In these days when facts are untrue and laws are unjust, these words from Romans 13 are exactly what we need. They are a reminder of how basic our faith is: just love. Hold onto love, share love, with each other, with yourself, with God. Love is the fulfillment of the law. If only everyone would just follow these simple instructions – just love.
We also have these very specific instructions from Matthew 18 on how to deal with conflict. This lets us know that even in the early church, it wasn’t all love and lilies. They may have loved Jesus but not everyone was showing love to each other in the community. There must have been some kind of problem or why would these instructions for dealing with conflict even be included in Matthew’s gospel? The other gospels don’t include this step by step process.
We have no indication what the conflict was about, and little information about who was being wronged, unless you start unpacking the parable about forgiveness in the next verses. There might be some clues there; I will leave that for one of you to examine. Whatever the issues, this method for handling difficulties in the community seems to have developed and it must have worked, at least sometimes, otherwise why include it as part of Jesus’ teaching?
An aside about these verses from Matthew: Matthew 18 says that Jesus speaks the instructions “refer the matter to the church” but Jesus never went to church; he was Jewish. Jesus taught in and attended synagogue. Matthew is telling the story of Jesus perhaps 40 years or more after Jesus’ death so the church language slips in here.
Just loving is a helpful idea in these times when we are frustrated and flummoxed, when fires and floods abound. And – because we are human, we don’t always just love, nor do we always love justly. Matthew’s instructions in chapter 18 might be helpful – if it is people “in the church” that commit wrong against us. Step 1. Go talk to the person and tell them about this wrong action. If they don’t listen then Step 2. take another person or two with you. If you still aren’t heard then Step 3. Take it to the church.
The interesting thing is that after this clear process is laid out, Matthew seems to say that even this doesn’t always work because he goes on to have Jesus talk about forgiveness, forgiving not just once but over and over again. We might ask, if you are just going to forgive, why bother with the step by step process?
Matthew 18 gives us these two different ways to deal with difficulties in community: You can try to work it out or you can jump right to forgiveness. There is also the reality check of Step 4, if the offender doesn’t listen, even when the church speaks, then step back, – treat them like a Gentile or tax collector. Or maybe that means hold them even closer, you know hold your friends close and your enemies even closer? Hmm.
This “Matthew 18 process” has been used in a literal way by Anabaptists for many years. As Mennonites, we pride ourselves on being people of peace and this process is such a peaceful way to deal with conflict. In reality, the use of Matthew 18 has caused plenty of spiritual wounding. If that has been part of your experience with Mennonites or other well meaning people of faith, I am sorry. I would be glad to sit down with you, listen to your story and wonder together if there are ways to work at healing the wounds.
The Matthew 18 process starts with the premise that a wrong has been committed by an individual in the congregation. The hope is that the issue can be settled between the individuals or at least within the church group. But when there is historic, systemic injustice, that is not solved by one person at a time or even when two or three gather. We need a different set of tools when whole groups of people are wronged, when the injustice is systemic.
Forgiveness might be such a tool. It is often applauded when offered after tragedies like the Charleston shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. But forgiveness does not change the trajectory of the problem. It may free the people currently suffering injustice from a burden of anger but it does not stop white supremacy for people in the future.
When it comes to large scale injustice, we need truthtelling on a large scale. Truthtelling seems really difficult, practically impossible these days in this country, when truth is not a shared value, when the most visible leader lies with impunity and without remorse. Thank goodness for videos that show the truth of police violence, the truth of ongoing civil rights violations.
Truthtelling doesn’t mean there will never be forgiveness but it does mean that we start with telling the horrible and painful truth about the relationship between individual acts of violence and systemic and historic injustice.
Waltrina Middleton, an African American pastor, writes poignantly about not forgiving. Waltrina’s cousin, DePayne Middleton, was one of the nine African American church members killed by a confessed white supremacist at Mother Emanuel church in June 2015. Waltrina writes about the problem with forgiving too quickly. She says:
My family did not offer forgiveness in the courtroom. The words of a few became the headline for all, which became in turn a marketable narrative made for television and for profit, for pulpits and for politics, in order to ease the guilt of white supremacy and remove accountability. In the rush to force this false narrative, our society failed to truly engage dialogue on race, racism, and racialized violence that targets black and brown bodies.
Five years ago when those bodies were stolen from us, we had a right and a duty to lament. It was a kairos moment that called not for convenience but for the inconvenience of truth telling. We were called to seize that moment in the global spotlight to expose the sins of this land, the city, the state, those who played politics with our loss, and even the church.
That kairos moment was squandered.
If we are committed to love of neighbor, to just love, to loving justly, we have to be committed to truthtelling. Remember the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after their former classmate killed 17 students and staff? They were not about to forgive before telling the truth about guns in this country. Who would have imagined that within weeks of the tragic shooting they could gather millions worldwide to speak out against gun violence? The truth is powerful – and change is not immediate.
Three weeks ago when I was in Charlottesville for Walkthewalk2020 we saw the statue of “At Ready,” the Confederate soldier elevated on a high pedestal in front of the Albemarle County courthouse. He stood between two cannons aimed at passersby. This display was installed in 1909, 44 years after the civil war was over. For 111 years when African Americans approached the court house seeking justice, they were greeted by this statue of a soldier who fought to preserve slavery, raised up between the tools of war.
Yesterday in Charlottesville there was a celebration after many years of truth telling. “At Ready” and the cannons, along with a pile of cannonballs, were removed from the courthouse lawn. “After a public comment period, the Albemarle County board voted unanimously in early August to take down the statue.”
The Washington Post reports it this way:
Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, helped lead the community effort to get rid of the statues.
Once the figure was down and the work crews began turning to the base, Douglas filed through the crowd with a grim air of determination to find Schmidt. The two women partner on community history tours, emphasizing themes of racial justice that — until recently — were not often told. “You shed a tear?” Douglas asked her colleague. Schmidt fixed her with a scowl. “No,” she said. But then she smiled. “I’m glad it’s gone. I’m satisfied. This has been the fruit of a lot of work for many years by a lot of people.”
Jalane Schmidt speaks truth here. “This has been the fruit of a lot of work for many years by a lot of people.” If we ever want to get to forgiveness, if we ever want to get to just love, it will take a lot of people a lot of years of truthtelling. Jesus says, “The truth is, whatever you declare bound on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you declare loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Andrea Douglas and Jalane Schmidt, started telling the truth, about the history of their community, “loosing the truth” about the reality that African Americans in the Charlottesville area live day in and day out. Andrea and Jalane are working to bind racism and white supremacy so that it can no longer harm others. It is not an easy task, binding the dangerous hate of history, binding “At Ready” so all 900 pounds of him can be lifted by a crane off the court house lawn. I wonder what Andrea Douglas and Jalane Schmidt will work on binding next. Surely they are not finished telling the truth.
This is just love, loving justly. This is “the fulfillment of the law” as Paul says. Binding what is dangerous and loosing the truth is loving. A step by step process to reconciliation or forgiving seventy times seven times, may be good for us individuals. But for systemic injustice? There is no forgiveness until the truth is told, until the lies have been bound and the burden of injustice are lifted.
Thanks be to God for brave truth tellers, living just love. May we work to count ourselves among them.