In the Presence of my Enemies

[Giving up Violence for Lent]

You set a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

Until recently, this line evoked an image of favor and vindication: a banquet set in a narrow valley between jagged cliffs whose clefts and crevices are crawling with enemies – they are evil, they are incensed, they may even be gnashing their teeth. But the chosen and I sit down, unharmed, and enjoy a meal in mockery of our enemies, like an ultimate 5-year-old’s “nah, nah, na-nah nah, you can’t get me” with thumbs stuck in our ears, fingers wiggling.

Maybe there is something of that in David’s cry for God to defend and justify him in the face of false accusations and persecution.

Yet there rings the cry of another who also faced great suffering at the hands of his enemies:

“Father, forgive them.”

The scene changes in light of the cross.

presenceofmyenemies

Now, I see not a revelry of the “right” to shame of the “wrong,” but a banquet in which I am seated in the presence of my enemies – she on my right and he on my left. Our eyes glisten with tears as our hands clasp each others’, our hearts are filled with the wonder and joy of reconciliation, our heads bowed in gratitude for the grace of restoration, the power of redemption. It is a profoundly beautiful vision in which the accused and the accuser, the holy and the irreverent, the powerful and the exploited, the rich and the poor all sit down together – not in a gathering that ignores the grievances of the past, such a table would only do further injustice to those who have already suffered much. Nor is it a communion in which we, the perpetrators of injustice, are condemned and berated, present only to bear witness to the grave wrongs we have committed.

No, it is a table of healing, of hope, of shalom, of love. For the wronged it is something more powerful than vindication or revenge: it is the table of restoration and redemption. For the guilty, it is something more transformative than punishment or correction: it is a place of truth, forgiveness and reconciliation. For all it is an opportunity for relationship – to know and see and feel from the perspective of the other.

You set a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

This is the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the lion and the lamb. This is the way of the cross.

But it also sounds a little too-good-to-be-true or at least maybe-when-we-get-to-heaven. The thing is, the table is not the result of forgiveness and reconciliation, it is the means. This is not some ideal scenario we hope for when we are all dead and resurrected but it is the hard work of the Way of Jesus right here, right now. We don’t meet our enemies at the table once we have miraculously been healed and forgiven, we meet our enemies at the table in order to facilitate healing and forgiveness. It is the very act of sitting with one another, seeking to know and see and understand each other, seeking to break through the myriad barriers that keep us apart in order to sit together in the most universal symbol of communion – a shared meal – that heals the divisions between us.

I have a friend whom I respect but who has very different views than I on politics and theology. In one conversation with him we were seated, not surprisingly, at a dinner table. We had just shared a meal together and conversation was wandering around familiar topics when it veered into the realm of our dissent. My body tensed, my defenses went up, my fingernails dug into my palms as I mentally willed him to stop talking before he said something that altered our relationship. Tempted to cut the conversation short, I was developing an exit strategy when the phrase, “I honor you.” came to mind. If I could not stay at the table with a friend I disagreed with, how would I have the capacity to sit in the company of my enemies?

So I looked into his eyes and mentally intoned, “I honor you. I honor you. I honor you.”  As his opinions were being made clear, my mantra was burrowing itself into my heart, softening it with each breath. He did say things that I disagreed with, things I even found offensive, but that day I was able to mean it when I said inwardly, “I honor you. I disagree with you, but I honor you.”

It was a small victory, a small step toward mutuality in our highly polarized world. But I think small steps matter and I am grateful for the practice in honoring those with whom I have strong disagreements.

May we all be honor-givers, table-layers, and party-inviters; may we seek to know and love those we feel most inclined to disagree with, distance ourselves from or even hate; may we gather at the table in the presence of those on differing sides of political and social and ideological and religious lines, may we eat in the presence of our enemies and be glad.

 

photo credit: pasukaru76 via photopin cc

 

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