Last fall, in the midst of the divisive U.S. election, Peter Reitsma felt hate rising up all around. “I wanted to do something to show churches how to engage in subversive resistance to that,” said the Milton, Ontario artist. Reitsma decided to organize a conference to coincide with the presidential inauguration. Faith & the Politics of Enemy-Love was hosted by Meadowvale Community Christian Reformed Church, in Mississauga, Ontario earlier this month.
Describing the world as “a powder keg” that feels “more afraid and fragile” than it ever has, British musician and activist David Blower said that he believes the Jonah story and its radical lesson of “enemy-love” has something to say into this moment of history.
Jonah in modern-day Iraq
Blower’s powerful one-man musical, Sympathy for Jonah, retells the story of “the Bible’s most miserable prophet.” Blower explains, “It developed out of a thought experiment in which I imagined a divine voice telling me to go to Mosul (modern-day Nineveh) to argue with ISIS about their political project.” Like Jonah, Blower would also have refused. “I’d say, ‘No way.’ I don’t want to die a horrible death.”
The original hearers of the Jonah story would immediately have understood why the prophet ran in the opposite direction when God commanded him to go to Nineveh. It was from Nineveh that the Neo-Assyrian empire terrorized peoples into submission with mass beheadings, live skinnings and other unspeakable horrors.
And yet, Blower points out, the book of Jonah records God’s deep compassion for this same empire, ultimately sparing it the from the destruction Jonah was sent to prophesy. The story ends with God and Jonah in disagreement. “God’s terrifying grace makes it almost impossible to come to terms with this God,” he said.
U of T Campus Chaplain (left) in conversation with Peter Niemeyer.
Image of God in the ‘terrible other’
Blower asked conference participants to identify where they experienced hate and division. Some named Donald Trump. One woman identified her anger at the continuing mistreatment of aboriginal peoples. Someone else named his judgement of Christians on the far right. “How do I deal with that?” he asked. Susie Niemeyer observed, “The worst kind of enemy is the kind you love.”
Distinguishing between “enemies” and “enmity,” Blower noted that we can have enmity with those we love. “If we stand for anything, enmity will happen,” he said. If enmity is inevitable, what are we to do?
While tolerance is about self-righteously allowing “the other” to enter our space, Blower believes that Jonah models something else. He said, “We’re given the call to risk going and putting ourselves into the space of the ‘terrible other,’ to be subject to their hospitality, and to create a new political space.”
In Jonah’s case, the prophet went to the gate of the city to be vetted, then wandered the streets looking for a place to stand where he could say a few things “in his bad Hebrew accent,” at which point he assumed he would come to a horrible end at the hand of the Ninevites. But, to Jonah’s surprise, after his announcement of Nineveh’s impending demise, nothing happened to him.
“In contrast to when we post opinions online or [send them via] email, the enemy is disarmed by our bodily presence and vulnerability when we step into the space of the ‘terrible other’ in search of the image of God in them,” said Blower.
Blower suggested choosing our enemies carefully because of the very real danger of becoming like them. “We need to avoid mimetically copying the hatefulness of Trump. Our goal is not to destroy the enemy, but to destroy enmity.”
Law of love trumps all other law
University of Toronto campus chaplain Brian Walsh offered a targum titled Romans 12 and 13: A Post-inaugural Targum. Historically, Rabbis wrote targums in which they translated a passage of scripture, bringing the language up to date, interpreting it and expanding on it to discern its meaning anew “for that day and that synagogue.”
Walsh asked, “What would Paul say if he were writing to us, post the inauguration of Trump, in the shadow of a dangerous shift to nationalism, identity politics, racism and xenophobia?”
He noted that not only does Romans 12 end with enemy-love, but that Paul continues on the theme in chapter 13, a scripture passage which Walsh believes has often been wrongly interpreted as a state-affirming, politically quietist teaching. Should we always affirm the authority of the state? Walsh believes not.
“There’s another law that trumps all laws.” All laws are judged by the law of love, including those in Romans 13. Reading from the targum Walsh said:
“Not only do we need to relativize all authority,
subjecting it to the God of Jesus the Messiah,
so also do we need to relativize all law,
all judicial rulings,
all executive orders,
by subjecting all law to the law of love.”
Using an example of how ordinary Dutch citizens obeyed the law of love by hiding Jews in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, Walsh said that civil disobedience is legitimate when the law of the state contravenes the law of love. Nazi law said the Jews were unworthy. “If asked by the Nazis, ‘Are there Jews hiding here?’ the answer was, ‘There are no Jews here,’ because the Nazis were bearing false witness with regard to the Jews.”
Small group discussion.
Wendy Gritter, executive director of Generous Space Ministries, addressed the challenge of being with others with whom we disagree and “whose tone sets our teeth on edge,” particularly around the issue of those who identify as LGBTQ and their place in the church. Gritter believes we need to bring people who disagree together and called for perforating the boundaries of the Christian community.
“In Generous Space we cultivate a non-defensive stance and work to create safe spaces so it’s possible to talk with our siblings in Christ – including those we disagree with. There we encourage each other to do the work of loving the one who is different from us and finding the image of God in them.”
The challenge of enemy-love
John Terpstra spoke to the day’s theme with poetry. In Disarmament, the Hamilton, Ontario poet articulated the impossibility of avoiding enemy encounters in this world and the challenge that practising enemy-love poses. “Plight,” written as Terpstra watched the Syrian refugee crisis unfold, invited listeners to allow themselves to “feel overwhelmed” by the other and to enter their space by asking “to learn their lost songs of home.” (“Plight” is printed on page 13 of this issue.)
Ken Dryfhout, a conference organizer, summed up by saying that while there were no easy answers to the questions raised, “We need to be willing to respond with love so we can shine something different than the headlines of hate and division.”
Blower believes that we were given Jonah so we could stand with him and be shocked by God’s mercy on tyrants and ask ourselves, “To whom do we need to go to find the image of God?” For this we don’t need to go to Iraq. As Gritter observed, none of us is lacking a practise field.