A few weeks ago, I attended a workshop with Tonja Honsey, an indigenous woman who works as a grassroots community organizer. I found her story painful to hear and important to listen to. Amid a childhood filled with abuse and neglect, she ran away from home. She sold and took drugs to survive. She first went to prison at the age of fourteen. During that incarceration, she spent six months in solitary confinement. A few years later she went to prison again. This time, she was held for twelve months without a court date. During those months, she shared a four-person cell with thirteen other women. She was detoxing and depressed. Her request to see a doctor was denied. Her guards regularly pulled her out of the cell in the middle of the night to taunt her.
Honsey pointed out that prisons are a tool of colonialism, that there were no prisons in this land until white people came. She reflected on how her work as an organizer has been shaped by her experiences of childhood trauma and state violence. So often, she said, “we’re fighting for a different world but the way we’re doing it is perpetuating the dynamics of the old world.” She was part of organizing the community response after the shooting of Philando Castile. She said that after officer Yanez was acquitted, it occurred to her that Yanez going to jail would not have have been justice, that we don’t really know what justice is. Even the process of restorative justice, she argued, is incomplete, because it categories people as either victims or offenders, when, in reality, we’re all both things at once. “How can we fight for something,” she asked, “if we don’t know what it is? If we burn down the system what will come in its place?”
Today’s Gospel teaching asks us to invest ourselves in a different kind of relational world. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” From the standpoint of the broken and violent community we inhabit, this stance of unguarded kindness and sacrificial generosity seems both foolish and dangerous. And certainly this text has been mis-used for evil purposes: to discourage vulnerable people from defending themselves, to shelter and aid those perpetrate violence.
Jesus acknowledges at the outset that his words are difficult, that not everyone will be able to hear them. “But I say to you who listen.” Curious about the “but,” I read backwards a bit. Jesus had just gotten done drawing lines and making distinctions, declaring, on the one hand, a blessing for the poor and powerless and woe, hunger and tears to the rich and satisfied. “But I say to you who listen.” “You who listen”—that’s everyone and anyone, poor or rich, who chooses to belong to the community of Jesus. “You who listen” spans the spectrum of privilege and power. “You who listen” are an unlikely, and transformative, gathering of those who bear pain with the ones who cause pain. What they all have in common is their desire to step across the threshold into a new creation, to inhabit a world of justice doesn’t yet exist, to build a society characterized by mercy rather than retribution.
“Be merciful as your Father/Mother God is merciful.” For me, this is the heart of Jesus’ sermon; the rest of his words provide specificity, offer case studies that make his meaning clear. Here are a couple of the ways Merriam-Webster defines “mercy”: “compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power” and “a blessing that is an act of divine favor.” For me, these meanings all fail to satisfy because they assume that mercy is an exception to the violent enforcement of hierarchal power. To this way of thinking, mercy is always at the discretion of the one who dominates. However, amid my dissatisfaction with Merriam-Webster, I remembered my Hebrew lessons. I recalled that mercy is a key attribute of God in the Hebrew scriptures, that one of the Hebrew words we translate as “mercy” is racham, and the word “womb” comes from the very same root. So, biblically, mercy is really something quite different from a favor from the person in power. Mercy means to see each and every person through the eyes of their Creator, from the perspective of the one who gave of herself to bear them into life. Mercy is the promise of our profound beloved-ness given to us in baptism. Mercy is the deep, visceral experience of knowing that the whole world is held and rocked in the waters of God’s womb.
Seven centuries ago, in the throes of a terrible illness, the mystic Julian of Norwich was granted a vision of mercy. Julian was the first woman ever to write a book in English. And surely what she wrote shocked the church. Here’s a passage from her Revelations of Divine Love:
The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life. . . . This fair lovely word “mother” is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things. To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom, and knowledge, and this is God. (Chapter 60)
Ronald Allen of Christian Theological Seminary, explains that the new creation of God, shaped by divine and human mercy “calls for attitudes and actions that seek the good of the other, and, hence, that build up the community.” To live with mercy does not mean that we fail to hold ourselves or others accountable for harms, that we excuse evil or accept abuse. Living with mercy, we recognize the humanity of all, including our opponents and enemies, and we leave ultimate judgments to God. We allow ourselves to be released from prisons of bitterness and hatred. We lay down the tools of domination, of colonialism and genocide.
In another poem of hers titled “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings” poet Joy Harjo writes:
The land is a being who remembers everything.
You will have to answer to your children, and their children,
The red shimmer of remembering will compel you up the night to walk the perimeter of truth for understanding.
Today, even as we remember the dedication of this building, this sacred space, 131 years ago, we also remember the land and its original inhabitants. We remember that our church, our homes, really our whole lives, are built on stolen land. And we remember that there is still a terrible wound, a violent trauma troubling our relationship with this land and its people, tearing apart our souls and severing our spiritual roots. As we dedicate our first offering to Makoce Ikikcupi, Dakota Land Recovery project, let us understand that our gifts to this offering are not an exercise in charity. We are not helping those who are less fortunate. We are seeking to repair our own humanity. We are living toward God’s community of mercy. We are building something new that can survive the flames of justice. With God, we are co-creating a wholeness that has never before existed, and yet is as ancient, and innate as the waters of our mother’s womb.