Focus Scripture – Matthew 5:43-48 (NKJV)
Through the Word of God, Jesus is still speaking. Jesus challenged the powers of his day by presenting to them a radically different way of relating to each other. He invited his listeners into relationships that weren’t directed by existing political structures. The kind of relationships Jesus preached about went beyond the letter of the law and promoted actions that transform, redeem, and create new life and new circumstances. In the context described by Jesus, love becomes an action verb. L-o-v-e becomes A-G-A-P-E — What we’re talking about here is Agape love.
Agape can be defined as the selfless love of one person for another, especially love that is spiritual or divine. Scripture tells us to love our neighbor as well as our enemies, although members of specific segments of the present-day population don’t seem to know the difference between neighbors and enemies.
Loving neighbors means treating all people with dignity and respect due to all human beings. Loving neighbors means looking for the good in people, not finding ways to diminish their character. Loving neighbors means building bridges, not building walls. It means providing for those who are troubled, not closing mental health clinics. It means providing for the sick, not abolishing healthcare for more than 20 million people. Loving neighbors means welcoming refugees who seek asylum, not canceling visas and closing borders. When it comes to loving our neighbors, Jesus applies such agape love to everyone, everywhere. That includes our so-called enemies.
Now let’s be critical. Let’s be clear. Who is the enemy? In Old Testament times, it may have been a simple matter to distinguish between enemies and friends. I pose this question to you: In the present day, are we looking for the enemy in all the wrong places? Is the enemy a blight on the social landscape that keeps people enmeshed in poverty, joblessness, poor education, mental illness, violence, hopelessness, and despair. Is the real enemy a person, a group, a system, or an ideology? Is the enemy some character flaw that lies deep within each of us? Shall we blame those who suffer, or shall we do something to alleviate the suffering? You get the picture.
We infer from Jesus’ message that love should be extended to all individuals regardless of class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation. Scripture says to “love your enemies” (5:44). And when we do that, the whole structure of “neighbor”, as opposed to “enemy”, is dismantled. Instead of allies and foes, we’re merely left with human beings, all of whom are children of the Most High God trying to live together in community.
That raises at least two additional questions. What happens when people come together, listen to each other, and consider what is right for all? And, How do we work together to change the circumstances that give rise to societal dysfunction? Instead of pointing fingers of blame, we ought to be crying with one voice, “What we’re doing is not working, and it’s time to try something new!” To put it another way, we ought to be sitting across the table from each other and engaging in critical conversations, not just living by the letter of the law, as did the Pharisees.
Yeah, right! Some of you might be saying. We’ve been talking endlessly, yet nothing has changed. There have been too many forums already during which influential people have had their say, but there has been no follow-up. Many of us have been there – talk, talk, talk and nothing gets accomplished. I submit to you that our capacity to change depends on who’s at the table and what the process of communication entails.
I recently attended a panel discussion about African-American women past, present, and future. One of the panelists was Connie Lindsay, an executive vice-president of a prominent bank. Among other things, Ms. Lindsay specializes in social responsibility, global diversity, and inclusion. She contends that our old strategy of talking at each other needs to be changed – those unproductive practices need to DIE. D-I-E, an acronym standing for Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity.
First of all, the people sitting at the table have to represent Diversity. That is; they need to bring their unique opinions, experiences, and contextual ways of looking at the world. As you can imagine, when diversity exists at the table, the range of possibilities tends to increase because many viewpoints are present.
Now we have to ask: Is everyone at the table given a chance to express their unique perspectives? That’s where Inclusivity comes in. When inclusivity exists, the diverse people seated around the table are given a chance to speak! In other words, they are given a voice. That means that all of them have an opportunity to be included in the conversation.
But that’s still not enough, according to Ms. Lindsay. We need a third component, and that’s Equity. When equity is taken into consideration, not only do we have a range of opinions, all of which are included in the conversation. But also, everyone’s opinion is given equal value and therefore equitable consideration.
When Diversity, Inclusivity, and Equity become part of the process, the tables can be turned. Lopsided, one-size-fits-all solutions will DIE, and new pathways open up. I believe this is one of the lessons Jesus taught through the Sermon on the Mount. He opened people’s eyes to the fact that might does not make right. He introduced the possibility that the Pharisees needed to stop looking for enemies in all the wrong places.