Friday at 3:30 AM I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. As usual, I turned on my radio set on an NPR station to listen to BBC. There would be no more sleep that night as the events in Watertown, Massachusetts began to unfold. From that moment until Friday night when a bloody 19-year-old boy emerged from a boat, my heart and soul became more and more disturbed. As the news of the death and mayhem he and his brother inflicted on others got worse and worse, I was horrified. And then as details came out about his life, I could only think of what these events must be like for his mother and sister and friends . . . all of whom saw another side of him. When I learned he had been wounded and had been hiding alone for hours in a boat, the tension between horror and compassion became more and more difficult to bear.
This afternoon I sat down to read a bit of Benediction, a new novel by Kent Haruf (author of Plainsong and Eventide). I didn’t get up until I turned the last page. Little had I known what a measure of wisdom I would find in this wonderful novel of the travails of families and the bonds of love that are formed in their most difficult times.
One of the characters is a minister who gives a sermon on the Beatitudes that no one wants to hear. I suspect that few people want to hear it today either; but it gives me hope. Here is a portion of it:
“The most important of these Bible texts [the Beatitudes] say essentially the same thing. [They are] the crux of the matter for us. The soul of our lesson and the very essence of the teaching of Jesus. Love your enemies Pray for those who harm you. Turn the other cheek. Give away money and don’t expect it back.
But what is Jesus Christ talking about? He can’t mean this literally. That would be impossible. He must have been speaking of some utopian life, a fantasy. He must be using a metaphor. Suggesting a sweet dream. Because all of us here today know better. We’re awake to reality and know the world wouldn’t permit such a thing. It never has and never will. We can be clear about that right now. . . .
We know the satisfaction of hate. We know the sweet joy of revenge. How it feels good to get even. Oh, that was a nice idea Jesus had. That was a pretty notion, but you can’t love people who do evil. It’s neither sensible nor practical. It’s not wise to the world to love people who do such terrible wrong. There is no way on earth we can love our enemies. They’ll only do wickedness and hatefulness again. And worse, they’ll think they can get away with this wickedness and evil, because they’ll think we’re weak and afraid. What would the world come to?
But I want to say to you here on this hot July morning in Holt, what if Jesus wasn’t kidding? What if he wasn’t talking about some never-never land? What if he really did mean what he said two thousand years ago? What if he was thoroughly wise to the world and knew firsthand cruelty and wickedness and evil and hate. Knew it all so well firsthand from personal experience? And what if in spite of all that he knew he still said love your enemies? Turn your cheek. Pray for those who misuse you. What if he meant every word of what he said? What then would the world come to?
. . . . what if we say, . . . no matter what has gone before, no matter what you’ve done: We are going to love you. We have set our hearts to it. We will treat you like brothers and sisters. We are going to turn our collective national check and present it to be stricken a second time, if need be, and offer it to you. Listen, we –
But then he was abruptly halted. Someone in the congregation was talking. Are you crazy? You must be insane! A man’s voice. Deep-throated. Angry. Loud. Coming from over on the west side of the sanctuary near the windows. What’s wrong with you? Are you out of your mind? [Another man said] You’re a damn terrorist sympathizer. He rose up in the middle of the sanctuary, holding on to the pew-back in front of him. A big heavy-set man. We never should of let you come out here. You’re an enemy to our country” (pp. 141-142).
The minister was run out of town. I suspect Jesus would have been, too. I hope that if I am called to speak, I will be ready to follow their example.