20 February – Love your unfriends

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Epiphany 7

Psalm 37
Luke 6:27-38

In a sentence:
The command to love knows no bounds, and is to be part of everything that we do

Take a few moments to reflect upon who your enemies are.

Perhaps this is a confronting task. We are strongly conditioned today towards keeping the peace through broad tolerance. Having enemies is perceived to be wrong – so wrong, perhaps, that we are inclined towards thinking we don’t have enemies, only people we can learn to tolerate under certain circumstances.

Yet let us consider: are there places you cannot go because of who is there, or who might be? Perhaps a part of town, or a country, where we would expect to be unwelcome, or perhaps certain streets after dark, or the gatherings you can scarcely abide but must attend and yet cannot speak your mind.

“Enemy” might seem too strong a word for characterising at least some of those we might encounter in those spaces. But it’s worth keeping in mind the etymology – the word sources – behind our word “enemy”. The English word is comprised of two constituent Latin words. The second is the most interesting: the ‘-emy’ at the end of the word comes from “amicus” – friend (amicable, amiable, amigo, French “ami” – friend/ly, etc.). The first part of our English word – the “en-“  – is just a negation. An enemy is, literally, an “unfriend” (the Greek word in our gospel reading today – echthros – similarly goes back to meanings of “stranger” and externality). This broadens greatly our sense of what “enemy” might mean: not merely those who passionately oppose us but those we don’t want much to do with.

It is not such a long bow to draw, when we equate enemies and unfriends. The social media platform Facebook calls adding people to your network an adding of “friends”; to remove someone from your network is to “unfriend” them. This is very often taken with great offence by the one excluded in this way. To unfriend can often be to make an enemy.

But the presence of enemies in our world is reflected more deeply than in word origins and social media spats. Our perception of the omnipresence of enemies is reflected in our story-telling, something very close to the heart of our being as social creatures. The stories we tell are almost universally structured by “agonism” – by conflict. The protagonist – typically the hero or heroine – is opposed by the antagonist: Churchill vs. Hitler; Dr Who vs. the Daleks; Harry vs. Voldemort; Little Red Riding Hood vs. the Wolf; Jesus vs. – well, how we complete this last one would reveal a lot about where we think enmity finally resides in the world – for another time, perhaps!

Some have wondered whether this experience of the world and our telling stories to inform that experience needs to be changed. This is because the fact of unfriends easily morphs into the need for unfriends. We can begin to define ourselves over against our unfriends. And our world shrinks a bit with every unfriend. With each unfriend we identify there is another place we cannot safely go, another thing we cannot learn, more love we cannot receive. However, the losses we incur in “enem‑ising” others often seem to be offset by gains. Enemies can be convenient. We can cast enemies as the source of all that is wrong in our experience. In this, we can transfer what might be wrong in us to another. It is easier that she might be “a piece of work” than that I might be.

This is all very general, of course, and in any particular instance there might be at play things over which we have little control. But recognising the general dynamics of life with unfriends might help us a little towards acting on the confronting imperative of Jesus: love your enemies, do good to those, who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Let’s see whether we can bring this closer to home by considering what it might mean for our life together as a congregation and the decisions we have to make about our future. Most of us met last week to look at some basic scenarios for that future, including obtaining a new place of our own (even if only on long-term lease), co-habiting with someone else and amalgamating. Very roughly, only a few of those 25 or so people present preferred amalgamation over the two remain-as-MtE options, and only about a third could “live with” amalgamation as a prospect. The two stay-as-MtE options each gathered about half the group as a first-preference and about 80 per cent of us as a “could live with” continuing as MtE in our own or a shared space.

At first blush, I took from this that our thinking prioritised retaining our identity as a congregation. It looks like an affirmation of what MtE is and stands for in itself. By extension, however, amalgamation looks like the loss of what is signified and made possible by a continuing of MtE.

There are various reasons why we might say not to amalgamation – some better than others – but let us consider some which have been articulated.

We wonder whether the congregations we might join value what we value. Will we still be able to have a weekly Eucharist? A liturgy like the one we still have? Where there are differences, we wonder whether other congregations can become more like us so that we need not become too much like them.

Implicitly, perhaps, we take the answer to these questions to be, No. We have not yet tested this, of course. But as the Church Council considers what it has heard from everyone, and the resources we have, and our freedoms and responsibilities, it must also consider the motivations behind our expressed preferences. In this case, is amalgamation per se the problem, or who we might amalgamate with? We need to be sure we know why not if we choose not to go this way.

In making these observations I’m not proposing that amalgamation is our best option. It’s just that, while we did a good job last week of hearing Where people are “at”, we didn’t do so well at testing and teasing-out and understanding more deeply the Why. In this case, why do so few of us find amalgamation unattractive, given the many clear benefits it could have? Regarding the perceived differences between ourselves and others we might say – humbly – that we are too difficult for others to get along with, so it’s not going to be worth trying. Less humbly, we might mean that, given they are impervious to the truth, we don’t want to have to give up what matters to find a way to get along with them.

Or is it that amalgamating would be admission of defeat? Or do the anticipated conversations seem too difficult? Do we fear getting lost in such a change? Of course, more positively, we might think that there really needs to be a Uniting Church in North Melbourne(-ish). But we haven’t quite said that.

Again, I’m not proposing (yet!) that we amalgamate. I am simply wondering what the relationship is between our future as a congregation and Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies. We might not consider other congregations enemies, but perhaps they are not quite friends either and, in some sense, are unfriends. When Jesus says love your enemies, it’s almost easy to agree with him that it is a good idea – easy because our enemies are often a long way away. Or, to take him literally, no one really hates us, curses or abuses us. But “love your unfriends” – this is hard, because unfriends are everywhere, even very close, and are not quite nasty enough that Jesus might have meant that we should love them.

What then, shall we do? There is no final answer yet, but we might still need to put some questions to the answers – the assumptions – we think we already have.

In view of what Jesus says today and our place in the Uniting Church, we might at the very least say that the imperative to love our enemies ought to part of the rationale for all that we do, not least what we plan to become as a congregation.

“Love your enemies”, Jesus says, “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful…Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven…give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”