The Morality That Transforms
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Today I’d like to talk with you about a morality we don’t hear about much. In the name of God: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Every so often people tell me that churches play an important role in society because they teach about right and wrong, they provide a moral compass.
I must tell you that I find myself irritated by this viewpoint. It sounds patronizing to me. There are two reasons it makes me uncomfortable.
Here’s the first reason. While it’s true that churches do provide a moral compass and teach right from wrong, this is not their sole function or even their most important one. Here, as in so much else, the Prayer Book’s Outline of Faith sets us straight. “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” The Outline of Faith then goes on to state that “The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.” [The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), p. 855.]
What the Church is about, therefore, is far more than the principles of ethics. The Church is concerned with the gift of God’s mercy that’s real in our lives and real in the world.
This brings me to my second cause for crankiness when the Church is regarded as simply an institution in society that teaches about right and wrong—that provides a moral compass. Such a viewpoint usually endorses one part of morality, while totally ignoring the other.
The part of morality that’s endorsed is the one that provides stability. It covers moral principles like the prohibitions against murder, adultery, and theft. These principles are important and they are necessary, but by themselves they are far from the full picture so far as a Christian view of morals is concerned.
There’s another large part to morality, and it’s less comforting and more challenging than the prohibitions found in the Ten Commandments. Here we come to the area where decent, law-abiding, church-going folks are invited to stretch beyond their conventional patterns. Here’s the part where it’s easy for all of us to fumble and fall down, where even the respectable are in desperate need of mercy and forgiveness. This is the part of morality where if you break it, society will not make you pay the price. In fact, society may exact a price if you manage to be obedient. This is the part of moral life that does not promote stability, but brings about change and transformation.
Today’s second reading is a passage from the end of Paul’s letter addressed to the small and struggling Christian congregation in Rome. Paul writes in a way that seems breathless, piling one imperative on another in the attempt to instruct that congregation about just what it means in practice to live the new life in Christ. He presents them with an unbroken series of challenges.
Let me shine the spotlight on two of his remarks in particular. Paul writes “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Later he says “Beloved, never avenge yourselves.” These are words that if we take them seriously, must make us uncomfortable.
Why? Because they are words that demand a change in human behavior, a transformation in human character. Indeed, they assume, they confidently assume, that such change in behavior and transformation in character can occur. Paul doesn’t think he’s asking for the impossible. He believes that what he calls for is possible for those who live in Christ.
Dismiss him as a dreamer if you will, but recognize this: here is not simply the dream of Paul of Tarsus; it is the dream also of Jesus Christ, what Jesus learned from his Father; here is the dream of God.
Over against this divine dream we have a very popular pattern of behavior, one that announces quite the opposite of what Paul calls us to do. There’s a familiar rut in human experience that says: If people persecute you, persecute them; or better yet, get them before they get you. There’s a familiar feeling in our hearts that says: Take action against those who hurt you, or might someday hurt you.
Blessing the persecutor. Praying for those who despitefully use you. Not avenging yourself. This pattern does not protect the status quo. It is not like the prohibitions against murder, adultery, and theft. Here we have a morality that assumes these prohibitions but surpasses them. The result is not the protection of our imperfect world and imperfect selves, but their change and transformation instead.
Protecting things as they are can readily produce a recurrent cycle of vengeance. We feel victimized, and want to return the favor. The cycle can go on indefinitely, and in some places of the earth it must feel as though it has been going on indefinitely.
Paul sees beyond this. There need be no more violence and no more victimization. The cross of Christ and his resurrection make it clear that Jesus is the final victim. He returns from the dead in power with a message of peace for those who betrayed him, those who crucified him. He breaks the cycle of violence and victimization. He bestows a blessing of change and transformation on those who failed him, those who persecuted him.
Jesus doesn’t return with eyes full of vengeance for Peter and Judas, Caiaphas and Pilate. Whether or not they accept it, he forgives them and offers them new life.
Perhaps we pray for people we love. That’s good. Perhaps we pray for people we don’t know. That’s good. But how about taking another step, or rather a jump, to pray for our enemies, those people who are a blight on our life, and who violate what we find precious? Why not add them to our prayer list and make it complete? Why not pray for this benighted world in its entirety? Pray for some people out of love and respect for them; pray for enemies out of their desperate need for intercession.
This is no easy business. But praying for our enemies can be the foundation for living with them differently. God can transform their lives. God can also transform us and make us increasingly able to remember them in prayer. God can take their pain and fear and make it something better. And God—the one who made the universe and raised Jesus from the dead—this God can certainly transform the fear and pain we have toward our enemies into prayer that is potent, prayer that will result in a different sort of world.
Let me conclude with a story. This story is told by Susan Cole-King about her father, Leonard Wilson, who was Bishop of Singapore during the Second World War. Here is what she says.
“On October 10, 1943. . . the Japanese military police . . . raided Changi and arrested 57 of the prisoners. Among them was my father, the bishop. He was accused of being a spy and for many days he was subjected to torture.
“Often he had to be carried back to the crowded, dark and filthy cell, unconscious from his wounds. On one occasion, when seven men were taking it in turns to flog him, they asked him why he didn’t curse them. He told them it was because he was a follower of Jesus who taught us to love one another.
“He asked himself then how he could possibly love these men with their hard, cruel faces, who were obviously enjoying the torture they were inflicting. As he prayed he had a picture of them as they might have been as little children, and it’s hard to hate little children.
“But then, more powerfully, his prayer was answered by some words of a well-known communion hymn that came to his mind: ‘Look, Father, look on his anointed face, and only look on us as found in him.’
“In that moment he was given a vision of those men not as they were then, but as they were capable of becoming, transformed by the love of Christ. He said he saw them completely changed, their cruelty becoming kindness, their sadistic instincts changed to gentleness. Although he felt it was too blasphemous to use Christ’s words ‘Father, forgive them,’ he experienced the grace of forgiveness at that moment.
“After eight months he was released back to Changi—one of the few that survived. For the rest of his life he emphasized in his speaking and preaching the importance of forgiveness.
“After the war he returned to Singapore and had the great joy of confirming one of his torturers. This is how he described the moment: ‘One of these men who was allowed to march up from the prison to the cathedral, as a prisoner, to come for baptism, was one of those who had stood with a rope in his hand, threatening and sadistic. I have seldom seen so great a change in a man. He looked gentle and peaceful. His face was completely changed by the power of Christ.'” [From Susan Cole-King, “Reconciliation: My father’s witness,” sermon preached at the Lambeth Conference, August 7, 1998.]
I have spoken to you in the name of that Christ who makes it possible for us to forgive and be forgiven; who with the Father and the Spirit is alive and reigns for ever.
Copyright 2008 Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.