April 21, 2023

I’m not a big hockey fan. I’ve always thought that hockey seems like an excuse for grown men to get into fistfights.  There’s the great old Rodney Dangerfield line: “I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out.”  At any rate, the one thing that impresses me is the NHL tradition of both teams lining up on the ice after the game and shaking each other’s hands.  I thought that would be a good idea for all professional sports teams.  It would be a great example, I think, for the drunken lunkheads who start street riots after championship games.

There are very few of us died-in-the-wool Red Sox fans who don’t hate the New York Yankees and everything they stand for.  But I’m starting to wonder: is the whole rabid rivalry thing in sports just another outlet for a need that dwells deeply in the human breast – the need to have an enemy?

This was all going through my head as I reread this icon of our tradition, the 23rd Psalm.  And this line practically jumped off the page at me, “[the Lord] prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”  The first thing I began to mull over is: What is an enemy?  That may seem like a silly question, but I’m not so sure it is.  I wonder if we ever think very deeply about what we mean when we refer to someone as an enemy.  The best I could come up with is that an enemy is someone who is trying to win at the expense of my losing in a zero-sum game, or, to put it succinctly, someone who hurts me or threatens to hurt me.  So, it all comes down to this: the existence of an enemy is predicated on my desire to not be hurt.  So an enemy is not an objective reality in the world beyond me, it is an extension of my own hurts, desires, needs, and fears.  In short, the enemy does not live “out there,” it lives “in here.” I love the old “Pogo” comic strip, particularly the episode where Pogo and his crew are on the way back from a campaign in the swamp with cooking pots on their heads for helmets, and I think it was Albert the Alligator who said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

All of which seems like a good basis for looking at this line from the 23rd Psalm.  What might it mean that the Lord “prepares a table” for me “in the presence of my enemies?”  Can you take a moment and try to get that picture into your head?  You are surrounded by your enemies, and, what do you do?  You sit down to eat.  That is a stunning image, and it speaks volumes.  First, it says that you are, in the face of an imminent threat, making yourself vulnerable.  There is perhaps no more vulnerable position you can get into than sitting down to eat – particularly in the ancient Near East, where the tradition was to sit on the floor either with legs crossed, or reclining against a cushion.  It is the ultimate expression of pacifism.  It says to those who may be regarded as your enemies that you are not prepared to fight.  In fact, you are prepared to suffer the consequences of their attacks rather than fight.  Now, I have struggled through most of my adult life with pacifism.  Most of you know I am a former police officer.  I carried a .357 magnum and a nightstick and was prepared to use either of them, and did.  But I have also always wrestled with the teachings of Martin Luther King and Gandhi.  I believe their insistence on non-violent non-cooperation with evil reflects the kind of soaring humanity to which we are all called.  Before my police years, as a younger man – it was, as I recall, 1966 – I was on my way home from a basketball game one night in the Chicago suburb where we lived.  I was walking toward a bus stop when I found myself surrounded by a gang of young black men.  With no provocation I suddenly felt a ringing knock to my head.  One of these guys had hauled off and hit me in the head.  He kept beating on me.  I had been hearing those words of Dr. King, and they had resonated with my Christian upbringing, so I just kept saying to these guys, “I’m not going to fight you, man.”  To this day, I don’t entirely know how much of my refusal to fight was noble, non-violent resistance, and how much of it was just fear of getting killed.  Needless to say, I got beat up pretty badly that night.  But the incident has stayed with me.  It has been a kind of experiential keel around which I teeter and yaw back and forth between belief in non-violence and a commitment to self-defense, and the defense of others.  All of which is to say that I’m no pacifist, but this image of sitting down at a table to eat surrounded by one’s enemies captivates me, and makes me think there is something yet more wonderful that I and you are being called to here.

Secondly, the one who sits down to eat when his enemies are upon him is making a profound statement about the nature of enemies.  Sitting to eat is perhaps the most common, routine thing that any of us do.  We do it three times a day, generally speaking. And we do it unceremoniously and almost unthinkingly.  To take a seat and eat when supposed enemies are upon me is to virtually deny their existence; it is to say, in effect, I have no enemies.  It is to acknowledge what I was suggesting earlier, that enemies exist within, not without, and are therefore only a product of our minds.  If I choose not to be threatened, I have no enemies.  So, what’s for dinner?  I’d love to be that grown up.  I’d love to be so unattached to my possessions that I didn’t fear losing them, so secure in my life that I didn’t fear losing it, so evolved that I was beyond playing zero-sum games, and was therefore beyond allowing any enemies to be generated in my mind.  I sincerely doubt that I’ll ever get there, but I’d like to think that, reflecting again on Dr. King’s words, as a people we’ll get there, someday.

And finally, I think sitting down at table in the presence of enemies is a staggering invitation.  I think it says to those presumed to be enemies, “join me.”  Breaking bread together is one of the most intimate things we do in human relationship.  That intimacy is reflected here when we gather around the table once a month.  Something wondrously loving passes between us as we take the bread and the cup.  We find ourselves on the most level of grounds.  We share an experience that is rich in empathy.  We know, in the breaking of the bread, that we are all full of goodness; we are all tainted with evil; we are all worthy, and all in need of grace and forgiveness.  It’s at the table, when the food is offered and the shared meal begins, that barriers are broken down and we see one another as true sisters and brothers.

I wasn’t eating at the time, but I had an experience of this kind of dawning empathy that nearly knocked me over when I read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns.  It’s the story of the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to the North and West during the course of the twentieth century in America.  It follows the true life stories of three black migrants over the course of several decades.  One of them, a man named George Starling who took a job as a coach attendant on the trains that ran up and down the East Coast, was reading the newspaper one day and reflecting on all the abuse and beating and murder of blacks he had witnessed growing up in the south.  He was reading about, “Hosing and police dogs and people watching it as if it were a made-for-TV movie and the blacks just had to take it like they had for generations.

“‘I had the paper in front of my face,’ he said, ‘And I got so mad.  I dropped the paper down, And when I dropped the paper, I’m looking right in a white man’s face just sitting across from me.  I had never seen the man before, didn’t know him from Adam, but he was white.  And the hatred just surged up in me after looking at this thing in the paper.  I just wanted to hurt somebody white.  And I had to just really restrain myself to keep from just getting up.’”1

I was sitting in my living room as I read this in Wilkerson’s book.  And at that point I set the book down and rubbed my face, and stared off across the room for a long while.  I felt as if I were privy to the inner thoughts of that young black man who had beaten me in the head that night so long ago on the north side of Chicago.  And as I weighed all this in my mind, it struck me that I was beaten up right around the same time that Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a protest in Cicero, on the southwest side of Chicago, and a white mob had attacked him and his marchers.  Someone threw a rock at King’s head and he bled from the wound.  I found myself almost breathless as I, for the first time in all those decades, stepped for one brief moment inside the head of my attacker.

Kierkegaard asked, “But what, then, is love?”  And he answers himself, “Love is to presuppose love; to have love is to presuppose love in others; to be loving is to presuppose that others are loving.”2  That sounds like so much pie-in-the-sky, mush-headed, idealism.  But there is something deep within our souls, and stirring around beneath the lines of this treasured ancient psalm that tells us there is truth to be mined here.  Perhaps our greatest challenge is to learn enough about love that we are finally able to know the hurt within the one who wishes to hurt us.

But there’s more.  In the final analysis, as Christians – those who profess Christ – we have a further slant on this ancient psalm and its picture of eating in the presence of enemies.  It was summed up beautifully by Gordon Marino commenting on those words of Kierkegaard.  He wrote, “Kierkegaard counsels that I can love those who have wronged me because that is precisely what Jesus commands me to do. Loving my enemies is not an option, but a requirement.”3

Well, I doubt that I’ll stop being a rabid Red sox fan, or stop hating the Yankees.  But, who knows, if I grew up a bit more, maybe I could even admit that some Yankees might be nice guys after all.  But seriously, folks, here’s the skinny: if you can muster the courage, the next time someone wrongs you, maybe the best response is, “What’s for dinner?”

1 Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, Random House Vintage Books, 2010, pp 379-380.

2 Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, Harper Classics, 2009.

3 Gordon D. Marino, “Leap of Love,” The Christian Century, July 17, 2002

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