31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
Nov 1, 2020
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
As a five year old girl, she stood outside baseball games and military funerals and held signs that spoke of hate. She stood there with her family. She stood there with her church. And as a young woman, she took to social media to continue sharing those values, telling people why they were unclean and destined for a certain hot location.
Twitter is not a location known for being a place of kindness and civil discourse, and yet Twitter is exactly where Megan Phelps-Roper found a compassion that would transform her life. It was on Twitter that after two decades of calling herself a Christian, Megan discovered what it truly meant to follow Jesus Christ. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43-44)
After two decades of telling people why God hated them, it wasn’t Megan who was loving her enemy though. It was Megan who found herself being loved. It was Megan who found people willing to take the time to listen to her and learn about her family and church’s beliefs. These strangers on Twitter thoughtfully engaged her in conversation and approached her “as a human being and that was more transformative than two full decades of outrage, disdain, and violence.” (Megan Phelps-Roper, TED Talk, 13:34)
Megan ended up leaving her church and also her family because they were one and the same. She found she could no longer believe what they believed or live as they lived because she discovered that these “unclean demons” were human beings, caring, compassionate, kind human beings.
When she left in 2012, she wondered where she would go, how she would live. Her entire life was documented on the Internet through social media and interviews with local TV stations. She was amazed to discover though that people who had no reason to give her a second chance after a lifetime of antagonism, actually forgave her and gave her the benefit of the doubt.
Megan Phelps-Roper’s life was transformed by the Christians, the Jews, the non-believers who all lived out Jesus’ words to love your enemies. In her TED talk, she says, “It was a relief and a privilege to let go of the harsh judgments that instinctively ran through my mind about nearly every person I saw.” (Megan Phelps-Roper, TED Talk, 6:54)
Do you have any harsh judgments running through your mind when you see a Biden, a Trump, a police lives matter, a Black Lives Matter, an All Lives Matter sign? How about when you see what friends or family post on social media?
Over and over again, we hear about what a divided time we are living in. We hear about political signs being vandalized, politicians being zoom bombed with hateful slurs, family members blocking each other on social media or refusing to speak to one another at all.
We do not have the monopoly on division though. The divisions in our country, in our communities, in our families are not the fault of politicians or even the media, nor are they new. While Jesus’ words challenging us to love our enemies seem particularly relevant to our lives right now, he did not speak these words to us. He spoke them to another divided people, to Jews who cooperated with the occupying Roman Empire, to Jews who resisted the Roman Empire and then there were the Samaritans.
The Samaritan believed in the same God as the Jews, were descended from the same ancestors, and yet, chose to practice their worship of God in a different way. If I were to list the differences out, you might laugh at how such small things could divide people – however they do. Sadly, they do. Sadly, it does not take much for us to become a people divided, a people who form camps and call each other enemy. And as satisfying as it might be in the moment to cling to our righteous indignation and be entrenched in our beliefs, the path to unity and good things never comes through seeing others as the enemy.
In her TED talk, Megan Phelps-Roper has four things we can do to make real conversation possible, real conversation that bridges the divide and transforms with love. She encourages people to not assume bad intent or negative motives. Ask questions and show the person on the other side that they are being heard, that you see them as a human being. Then, stay calm. Pause, breath, change the subject and come back at another time when you are calm. And finally, Phelps-Roper says ‘make the argument’. Make a factual case for the change you want. Don’t assume the other person has the same point of view or the same life experiences.
Megan Phelps-Roper has four things we can do to bridge the divides in our lives. Jesus has two. Jesus tells us to love those we disagree with and to pray for them. For me, it is easier to love someone, to love someone who has hurt me, who has the potential to hurt me, to love someone whose beliefs and actions are totally contrary to everything I hold dear, for me, it is easier to love someone if I pray for them.
Prayer softens my heart. Prayer helps me to see the “other”, the “enemy” as a human being, as someone who God’s sun and God’s rain also fall equally on. Prayer makes me curious about the “other”. It makes me wonder why they have done what they have done or as Phelps-Roper says how they came “to such outrageous conclusions about the world?” (Megan Phelps-Roper, TED Talk, 2:31) As Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Reverend Mpho Tutu write in The Book of Forgiving, prayer helps me “see and understand that we are all bound to one another- whether by birth, by circumstance, or simply by our shared humanity.” (Tutu, pg 3) Bound to one another by our shared humanity.
When we accept Jesus’ challenge to pray for our enemies, for those whose beliefs about the world we find so outrageous, we discover that they, too, are human. They are not demons. They are not enemies. They are children of God, just as we are.
It’s a pretty tall order; however we don’t do it for others. We don’t do it to heal this nation and create harmony and peace. We don’t even do it to distinguish ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ. Loving our enemy and praying for them is a journey we take for ourselves.
Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45). The Message translation puts it this way:
I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.
Instead of harshly judging them, we pray for those who believe and act differently from us so that, we might be our very best selves, our true selves, the people God created us to be.
So this week, especially, stay calm. Ask questions of others. Listen, really listen. Pray and love. Pray and love. Let peace, let unity, let healing and reconciliation begin with me, begin with you, begin with us.