Just Announced: Philippians Sermon Series

Summary: To the rabbi who wrote "The Virtue of Hate," we must respond that the real Enemy is not Osama bin Laden, and the real Victor is Christ, who bade us to forgive and pray for our human enemies.

November 15, 2009

33rd Sunday in Course

The great division. The end. The separation of sheep from goats, of good from evil, of winners from losers. That is the day we anticipate, not just on the 33rd Sunday in Course, but every Sunday, and indeed every day of our lives. If we don’t arise each day and pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” or if we don’t fall asleep asking for forgiveness for our sins and union with God forever, we are missing the whole point of our existence. We are made in love by God for the last day of our earthly lives, for that great final examination day, when “some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.”

But, in the meantime, as we await the “sweet, sweet bye-and-bye,” we must cope with the “nitty-gritty now-and-now.” That means somehow living in a world where a Bernie Madoff might steal all your assets, a trusted physician could open fire on you or those you love, or you might open an envelope and find you’ve been sued. There is an undercurrent of nastiness in this world, a culture of envy, pride, revenge, lust and greed, and people dedicated, it seems, to murder and treachery. So as we await that last great day where Jesus Christ will triumph, what do we do with our enemies?

Six years ago, the Jewish rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik published an article in First Things entitled “The Virtue of Hate.” With a title like that, you can be assured that it got my attention, and that of many other theologians, journalists, and pastors. In it, he tells the story of how concentration camp survivor Simon Wiesenthal was “brought to the bedside of a dying Nazi. The German delineates the gruesome details of his career, describing how he participated in the murder and torture of hundreds of Jews. Exhibiting, or perhaps feigning, regret and remorse, he explains that he sought a Jew—any Jew—to whom to confess, and from whom to beseech forgiveness. Wiesenthal silently contemplates the wretched creature lying before him, and then, unable to comply but unable to condemn, walks out of the room. Tortured by his experience, wondering whether he did the right thing, Wiesenthal submitted this story as the subject of a symposium, including respondents of every religious stripe. The respective replies of Christians and Jews revealed a great divide. All the Jewish participants who had an opinion thought Wiesenthal did the right thing. All the Christian participants thought it was wrong–that he should have forgiven.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu cited the crucifixion as his inspiration. Tutu, daily living in the shadow of apartheid, said that the newly empowered South African blacks readily forgave their white persecutors, because they followed “the Jewish rabbi who, when he was crucified, said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” If we look only to retributive justice, said Tutu, “then we could just as well close up shop. Forgiveness is not some nebulous thing. It is practical politics. Without forgiveness, there is no future.”

Soloveichik is having none of that. He cites the response of Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick, “reflecting on how Wiesenthal, in a moment of mercy, brushed a fly away from the Nazi’s broken body, and concludes her essay in [a] blunt but poetic manner:

Let the SS man die unshriven.

Let him go to hell.

Sooner the fly to God than he.”

In his essay, Soloveichik argues persuasively that some crimes are so evil, some injustices so fundamentally wrong, that it is evil to forgive them. He contrasts the Jewish and Catholic notions of redemption. Of course, we believe that God loved the world so much that He became human, lived and died and rose again so that we might all participate in that redemption. Rejecting that notion, he writes, “Jews deny that there ever was a ‘divine labor’ to redeem the world; rather, God gave humanity the means for its own redemption, and its members will be judged by the choices they make. Christians may maintain that no human being is unloved by the God who died on his or her behalf, but Jews insist that while no human being is denied the chance to become worthy of God’s love, not every human being engages in actions so as to be worthy of that love, and those unworthy of divine love do not deserve our love either.” He says that a Saddam, a Hitler, a Yasser Arafat, deserve no mercy, no forgiveness.

Doesn’t the author of the Letter to the Hebrews give a glimpse of that vengeance, when he writes of Jesus, the triumphant Christ, making His enemies His footstool? Is there not some pleasure to be taken in the snapshot Daniel gives us of the evildoers, the mass murderers, the pornographers, the abortionists, the serial adulterers being an “everlasting horror and disgrace”?

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