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Sunday, 13 March 2022

Enemies, real and imagined

 Genesis 15.1-12, 17-21; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35

Enemies. We all have them. And, if we don’t have any real enemies, we make them up. Or else we paint them in more dramatic terms than is strictly necessary. Observe, for example, what is happening in Ukraine at present. One of the key reasons Putin has publicly offered for invading Ukraine is that Ukraine’s national leadership has been taken over by fascists, even ‘Nazis’, who are oppressing the people. Now, from the point of view of the Ukrainians themselves, this seems entirely false. But from the point of view of Putin, who has in mind the restoration of a past, mythical, Orthodox, Russian empire, the Ukrainian leadership are indeed the evil bastards who are keeping their people from participating in this glorious restoration.

We need to be careful whom we call an enemy. Perhaps we should not call anyone an enemy, even if they explicitly choose that path, and that designation, for themselves. ‘Love your enemy,’ said Jesus in his famous sermon, ‘do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.’ (Luke 6.27, 28).  This is really tough teaching. If your neighbour is your enemy, what then? If you are the Ukrainian whose house is being raided by the Russian army, what should you do?  If you are an Aboriginal woman who has been raped by a British soldier, and your children killed before your eyes, how should you respond?

Let’s mine our lectionary readings for some wisdom.

The Genesis story talks about the deal or treaty YWH makes with Abram to preserve his legacy against every threat, real or imagined. If Abram is prepared to trust his future, and the future of his descendants to YWH, then YWH will make them prosper ‘as the stars in the heaven’ and the land on which he stands, stretching from Egypt to the Euphrates, will belong to them. Now, if you read this passage in its context, there are probably both good and bad reasons for Abram to feel anxious about himself and his clan’s future. Since arriving in that place, he’d become rich and inclined to feel that others wanted to take what he had. The story of his wife Sarai being given to Pharoah as a concubine is a horrific tale about the lengths that patriarchal culture will go to fight its own paranoia about losing wealth and influence. On the other hand, Abram also got caught up in a regional conflict between various Canaanite city-states in which his nephew Lot was genuinely taken into captivity.

With this background in mind, perhaps we must conclude that the treaty between Abraham and YWH comes about partly at God’s initiative and partly because of Abram’s male, patriarchal paranoia about the preservation of his legacy – legacy here understood as wealth and prestige for one’s descendents – against the indigenous tribes of Caanan. An earlier version of the covenant (in chapter 12 of Genesis) promises something rather different: that Abram’s descendants will become a blessing to all nations. Not their conquerors, but a source of their blessing. Perhaps that is what the covenant is supposed to be about, really. But this later, Genesis 15, version seems more concerned with the ways in which the indigenous nations, the people already there in the land to be taken by Abram’s seed, should be seen as enemies, and therefore a threat to Abram’s patriarchal ambitions. This is an ambiguity that has been played out in that region from the time of Abram right through to the current conflicts between Arab and Jew in Israel/Palestine. And, of course, there are tragic echoes of all that in what has happened here in the colony of ‘Australia’ as well.

The psalmist describes his fear of an enemy that has surrounded him on every side, and his appeal to the Lord for refuge and help. Most every suburban Christian I know usually reads this psalm as if they, themselves, are the psalmist and someone else – whatever or whomever we are afraid of, probably – is the enemy.  But what if that isn’t the case? Have you ever tried to read a psalm, or any other biblical passage, as if you weren’t the hero in the story but the enemy? Have you every considered the ways in which you might be the enemy? An enemy of the earth and of its flora and fauna, for example, or an enemy of the indentured classes of labour who make our clothes? Or an enemy of Indigenous people, because you stole our lands and benefit from our dispossession and hardship? How would that make a difference to your reading of sacred scripture?

The writer to the Philippians is incredibly circumspect in the way that he talks about enemies. He says that the enemy is not so much opposed to particular people, or even to Christ, but rather to the ‘cross of Christ’. Here the enemy is constructed not as someone who wants to steal your possessions or kill you. The enemy is someone who is allergic to suffering in the cause of righteousness or justice. Indeed, this enemy’s ‘god is their stomach’, an ancient way of speaking about the sin of gluttony or personal acquisitiveness. The sin of accumulating all things to yourself at the expense of many others, the sin of narcissism, we might even say. There is a sense, here, in which the writer wants, actually, to critique the acquisitive nature of the covenant we read about in Genesis 15. Here, it is Abram who could be understood as the enemy, for he seems concerned only about his legacy, the land he steals from others, and the prosperity of his own family and clan.  The writer to the Philippians prefers a citizenship that is not so attached to such things, but participates in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of a commonwealth that is ‘in heaven’, that is, in a place and a time that has yet to arrive. In that ‘heaven’ which – I hope you will agree, is a figure for some more hopeful and just future – Christ will transform the humiliated bodies of all who have suffered injustice and degradation and marginalisation, into the form of his own glorious body. In other words, all that is wrong and unfair will be put right. All that is broken will be restored. This is good news for all who suffer, or who are broken and marginalised. But you have to take a leap of faith.

Finally, in Luke’s gospel, it is instructive to learn something about how to regard the enemy from Christ, whose enemy is Herod, the puppet-king of the Roman occupation, who is obviously so afraid of Christ’s teaching that he has put out a ‘hit’ on him. Christ’s response to this news is quite extraordinary. Rather than go into hiding, rather than gathering a militia to protect himself, what Christ does is offer a lament over Jerusalem, a city divided against itself, a city that will at once listen to a prophet’s preaching and honour a prophet’s office, but also, in time, kill that prophet for speaking inconvenient or uncomfortable words.  Jesus himself, as indicated in the final verses of this passage, will himself be welcomed by the Jerusalemites as a prophet and even a messiah, but a week later be killed by those same Jerusalemites. Here the enemy is within. Not the other, someone from another group or tribe, ethnicity or religion. The enemy is your friend, your comrade, your congregation, your synagogue, your church, your ethnic group. Those closest to you and about whom you care the most. In the face of enemies such as these, Christ teaches us simply to lament, which is an ancient way of naming the evil and injustice of which we are capable, and then simply living, with tears, in the truth of it.  Here there is no hint of revenge or strategizing towards getting the upper-hand. There is a simple acceptance of the awful truth of the situation and a deep-down trust that if anyone can make this better, it is certainly not ourselves. It is God alone.

That’s kind’ve how I see the situation here in the colony known as ‘Australia’ as well. I long ago abandoned all hope that we, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations, could ever dig ourselves out of the hole we find ourselves in. We are too busy imitating the coloniser by fighting with each other to present a united front. Although the Uluru Statement from the Heart piques my interest. A deeply compromised and conservative document, it yet represents the closest we have yet come to speaking to our colonisers with one voice.

Certainly, there is little political will towards justice from the coloniser, at least insofar as the political class can be said to represent the will of the people. Colonisers, and particularly the mining, forestry and agricultural companies that continue to enjoy extraordinary levels of subsidised support from the taxpayer, benefit enormously from our dispossession and marginalisation. And they continue to destroy, wound, and maim country in order to make their squillions. In my estimation, we have little to look forward to from these sectors but an endless charitable paternalism, breadcrumbs from the imperial table.

 What can the person of faith do, then, except to be as honest and as truthful as one can be, to name what is actually the case in the presence of the colonising powers, to lament that it is so, and place oneself and one’s people in God’s merciful hands? In this there is a hope, against all evidence to the contrary, that our bodies of humiliation will one day be transformed into bodies of glory. How that might come to be remains, for me at least, a profound mystery. But without the leap of faith which Christian called ‘resurrection faith’ there is nothing to look forward to at all. The last enemy, after all, is death.  And its sting is fierce. Unless . . .  unless God is for us, and not against us.

Notes roughly approximating a homily delivered at Koonung Heights Uniting Church on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, 2022.  The live homily can be found here.

Garry Deverell

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