus on the Cross.
Even if a child has taken a wrong turn in life, all that the parent desires is for them to sort themselves out and be reconciled. All that is required of the “bad guys” is that they repent of their sins; thus they re-enter the embrace of the all loving Saviour.
World War I is a major example of the invisibility of this teaching of Jesus, a war that was raging 100 years ago. It was one of the greatest mass slaughters of all time, the death toll including some 11 million soldiers and 7 million civilians. The vast majority of the combatants including my granduncle Danny – were Christian: British, Germans, French, Americans, Russians, Italians, etc.
The tragedy and madness of this war is well expressed in the ballad “Green Fields of France / Willie McBride”.
The pope at the time – Pope Benedict XV – condemned the war in the same terms as the archbishop of Dublin would condemn the gang warfare currently going on in that city between the Hutch and Kinahan cartels. Yet he was ignored on all sides. When it is a contest between the gospel and nationalism, nationalism will win 99 times out of a hundred.
A few months ago I asked similar questions about how Christians should view the killing done for the sake of independence back in 1916.
What should happen when there is a war, or threat of war, and we can see what Jesus is teaching in today’s gospel? Given that our loyalty to Jesus should come before any other human authority, one possibility is that we declare ourselves as conscientious objectors. In the ALIVE newspaper at the back of the church is an inspiring account of Mel Gibson’s new movie HACKSAW RIDGE. It is about the exploits of an American conscientious objector of the last century who as a medic was decorated for his bravery on the battlefield.
All of what I say is very much in keeping with Pope Francis’ World Peace Day Message of 2017 – copies at the back of the church. It recognises the contributions of those who dedicated their lives to bringing about social change and justice by nonviolent means – people such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King. If Pope Francis had had Irish advisors, he may have mentioned the first pioneers of nonviolence – Daniel O’Connell and Michael Davitt.
In summary: It is a fundamental – though invisible – teaching of Jesus that we should love our enemies. At a minimum we should never kill them. In this most challenging way of life, we witness to God’s unconditional love for everybody, good guys and bad guys alike.
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Above I referred to the ballad WILLIE MCBRIDE. Here are the lyrics and a link to a youtube video.
Did they beat the drum slowly did they play the fife lowly,
did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
did the band play the last post and chorus,
did the pipes play the “Flowers of the Forest”
Well how do you do young Willie McBride?
do you mind if I sit down here by your graveside
and rest for a while ‘neath the warm summer sun
I’ve been walkin’ all day and I’m nearly done
I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
when you joined the great fallen of 1916
Well I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean
Willie McBride was it slow and obscene CHORUS
And the beautiful wife or the sweetheart for life
in some faithful heart are you forever enshrined
and although you died back in 1916
in that faithful heart are you forever nineteen?
or are you a stranger without even a name
enshrined forever behind a glass pane
in an ould photograph torn tattered and stained,
fading to yellow in a brown leather frame? CHORUS
Now the sun shines down on the green fields of France
a warm summer wind makes the red poppys dance
The trences have vanished under the plows,
there’s no gas no barbed wire, there’s no guns firing now
but here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s land,
the countless white crosses stand mute in the sand
for man’s blind indifference to his fellow man,
to a whole generation that was butchered and damned CHORUS
Now Willie McBride I can’t help wonder why
Do those who lie here do they know why they died
Did they really beleive when they answered the call
did they really believe that this war would end wars
Forever this song of suffereing and shame
the killing the dying was all done in vain
for young Willie McBride it’s all happened again,
and again, and again, and again and again