Friday, September 30, 2016

Mercy – Love your enemies 2: more C. S. Lewis & some Charles Williams

The most radical and distinctive thing Jesus demanded of his followers was that they love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48Luke 6:35-36). There is nothing sentimental about that. Jesus and the people he was talking to had real enemies. Their country had been invaded and was occupied by oppressive foreignersthe Romans. Jesus and his followers also had enemies among their own people who ultimately would collaborate with the Romans to have him tortured and killed, a fate many of his disciples eventually shared. It is a hard teaching.  But, the extent to which we practice it determines the extent to which we are faithful to the radical, demanding mercy of Jesus

Two weeks ago, I shared a couple of quotes from C. S. Lewis in which he explained some of what that looks like in practice. Here is another quote from Lewis from a letter he wrote to his brother, September 10, 1939 at the beginning of World War 2:

In the Litany this morning we had some extra petitions, one of which was, ‘Prosper, oh Lord, our righteous cause’. Assuming that it was the work of the bishop or someone higher up, when I met Bleiben [the vicar] in the porch, I ventured to protest against the audacity of informing God that our cause was righteous – a point on which he has his own views . . . I hope it is quite like ours, of course, but one never knows with him.

And here is something from Lewis' friend, Charles Williams, also written in the midst of WW 2 (1942):

The conversion, where it is demanded, of the wild justice of revenge to the civil justice of the Divine City is the precise operation of the Holy Spirit towards Christ. All we need to do is attend to the goodwill, to the civility; the justice (in the personal relation) can be left to Christ. ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, sayeth the Lord.’ It is perhaps desirable to notice that the repayment is not limited to our enemy. We shall be unfortunate if we forget the trespasses, the debts, which our enemies desire to repay with their wild justice and are content to leave to his promise. It is important that we should be ready to forgive the Germans; it is not unimportant to recognize that many Germans (including Herr Hitler? Possibly; we do not very well know) may feel that they have much to forgive us. Many reconciliations have unfortunately broken down because both parties have come prepared to forgive but unprepared to be forgiven. Instruction is as badly needed in this as in many other less vital things; that holy light which we call humility has an exact power of illumination all its own. – The Forgiveness of Sins, p. 113

A couple of things strike me in the above quotes. Both Lewis and Williams refuse to get caught up in nationalistic rhetoric that assumes that “God is with us” or that their country is particularly blessed by God. Even in the midst of war, they were compelled by their Christian convictions to accept the possibility that their nation could be wrong and that their enemies might well have grievances of their own. If that is the faithful Christian attitude in the midst of war – and I believe it is – how much more so in times of (relative) peace? It raises questions about the ease with which Americans blend God-talk and patriotism in ways that smack of syncretism. It raises questions about the rhetoric of American exceptionalism.

I am also struck with the fundamental humility expressed by Lewis and Williams. Both demonstrate an admirable reticence to claim to know overmuch about God's mind or to assume their side is necessarily God's. Both recognize that all humans are fundamentally bound to one another in a relational web and all humans are caught in the sin that infects that web. We should thus be wary of presuming our own innocence or consigning only blame to others – both are awe-full things to contemplate if we recognize that we are all live under the awesome gaze of God's love and judgment.

Neither Lewis nor Williams would advocate anything like a posture of moral equivalency or neutrality. Neither was a pacifist. But, what both do seem to advocate is a deep humility and reticence to assume their enemies and opponents are completely wrong and their side simply in the right. And I find that refreshing.

If all this could be said in the midst of WW 2 where the right and wrong seemed so clear, might such things be said in other contexts? In the secular setting, if we adopted Lewis' and Williams' attitude would we engage our political opponents differently? What about in work, school, family, or other personal contexts? Are we willing to acknowledge that those who irritate or frustrate us might have as much or more cause for grievance against us?

For our enemies and those who wish us harm, and for all whom we have injured or offended, we pray to you, O Lord.  Lord, have mercy.

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