(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
A minister began her message by asking the congregation to raise their hands if any of them have enemies. Many hands went up. She then asked folks to raise their hands if they had just a handful of enemies. Fewer hands went up. She asked how many had only one or two enemies. Very few raised their hands. Finally, she asked if anyone had no enemies. Only one hand went up – that of an older man seated in the back.
“Sir,” the minister said,“that is wonderful and it is testimony to your goodness.”
“Well,” said the man in a gruff voice. “I’m 98 and I’ve outlived all my enemies. The bastards are all dead!”
I love this story because it illustrates that it is virtually impossible to live, and not have at least a few people dislike you – or who you dislike. Maybe you did something long ago that hurt someone and you’ve tried to reconcile. Or maybe someone just doesn’t like your personality or disagrees with you politically. Whatever it is, I would be surprised if anyone does not have at least one so-called enemy.
Having enemies has always been upsetting to me – even as I know I’ve done my share to hurt or disagree with others. But what is most difficult is how I respond to people who are my so-called enemies. I struggle with how to NOT return dislike with dislike – what Dr. Martin Luther King asked of his followers.
One of the teachings from Jesus is that we are to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and do good to those who hate us. That’s an amazing request and one some folks would say even he did not always practice. He called his opponents a brood of vipers, and he often angrily confronted the greedy, selfish, and mean-spirited. Even so, he taught that when someone hurts you, you should turn the other cheek. That doesn’t mean to offer your other cheek to also be figuratively slapped, but rather to turn away and not respond in kind to their hurtful actions. In other words, when someone does something that causes hurt, don’t do the same to them and instead respond with understanding and even kindness.
That principle also includes forgiveness. Indeed, responding to a hurtful action with kindness is a way to forgive. And that’s why so many forms of spirituality ask us to forgive. Jesus taught that we are to forgive someone a thousand times over if they continually hurt us. That doesn’t mean to be a doormat. One should have boundaries for what one will accept from another. But boundaries are not hateful words or striking back. Boundaries are simply ways to declare to another, “I forgive you, I won’t hold anger in my heart, but I will establish ways to prevent you from hurting me again.”
The overall ethic is to love everyone. And how we love those who hurt us, or who do and say things that go against what we believe, that’s a very, very, very difficult thing to do. It’s something we must constantly strive to achieve.
And that ideal of loving all – even enemies – comes from a theological concept called “imago dei” – latin for “in the image of god.” The Jewish and Christian scripture entitled the Book of Genesis says that when god created humanity, she made people in her image.
This means that god imparted in people all of her attributes – the abilities to reason, love, be creative, self-aware, and exercise free-will. In many ways, most religions believe we were, and are, created to be like the gods or goddesses of myths.
God making us in her image, as the Genesis myth says, indicates her desire to be connected to us through shared similarities. She wants us be like her and exist like her in all of her glory and goodness. In other words, everything that is great and moral about her is also great and moral about us. And most importantly, imago dei demands that if any Jew or Christian does not love all other people, they implicitly do not love god since her image is in every person.
As Unitarian Universalists, we may not believe in a literal god. But we do believe that whatever it is that created humanity, perhaps evolution, it made us special, unique, and good. At least here on earth, humans are alone in the ability to do profound goodness. We can be – and we many times are – just as we imagine a god would be. We can give sacrificially, we can love abundantly, we can be kind, gentle, peaceful and forgiving. We have the truly unique ability to do and say breathtakingly good things.
Most importantly, we as Unitarian Universalists also believe that just by being, just by existing, every single person has inherent worth and dignity. That is the very first thing UU’s hold as true – the first of our seven principles. By itself, the first Principle and the concept of imago dei prove our inherent goodness because we hold as a belief the dignity and worth of everyone – including in our enemies.
And the key word in the First Principle is “every”. We say to the world that we don’t just value those who agree with us, or those who are like us, or those who say nice things about us. We believe in the worth and dignity of white supremacists, warmongers, criminals, and corrupt or sexist politicians. In sum, we say we love our friends and we crucially love our enemies. Our first Principle is an amazing statement and it rightfully is the foundation for everything we as Unitarian Universalists do and say.
When I served eighteen years ago as an Associate Minister in my first church, where I learned much of what it takes to be a Minister, I led many volunteer service trips in the US and abroad. It was part of my portfolio of responsibilities because I not only had to organize and oversee the trips, I had to be a speaker in the small meetings we held each night on the trips.
At any rate, we traveled to New Orleans to help clean out flooded homes after Hurricane Katrina. We traveled to and worked in Appalachia areas of Kentucky. We worked in southern Mexico rebuilding a church, and we built multiple small homes in a town just south of the US-Mexico border. We visited rural Belize three times building schools and houses – while also running medical clinics there with nurses and doctors from my church.
But the two most impactful trips for me were to Haiti where we helped build a medical clinic. I’d seen poverty in the US and in Mexico, but nothing compared to the poverty I saw in Haiti. It is listed as one of the three poorest nations in the world. Many of its people live in unspeakable conditions – far worse than how farm animals live in the US. There are vast areas of crude huts built side by side and teeming with hundreds of thousands of desperately poor people dressed in rags. Raw sewage and garbage are everywhere. The smell in these areas is horrible and overwhelming. Schools and health clinics don’t exist. Crime and disease are pervasive. AIDS, for one, is a scourge in Haiti for men, women and children – and it still is since almost nobody can afford the drugs that have now made AIDS in the US a very manageable condition.
One day we visited a small care facility run by American nuns. It was a home for infants who had contracted AIDS from their mothers in the womb, or during birth. All of the children had been abandoned by their parents out of fear of the disease, and because they could not care for them.
During the visit I was handed an infant girl to hold. The child was very thin and weak. She had huge wide eyes – eyes that seemed even larger because of her emaciated face. She didn’t cry or wimper but she just lay in my arms, mouth open, and she stared up at me. I cradled her and brought her close in a feeble attempt to offer some comfort. And I could not help but begin to cry. Thinking of that moment still brings tears.
The girl was just one of many in the facility, but the way she stared at me was both haunting and deeply moving. As much as I cried for her suffering, I realized later I cried because as I looked at her, she looked up at me – and I felt in some strange way the presence of god or of the divine. I felt I was seeing the imago dei in her and she was somehow seeing it in me – as undeserving as I am for that.
To see her suffering was for me to see god and understand the unconditional love the god force has for all people. I say that even though I don’t believe in a literal god. But I do believe that that girl represented all that is sacred in the universe – an innocent and hurting child representing innocent and suffering people everywhere. And when women like the nuns who cared for those children, when we or anyone else serve similarly hurting youth, we are honoring and loving all that is sacred. Within pain, sadness and unfairness is holiness because it is impossible not to feel love when so confronted. Love for these children, and love for what motivates people to sacrificially serve the weak, lame, dying, poor and marginalized is in so many, many ways love for the great force in the universe that created everything – be that god, capital “T” Truth, or the unifying force of everything. All those can be defined with one phrase: god is love – and love is god.
Love is the imago dei implied in our First UU Principle that sees inherent worth both in wealthy founders of high tech companies – and in dying infants with AIDS. It’s the power that respects both charity volunteers – and billionaire politicians who own golf courses, mansions, and solid gold toilets. Love is the emotion we have both for family members and friends – and also for those who demean, hate or attack us. Without love, we are nothing. With love, we are everything.
And so as cliche and trite as it might be, I suggest we cannot be Unitarian Universalists unless we endeavor to love everyone by seeing their inherent worth and dignity. This gets at what I mentioned earlier and what all world religions believe. None of us, none of us, can say we are good, caring, moral, and justice seeking people unless we do our very best to love ALL others. How we put that into practice is a great question we each must ponder. And pondering it is something I encourage for us all. I humbly suggest love begins with seeing the UU version of the imago dei in everyone – their inherent worth and dignity. Love is sacrificial service, it is kindness, it is admitting one’s own flaws, it is forgiving, it is gentleness, it is truth telling, it is generosity, it is the humility it takes to care for those we dislike, disagree with, or who hurt us.
And so dear friends, in just a moment I’ll ask you to reflect on what I’ve said and particularly on finding love, dignity and worth even in people who may be your enemy. And then, I encourage you to write on the card found in your programs a note to someone who might be your enemy and tell them about the dignity you see in them, and the worth and the worth they have as a person. Send it, email it, or give it to the person today or later. Do this for more than one person if you wish. And, please, don’t justify your past angry feelings for the person, defend yourself, or in any way rebuke or correct the person. What I hope you will do is just express love and have that be the so-called lesson you impart. I also hope each and every one of us will truly consider what it means to say kind things about even our enemies. And perhaps this exercise will linger in our minds and in our hearts so that we will do our best to practice the UU First Principle and truly begin to see and feel the dignity and worth in everyone – and thereby show our love.
Please begin to reflect on my message and write on your cards if you wish. Michael and Les will play some soft background music during this time.
I wish you each much peace and joy.