“Loving Our Enemies: Nobody Said It Would Be Easy”
A Sermon by Joshua Leach & Rev. Brock Leach
Delivered on Sunday, January 15, 2017
At The First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
It’s significant that [Jesus] does not say, ‘Like your enemy.’
Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something.
There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. […] But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like.
—MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
Introduction of Guest Speaker
It is my great and unusual privilege to introduce – as our guest co-preacher this morning – my Dad, the Rev. Brock Leach. I assume that sharing a pulpit with your father would have been a fairly common experience in the nineteenth century, especially in Unitarian churches. If you were a Channing or an Eliot or an Adams, it was probably impossible to avoid, after a certain point. Given that we are Leaches, however, and are descended from backwoods Michigan distillers and fur trappers, and not from anyone’s idea of Boston Brahmins, this is a totally new experience for us.
My Dad is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister who received final fellowship at General Assembly in Portland two years back. He has served as an executive consultant for the UUA and as Vice president of mission strategy and innovation at the UUSC. Prior to entering the ministry, Dad had a long and distinguished executive career with PepsiCo, where he served as President and CEO of Tropicana and of Frito Lay North America.
I first found out that my Dad was considering a second career in the ministry when I was about nine or ten years old. I had joined him for “Take Your Son to Work” Day at Frito-Lay. The subject came up because I wanted Dad to reassure me that he was never going to change jobs. This was because, at that point in my life, change was one of my deepest fears, and I was often interrogating my parents to see if they had any changes in the works that I didn’t know about. When I asked this question, my Dad said that he thought sometimes about changing careers, because ultimately he wanted to do something that was more about serving others. “You mean like creating more healthy kinds of potato chips?” I asked, thinking of Baked Lays. This was the outer range of possible changes I could contemplate at the time.
It wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized that he had something more drastic in mind. Dad grew up partly in Michigan and Germany, but also in Colorado, where his mentor as a teenager was a UCC minister who was deeply engaged in social justice work. My parents became UUs shortly after they met, and my sister and I both therefore grew up UU in Texas and Florida. I probably should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. When I was about fifteen, dad said he was doing something far more baked than Baked Lays – he was going to seminary.
At that point, the thought of following him into the ministry was the last thing on my mind. I wanted to be some sort of human rights activist, which was still my plan when I went to college. While I was there, Dad completed his ordination as a UU minister. Then he promptly went to work for a human rights organization, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. I, meanwhile, decided to go to seminary. Once I got out of Divinity School, I started working part-time at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, just as Dad was leaving. Our lives have been like a double helix, following one another, almost but never quite intersecting. Actually, we did overlap briefly in both Chicago and Boston – with Dad going to Meadville-Lombard when I was at UChicago, and me studying at HDS while he was at UUSC. I swear this stuff wasn’t planned!
Our shared sermon today, however, is not going to be about the differences between my dad and me, but the differences that divide this increasingly polarized country. I told you all some of our family story so that you could see that we have lived both sides of that growing political divide. We were in many ways a blue state family, living in red state territory. Growing up as a UU in Bible Belt Texas, and going to school with many evangelical Christians, I often found myself surrounded by people whose ideas were fundamentally at odds with mine, and whose behavior I often found it difficult to comprehend. They believed in a place called “hell,” but they weren’t allowed to say that word, whereas the situation was just the reverse at my church.
Even in the short time that has passed since I grew up in the Southern half of the country, those differences of opinion and outlook only seem to have become more pronounced. Even the way we speak is diverging with time. According to the linguist William Labov, regional differences in American speech patterns are increasingly corresponding to political differences. We not only think in incommensurable ways, and expose ourselves to totally non-overlapping sources of information, we are literally beginning to speak different languages. We are, as the title of a recent book put it, Coming Apart. Our sermon today will ask whether it will be possible to come together.
Good morning. It has to be one of life’s great privileges to be able to partner with your son or daughter in work you both love. I was really honored by Josh’s invitation to be here this morning and to be with you all who have supported him on an incredible learning journey these last two years. I think he’s had the best internship ever, and it’s clearly because of all the opportunities you’ve opened up for him and all the care and love you’ve shown. I know Josh is profoundly grateful, and so am I.
Our reading this morning is from President Obama’s farewell address last Tuesday night…
“Going forward, we must uphold laws against discrimination – in hiring, in housing, in education and the criminal justice system. That’s what our Constitution and highest ideals require. But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
For blacks and other minorities, it means tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face – the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his
world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.
For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised.
For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, Italians, and Poles. America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; they embraced this nation’s creed, and it was strengthened.
So regardless of the station we occupy; we have to try harder; to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.”
Sermon Part I: Josh
When my dad and I realized that our quirky co-preaching idea happened to be scheduled for Martin Luther King Sunday, we knew that we had signed on for a somewhat taller order than we had originally anticipated. Suddenly, the problem became not so much finding a sermon topic, but knowing which of the many facets of Dr. King’s spirit we needed to summon most. The year 2016, whatever else may be said of it – and that is quite a lot – at least did not lack for ways in which it made the legacy of Dr. King seem alive and relevant to our moment.
Today, a half century into the civil rights revolution that King helped shepherd into being, the gains for racial equality and human rights that were won in the 1960s are perhaps more endangered than ever. This past November, our first presidential election was held without the full protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act – the same Voting Rights Act which Dr. King’s March on Selma helped to pass. You may recall that the stated reason that the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in 2013, that the full protections of the VRA were no longer necessary, was that, in their judgment, America’s racial divisions had largely been healed. The Court’s majority put it in Shelby v. Holder, “[t]hings have changed […. Since 1965]. Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. […] minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.”
I leave it for you to decide whether the results of our first presidential election since these words were penned justify the Court’s confidence that, quote, “things have changed.”
What we can say is that our new president-elect has called for closing our borders to 1.6 billion of the Earth’s inhabitants, purely because of their religion. We know that he has defended stop-and-frisk policing tactics that violate basic constitutional rights. We know that the likely new head of the Housing and Urban Development department has gone on record opposing the full implementation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. We know that our incoming administration has run on a tough-on-crime message, promising ever stricter “law and order,” at a time when the United States already has the largest incarcerated population of any nation on Earth.
The facet of Dr. King that speaks to me most in a historical moment like this one is the Dr. King who preached radical non-cooperation with injustice; the Dr. King of resistance; the Dr. King who – as much time as he devoted to defending the tactic of non-violence – argued no less eloquently and passionately against those who spoke in favor of accommodation, of compromise, of gradualism. Ever since the election, I have felt that this was Dr. King that we most needed to recover today. This is the shade with whom I wanted to commune– more so, at times, than some of the gentler aspects of his person. More so, I confess, than the Dr. King who was the prophet of unconditional love of one’s enemy. For the past few months, I have often felt that people on the left have, if anything, found it all too easy to find affection, or at least – accommodation – in our hearts for the incoming administration. And in the process, I fear we have been tempted to betray the deeper love of neighbor that is realized through the pursuit of justice.
Over the course of the past year, I have been struck time and again by how quick many voices in the media have been normalize Donald Trump and his policies, and how easily our own senses of shock and outrage have been dulled. I remember how the journalists on NPR, beholden to a code of professional practice that forbade them from showing too much favoritism, began to describe some of Trump’s more disturbing proposals as if they were mainstream policy options. I can still hear the soothing tones of the newscasters using phrases like, “Mr. Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims” – as if this had become a normal idea to float on the campaign trail. This desensitization to Trump’s excesses is an understandable reaction. There is a certain amount of tension and outrage that it is neither possible nor desirable to sustain for long. Inevitably we begin to look for ways to relieve the emotional burden. Too often, however, relief takes the form of accepting the unacceptable.
I remember after the election how many mainstream left-leaning pundits rushed to urge us to “give the new president a chance,” to “wait and see what he would do.” I remember how quick many of us were to cast blame on ourselves, rather than on the president-elect, for the outcome of the election. It feels only natural to us to do so, after all. It is part of the critical liberal spirit that we UUs have imbibed. When something goes wrong, we often look inward and reflect on our own mistakes. It is an admirable quality. But the problem here is that for many progressives, this self-doubt can extend even to our own fundamental principles and values. We start to congratulate ourselves on the generosity of spirit we display in showing that we are willing to meet the other side half way. We pay far less attention to the question of whose rights may be the ones getting compromised, because they probably aren’t ours. We forget that for some people there is no compromise to be made, because it is their lives and their loved ones that are at stake, not their fleeting financial or political interests. We fail to ask ourselves – where is the generosity, where is the magnanimity, in that?
As progressives ask themselves with such sincerity where they went wrong, they often let the country all too easily off the hook. They do not ask, for instance: what are the structural conditions in place in our democracy that have allowed someone to be elected president once again without winning the majority of votes by actual human beings? Or: how large a role did new voter ID laws play in suppressing the ability of poorer, homeless, and minority voters to make it to the polls? To dwell on these questions is often perceived, even among progressives, as a form of sour grapes. Left-wing journalist and writer Glenn Greenwald opined shortly after election night, “When a political party is demolished, the principal responsibility belongs to one entity: the party that got crushed.” The assumption is that the majority (or, in this case, a significant minority) are right, by virtue of their numbers.
We have to beg to differ. We are not concerned here at First Parish with what political parties should or shouldn’t do. We do not care about Democrats or Republicans or how they go about trying to win the game of politics. What we are concerned with is how we can hold the line on the principles we know to be true, regardless of who’s in office. The fact that many people voted for Donald Trump’s agenda does not make it any the less unconscionable than it was before. Were we the last congregation in the country, were this the last pulpit to hold out against that agenda, we would still be duty bound to do so.
That is why it is so important to remember now that when Dr. King spoke of loving one’s neighbor, he did not mean that one’s neighbor is always right. As King once wrote in a sermon:
It’s significant that Jesus says “love your enemy”; [and] he does not say, “Like your enemy.” […] There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. […] I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. […]And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does.”
Dr. King was no appeaser of evil, no proponent of the “wait-and-see” approach. It is well to remember here the title of one of King’s works: it was “Why We Can’t Wait.”
But I can’t quite rest there either. There is something in King to challenge every form of complacency – including my own. Having established to my satisfaction that Dr. King’s call to love one’s neighbor – even if they be your enemy – does not place him on the side of compromise and quietism, I find that his message also turns around and accuses me as well. The shade of Dr. King says that I too am taking only what goes down easily and pushing away the bitter pill. Okay then, the shade says – to love thy enemy is not to approve of what they’re doing. But it is to love them nonetheless. And do I love them? That is the stern challenge the message makes to my self-righteousness. Can I look inside myself and say that I love the supporters of Donald Trump, even as I resist the version of the future they would build in our country? If so, what does that even mean?
Of course, there are plenty of reasons apart from loving one’s enemy why one might choose to be non-violent. Some regard non-violence as simply a more effective long-term strategy for advancing their political ends. Some say we should not be violent in the here and now because God will balance the moral ledgers in the next life. The Apostle Paul actually wrote that the reason one ought to feed and care for one’s enemy is, he said because “By doing so, one pours hot coals on his head” in the world to come. There are, in short, all kinds of ways in which one might refrain from violence, but never truly renounce the hatred that is in one’s heart.
But Dr. King asked of us something far more radical than what Paul was talking about. He did not ask us merely to embrace non-violence as a strategy. He did not bid us stretch the false smiles of patient suffering in the here and now so that power would be ours in the kingdom of heaven. He asked for us to love our enemies, in this world, and to work for their good. He asked us to let go of hatred. That’s a tall order alright, but it is, I notice, one with no small degree of relevance to all of us as Unitarian Universalists. We do, after all, emerge from a universalist tradition that is so all-embracing that it insists that no one – not the even the worst of us – can ever rescind their place in the human community. Our tradition too calls us to love our enemies. Can we do it? And how? That’s the question.
And at this point, having gotten us into this conundrum, I gladly pass things over to my Dad, the Rev. Brock Leach.
Sermon Part II: Brock
So that’s an intimidating challenge!
And you know it’s also a little intimidating to do a sermon with anybody else, much less your son, because chances are you won’t see everything exactly the same way.
Now in my not-so-humble fatherly view, Josh is extraordinary for many reasons. . . . but especially because of his deeply rooted empathy for others and his inherent passion for fairness. Josh was always the kid who identified with the underdog and had the courage to stand up for her too, and he’s still that way twenty-seven years later. But of course, Josh was also a teenager once, and he and I had some— well, you might call them ‘spirited’—discussions during those years. We were trying to reconcile Josh’s new found passion for Marxism with my professional life as a fat cat food company executive. We debated, for example, whether it would be a good idea to have a 100% global tax rate and apportion all income and wealth equally to every person on the planet. You can imagine who was on which side.
Of course, part of that friction is just the natural inclination most sons have to establish their own unique adult identity and independence from their fathers—I know I definitely felt that need. I think daughters and mothers go through something similar. But the other part of it is that because we are different people with different life experiences and different vantage points on the world, we also have legitimately different perspectives on a situation.
But in the end, Josh and I came through those adolescent years better for them. I had some of my assumptions challenged in healthy ways that changed some of my beliefs and pushed me a little further to the left; and I know Josh has developed a much more nuanced view of policy options, even though he’s never once compromised his fundamental commitment to “justice, equity and compassion,” as we like to say.
Our relationship actually got stronger through that period because we felt bound together. We could stick through the hard process of hearing each other out because each of us trusted that the other had good intentions . . . even if he was misguided from time to time. We loved each other. I think that’s the kind of redemptive love that Martin Luther King was talking about—the kind that recognizes that despite our differences, we are in this together. We need each other in order to become better people. It’s the kind of love that promises we will be there for each other in the end.
I had lunch this week with a friend of mine who is a professor of political science and a former state legislator in Florida. At this particular moment in political history when our institutions and principles seem so fragile and at risk, he’s struggling to figure out what guidance to give his bright, idealistic undergraduates. As he sees it, a massive reshaping of political paradigms is underway that makes this a particularly precarious moment. It’s one in which either the appeal of strong man politics to disenfranchised people could tilt us toward fascism. Or, more hopefully, it’s a moment that could break down the duality and hierarchy of the two-party system and make way for a more pluralistic, creative and collaborative approach to solving our problems.
Thomas Friedman talked about this second path in a lecture at the Brookings Institution last month introducing his new book, Thank You for Being Late. You can watch his talk at the Brookings website, but he describes the need to slow down and pause in this hurricane of accelerating change in the economy, and climate and technology, to ask ourselves how we can might harness these larger forces to bring about the world we hope to see. These massive changes are disrupting and unsettling people all over the world, but they’re also provoking sea changes in our political order. And they’re giving people the tools and latitude to work together like never before to address their common needs at the community level.
My work at UUSC has taught me that the history of social change always begins at the community level when disaffected people realize that together they have the power to build a better future for themselves. They empower themselves and then start to build alliances with others in the same boat. And ultimately they change the larger system by showing everybody else how their interests are at stake too. Martin Luther King’s particular genius was in getting white Americans to see how their own humanity was threatened by the dehumanizing oppressions African Americans suffered every day of their lives, but the foundation of his work was decades of grassroots community organizing.
And let’s face it: right now in America, the prospects for building a better future look so much better from the bottom up than they do from the top down. Communities all over the country are taking their own steps to build a fairer economy . . . and mitigate the effects of climate change . . . and protect vulnerable people. . . without waiting around to find out what is or isn’t going to happen in Washington. And, as Friedman points out, there’s an explosion of social entrepreneurship happening, particularly among young people, all around the world who are empowered by communications and organizing technologies. They are compelled by the reality that our largest problems are urgent and affect us all. And they are a lot less interested in ideologies than making an actual difference in their own communities. I see them coming on in our own movement.
So as my professor friend and I talked, we began to think that maybe the best advice he could offer his students is two-fold:
First, to resist assaults on vulnerable people of all kinds wherever they arise and with all that they have, especially at the state and national levels where they are likely to come. But, second, to reach out across the widest possible spectrum of people in their local communities to better understand our shared human needs so we can tackle them together.
As President Obama said on Tuesday night, we need to both “uphold laws against discrimination” because “that’s what our Constitution and highest ideals require.” But we also have to recognize that laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change.”
That’s a tall order. How do we begin to answer Dr. King’s call to love our enemies? How do we do it in this hyper-polemic environment that drives us into the safe company of like-minded people?
I believe that if hearts are really to change, the dialogue has to start much deeper than party or policy. It has to get past the binary bundles of disparate ideas that have somehow come to represent Republican and Democratic ideologies. Maybe most importantly, it has to get underneath the larger simplifying narratives about the world and one another that are constantly playing in our heads.
Robert Leonard recently wrote piece in the New York Times about running into Pastor J.C. Watts, a Baptist minister and nine-term former Republican congressmen, at a Trump rally in rural Oklahoma. He quotes the pastor as saying:
“The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good,” “We are born bad,” he said and added that children did not need to be taught to behave badly — they are born knowing how to do that. “We teach them how to be good,” he said. “We become good by being reborn — born again.”
In talking about a recent shooting event, Rev. Watts says that Republicans knew that the gunman was a “bad man, doing a bad thing.” Democrats, he said, “would look for other causes — that the man was basically good, but that it was the guns, society or some other place where the blame lies and then they will want to control the guns, or something else — not the man.” “Democrats believe that we are born good, that we create God, not that he created us. If we are our own God, as the Democrats say, then we need to look at something else to blame when things go wrong — not us.”
I don’t know about you, but I felt a little tweaked by that last comment, like maybe he even knows a few Unitarian Universalists!
Whether or not you agree with it, that’s a pretty clear and sweeping narrative about how the world works that neatly underpins a whole series of other narratives about who or what in the world has agency and responsibility, and ultimately about what policies we should pursue. And narratives like this infuse all the superficial statements we make about American values with very different meanings.
Many of us here would probably start with a completely different narrative, based in science and reason—a story about how we are part of the universe and an integral part of the evolutionary forces seeking to further life itself. In our story, we human beings are critical agents of that evolution. We are capable of both bad and good, but our evolution as a social species pulls us toward solidarity. Instead of looking for somebody else to blame; we believe it’s ultimately up to us, working together, to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice. I happen to believe that’s a more accurate and useful narrative, but it so informs everything else I believe that it makes it hard for me to imagine what I could possibly have in common with Pastor Watts.
These meta-narratives are so fundamental to our mindset and our behavior because they are at heart religious. They combine our cultural understanding of how the world works, acquired over a lifetime, with all the ethical implications of it. That’s why it’s almost impossible to change someone’s heart by starting a conversation at that level. That’s also why progressive, pluralistic religions like ours have a unique role to play in getting underneath those narratives and breaking through them.
When I was in seminary, I spent a year and a half working as a resident trauma chaplain in a large safety net hospital, mostly with patients and families in crisis. I encountered all kinds of people harboring a huge range of meta-narratives. Yet at the end of life, when what really matters comes into sharper focus, I found that all those belief systems inevitably receded far into the background. Very few people wanted to talk about theology. When push comes to shove, people want to talk about the same fundamental longings we all share: We need to know that our lives have purpose; that they matter in some small way to eternity, carried on in the lives we touch along the way. We need to know that we are needed, and that we are not travelling this road alone. We need to know that we are loved and we need to shower our love on others. I’m willing to bet Pastor Watts and I could agree on that.
Maybe talking together about how to meet those needs is a better place to start reaching out. The alienation people feel today is palpable; their longing to have deeper relationships and more meaning in their lives is growing, not shrinking, and Americans of all stripes feel it. Maybe we could be the ones to reach out across all those narrative lines of party, religion, race, and class and explore what we might all do to find new meaningful work that can sustain body and soul in a world of growing automation. . . or find ways to share our unique individual gifts to the benefit of others in our community who are alone or disaffected. . . or help all our children to flourish and have the brightest possible futures. Maybe we could use those conversations to foster thousands of experiments around the country that don’t neatly fall into any partisan buckets. Maybe those could lead to policies that actually work for people on the ground in communities. Maybe we could host some of those conversations in our congregations.
When Martin Luther King encouraged us to love our enemies, he knew that it wouldn’t be easy. He knew we had to find a way to reach out to people we’re not even inclined to like, much less love. He didn’t ask us to see the world the way they do; or agree with their solutions. He simply asked us to show them we care enough to be in dialogue about the things that matter most. He says: “love has redemptive power… a power that eventually transforms individuals. . . . Just keeping loving them and by the power of your love they will break down under the load. There is something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive.”
In this precarious moment in history, we surely need to follow Dr. King’s model of non-violent resistance with all the clarity and unity we can muster. I believe we will; we Unitarian Universalists are pretty good at that. But resistance alone will not bring about the Beloved Community of Dr. King’s dreams. In order to do that we also have to challenge ourselves, in our churches and our communities to reach out and create the space to understand those whose narratives are very different from our own. Maybe this is the transformative moment– when political orders are breaking down and new opportunities are breaking open; maybe this is the time when those courageous, hard acts of love will be the redemptive balm we need to build up and create our future together.