Love Your Enemies
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday, February 24th, 2019
At my interview to be the Chaplain to the Episcopal Center at Duke University, back in 2008, after all sorts of pedestrian questions, I was asked the high-stakes one. “So”, I was asked, “what’s your favorite sport?” I knew I had to think fast. This was a potential minefield. And let’s not forget that as well as representatives of Duke, I had the Chaplain to UNC Chapel Hill on the panel.
I decided to play the amusing British card: “What’s my favorite sport? Cricket. I mean, this is a sport where it is mandated in the rules that you have to break for tea. What’s not to like”.
I was praised on my witty and tactful answer, and I must have done OK on the rest of the questions, since they offered me the job.
And so it was that I became part of the religious life staff at Duke. Now, for those of you who know that university, you will know that it takes religion very seriously. Its motto is ‘Religio et Eruditio”. “Religion and Erudition”. But make no mistake. It may have been founded as a Methodist school, but its official religion has for many years been basketball. Even the Cameron Indoor Stadium looks like a church, with gothic windows and little turrets. And the faithful gather there each week in much larger and more enthusiastic numbers than ever come to the huge gothic pile that is Duke University Chapel.
There, in Cameron Stadium, the faithful take part in rituals, closely and carefully observed. They don special clothing, they sing special worship songs and they look up to their spiritual leader with the greatest of reverence. Coach K imposes discipline upon his apostles of the basketball court, expecting them to follow his teachings, and promising them great fullness in the life to come, otherwise known as the NBA draft.
Now, I don’t want to wring every ounce of comparison out of this metaphor, but it does invite me to say that the disciples of the Duke Blue Devils had, like we Christians, placed their faith in Zion.
Specifically, Duke had placed its faith in Zion Williamson, who some suggest is the greatest player at Duke in a generation. And this wasn’t just any old game. This was a Duke-Chapel Hill game. The most sacred of the high holy days. They had placed their faith in Zion, and he had placed his faith in his basketball shoes, and even though they were made by one of the finest religious vestment houses, Nike, the shoes let him down. His left shoe split, he sprained his knee, Duke lost the game and Nike stocks tumbled.
And, to be quite honest with you, I really couldn’t care less. It’s a game. So what if Carolina won the game? These things happen. This was not, however, the kind of sentiment one shared at Duke. But, I’ll be perfectly honest with you, I had a real problem with the whole Duke/Carolina thing from the get-go. Some people might have framed it as harmless banter, but to me it was more problematic. The official slogan at Duke on the Duke/Carolina game days is this: “GTHC”. “Go To Hell, Carolina”. And I know that whilst most people, if they really thought about it, would not actually advocate consigning the members of an entire university to the everlasting annihilating torment of damnation, this kind of thing is insidious, isn’t it? It seems harmless enough at one level. But what if this kind of thing was what has got us into the atrocious mess this country is in right now?
You might not think that this country is in an atrocious mess. After all, it’s been in more atrocious messes than this before. But I would contend that there is a common thread which runs through all of it – and it’s just the same in my home country as well. Tribalism.
What troubles me is that what that what tribalism fosters is an innate tendency for us to feel like we always need someone to hate, even if it seems like a harmless totem.
Perhaps one of the reasons I am a little ambivalent about sports is because when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, English football (or as I believe it is known here, soccer) was the context of unbelievably vicious tribal violence. Going to a football match was, in many circumstances at that time, a hugely dangerous occupation. Then, and even now, although things are a lot better, if I were to walk into certain neighborhoods of one of my former home cities, Newcastle, and happen to be wearing a red and white scarf instead of a black and white scarf, I could quite literally end up dead.
It’s a good job that this kind of vicious sectarianism has no place in religion, though. Oh, actually, wait a minute….
Let’s not forget that throughout my entire childhood, just a few hundred miles away from where I was living, a full-scale civil war was being waged in Northern Ireland in which people with one set of ideas about the Christian faith would be perfectly content to mutilate, maim and murder their neighbors because they had a very slightly different set of ideas about the Christian faith.
This is why we have to be so careful about tribalism because, far from just being a pragmatic way of sharing cultural and geographical identities, tribalism is causing a lot of suffering in this world at this time, including having brought this country to where it is right now, in the middle of one of the most divided, vindictive and mean-spirited times in its history.
Tribalism is not the preserve of either the left or the right. Both right and left are just as tribal as each other, and both are just as insidious and corrosive as the other. Right and left require a bogeyman on which to blame the ills of society. For some the bogeyman is immigrants. For others it is capitalism. And if you’re on one side our world encourages you – driven to a frenzy by self-selecting cable TV and social media – to vilify the other tribes. There is very little room left for reasonableness. Very little room for the urban left-wing to acknowledge that there are essentially good people who voted for Trump, and very little room for the rural right-wing to acknowledge that Hillary Clinton had some excellent qualities and experience. Instead, our tribes demand that we denounce anything uttered by someone who watches ‘Fox & Friends’ or someone who revels in the schadenfreude and mocking putdowns of Saturday Night Live and MSNBC.
Jesus was extremely unambiguous in today’s gospel reading. To those who say they are loving, he counters by asking, “Well, are you only loving to those who are in your tribe? Are you only loving to those who you naturally gravitate to? Are you only loving to those you like?” This could not be more on-point, could not be more topical and relevant, could it? “Big deal”, says Jesus, “you love those who are like you. But anyone can do that. How about loving those who are not like you?”
Learning to love others who appear to be very different from us is not easy, and it is not something which happens quickly. But, this week, make an honest, concerted, intentional effort to do so. Deliberately watch the cable news of the other tribe, and identify three things in what you see and hear that are fundamentally humane and good. Deliberately engage in conversation someone you know to be of a very different political tribe from you, and ask them how we can make this country a better place, and why they answered the way they did, and don’t interrupt them or disagree with them, but simply thank them because you are trying to live in a more reasonable, forgiving, loving way.
I don’t know if you will actually do this, of course. But I promise you this: nothing in this country will change until we make a start on it.