Praying for our Enemies

A sermon by Revd Catherine Duce
Readings for this service: Isaiah 58.1-9, 1 Corinthians 2.1-12, Matthew 5.13-20

Last Sunday 20-year-old Sudesh Amman stabbed two members of the general public on the Streatham High Road. Minutes later he was shot dead by police. This attack, as with others like it, triggers the question: how as Christians should we respond to the threat of terrorism?

Sunday by Sunday we gather in this church knowing full well that any one of us could pose a threat. This is an iconic building in central London that stubbornly persists to welcome all people regardless of appearance and baggage. I want to explore our motives and our responses.

History tells us that human beings always have enemies. We organise ourselves with the enemy in mind. Our enemy is constantly shifting. From mundane social and cultural divides like a football tribe. To entrenched political divisions created by border disputes and referendums like Brexit. Then there are religious divides– the IRA, Al- Qaeda, Isis.

The latest ‘enemy’ of the state and a very real threat to the general public is posed by people who are radicalised by an ideology that seeks to kill their ‘enemy’ to get to paradise. Often but not always these are young men.

Our prisons are a breeding ground for such radicalisation. In prison, young people may be disengaged from the action they wish to carry out but they are still engaged in radicalised thought. In prison, people are still influenced by events on the world stage. Prisons are crying out for greater investment and more imaginative engagement. One of the greatest dilemmas for the state is: does it divide people up in prison – thereby risking the spread of a dangerous ideology, or does it keep people together, again risking deepened collaboration?

Our first response as Christians is to stand in solidarity with all victims – standing alongside those who have suffered and those who continue to suffer through long term grief resulting from violent attacks of any kind.

It is then, secondly, to acknowledge the humanity of all involved: It is to ask the question: Who else carries the pain of this situation? How might we attend to people’s lives and contexts, their heartaches and their grievances? And yes, I mean to the families of radicalised young people, and even the young people themselves. They too are human beings made in the image of God, however barbaric and abhorrent their acts. As Rowan Williams says “Every time we turn to another with peace in our hearts something is changed”. Disturb us oh Lord to never tire from asking the question ‘what factors are fuelling this situation to occur?’

Our third response is to pray actively for both victim and enemy – long after the media have forgotten them. To pray not in a passive way, but in an active way, praying for something – praying for the holy spirit to break down the walls that divide us – to break down all hatred and desire to kill. Praying for God’s mercy and guidance and direction in the complexity of world politics. Praying for love to caste out all anger and fear. Praying for peace-makers and hope-bearers to flourish and multiply.

Finally, ultimately, our greatest challenge is to address our own fear. Our own fear of violence, exile and death and to share generously and with courage a Christian understanding of death and resurrection.

Let’s now turn to our bible passages to further explore our Christian response.

In our old testament reading today Isaiah recognises human beings like “to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist”. Temple worshippers were not making connections between their worship and their neighbours. The lack of justice to the marginalised and oppressed (whoever they may be) is the cause of their further exile. Isaiah is proclaiming that the community’s future will be determined by its willingness to embrace justice for all people. Then God promises to be with all who turn with compassion and stand in solidarity with the poor.

Discerning a Christian response to an issue is best done as part of a group and last week I was deeply encouraged to attend the Justice and Peace Integrity and creation group which began with a community bible study on our gospel passage for today.

The context of our gospel passage is an anxious and confused Israel overrun by an occupied Roman Empire. The people of Israel had physically returned to the land of their ancestry, but the exile had continued.

Different factions of first-century Judaism had their own response in this time of anxiety. They ranged from the Sadducees wanting to collaborate with the Roman occupier. The zealots desiring to use weapons and fight the empire. Other Pharisees opted for isolationism: realising that the small Jewish nation was no match for the vast military resources of the empire. Deeper private study and practice of Torah would at least preserve cultural and religious identity as a people called and set apart by God.

Into this context of anxiety and fear, Jesus preached a sermon. Jesus rejected the violence of the Zealots: enemies were not to be hated, but to be loved, prayed for and met with astonishing generosity. Jesus critiqued the Pharisees too: ultimately, the Pharisess were assuming the fulfilment of God’s promises lay still in the future, that God’s reign had not yet begun.

Instead, Jesus “proclaimed the good news of this kingdom”. His whole message was that God’s peaceable kingdom has come near. There was nothing to fear. God was already doing a new thing. Preserving one’s identity was therefore not enough. One did not put a lamp under the bushel basket but on the lampstand and it gives light to all in the house. Israel was called to be a holy nation, a nation of priests for all people.

Today we must not live as if still in fear and exile. We must live as a resurrection people. Praying fervently for the inbreaking of the peaceable kingdom of God. As William Temple exclaimed, “It is a great mistake to suppose that God is only, or even chiefly, concerned with religion.” “The church” he said “is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of nonmembers”. How might then the church reawaken its social mission encapsulated in these words and recover a sense of welfare for all people?

Our habit of turning up to church Sunday by Sunday is a reflection of God’s faithfulness to us. This is our witness.

Despite the admiral efforts of our police and security services the threat of terrorism is here to stay. The cause may shift but we will always be living with threats of different kinds all around us. We are disciples of the crucified one and we are called to love our enemies. We are commanded to make an enemy not of any human being, but an enemy of injustice, an enemy of violence and an enemy of self-righteousness of every kind.