Politics of Forgiveness
as the Politics of Christ:
A Reflection on Acts of the Apostles 16:19-34
by the Reverend Noel E. Bordador
My grandmother used to tell me stories about her family life during the Second World War. Shortly after the Japanese occupying forces invaded the then American colony of Philippines, our sleepy, quiet town became a crossroad between the prisoner labor camps and the capital city. Often, my grandmother would see captured American and Filipino prisoners of war being driven or marched through town between the labor camps and the city. The townsfolk were forbidden by the Japanese military to help the prisoners, especially the Americans who were considered to be enemies of the people of Japan; and anyone who disobeyed risked being suspected also as an enemy of the Japanese Empire. Yet, she, her husband, along with her children, including my then six-year old father, and many townsfolk often openly disobeyed the military orders by giving food and drink to the prisoners. I thought my grandmother was pretty gutsy, risking her life, risking the life of her two children. But her actions also struck me as quite reckless and foolish. But then, so is the cross, says Paul, the cross of Christ is moria, foolishness to the world. What made her do such a foolish thing? She wasn’t the type of person to be heroic, or if you knew her like I did, there was nothing extraordinary about her. She was simply a woman of simple yet great faith, who simply thought it her Christian duty to help. And so, she defied the soldiers of the Emperor of Japan because she was beholden to a higher Sovereign, her Lord Christ who commands to love and help those in need. By this and many stories, my grandma taught me that being a Christian can lead us into conflict with the deeply held values of the world. Following the Lord Jesus can lead us to go against the way things are done in the world. Christians live in a particular tension with the world. Called to be in the world, called to engage the world, yet in the end, we are not of the world.
In the story from the Acts of the Apostles chapter 16 (19-34), Paul, fired by his vision and love of the resurrected and ascended Christ, and possessed by the power of this same Christ, went about preaching and healing. In the story, Paul healed a slave-girl of an unclean spirit. But in healing her, Paul also freed her from economic exploitation, child labor and slavery. This of course infuriated the girl’s owners because they lost their source of income. And because of Paul’s confession of the Christ, he was being accused of introducing a new custom, proselytizing in the name a new divinity that rivaled the national cult of Caesar who called himself divine; and so Paul became suspect of subversion. Paul’s enemies dragged him to the agora, the market, which was both the economic and the political centers of the city, where he was placed under arrest, and they humiliated him by parading him around naked, severely tortured, and threw him into prison without a trial. (As you can see, prison abuse is anything but new.) The writer of Acts tells that Paul’s new life in Christ had collided head on with the unjust political and economic institutions of the city, indeed of the Empire. Acts tells us that our Easter faith, that Easter salvation is not simply a spiritual reality that has effects only on our souls; Easter has as much something to do with redeeming economics and politics, our social institutions tainted with sin and injustice, as it does redeeming our individual souls. And in this story is a warning to all of us that by subjecting ourselves to the Lordship of Christ we will encounter all sorts of opposition with the powers of this world- be it political, economic, spiritual - a world which is yet to be redeemed fully from disbelief, hatred, brokenness and alienation from God.
Living our new life in Christ, we, the people of Easter, are called to embody a different way of life, a different ethic, a different ways of organizing our individual and social lives, what we call politics, ways that differs from the kosmos, the world that Jesus says “knew him not,” a world still in state of disobedience to God. We might be in the world, but by our baptism in this one Lord Christ, we had transferred our allegiance from any worldly powers to that of Christ. Paul reminds us that our politeuma, our citizenship, is in the heavenly politeia, heavenly Commonwealth. (Php 3:20) We are citizens, sympolites, with the saints (Eph 2:19) in God’s Kingdom characterized by politics of love and not hate, politics of compassion and mercy, not indifference, politics of forgiveness and reconciliation with one’s enemies, politics of peacemaking and not of violence. It is in this sense that William Willimon, the Methodist pastoral theologian, calls the Church a “countercultural” community, counter to the ways of the world, the Church as a “counterpolitical reality,” counter to the usual politics of the world, the Church as an earthly sign that points to a new world and social order brought about by the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. But because we are in the world we are often tempted to act in the world’s ways and to abandon the ethic and our responsibilities as citizens of God’s Kingdom in favor of that of the worldly kingdom. Because of this, Jesus not only continually intercedes for us at God’s right hand, praying that we be delivered from temptations to abjure our heavenly citizenship, that we may all be one in love and one with him in his will. And in his desire that all may be one in him, he gives us the gift of the Church in which he promises to be present through the Holy Spirit; here he is present and gathers us into his one Body and through the common life of this one Body, we are nourished, sustained, and encouraged to live our Christian ethic, our Christian politics, if you will, in the midst of the wolves of this world.
Perhaps for us Christians living in the United States, this living in tension with the world has become more acutely felt as we continue to struggle about the war in Iraq. There is deep division among Americans as to the effectiveness and morality of the war. And it is not surprising that same deep division exists in the Body of Christ. But I also believe that same division exists in a given person. I admit that there is part of me that wants to be at war, that wants our country to succeed against the enemies of our nation; but a part of me also feels that there is something not right about my desire to be at war, my desire for violence. In May of this year, thirty-six leaders of Christian Churches- Anglican, Baptist, United Methodist, Moravian, Orthodox and other denominations- issued a pastoral letter about the war. Risking being labeled unpatriotic or un-American, but “writing out of deep love” for America, they called upon Americans, and Christians in particular, to work toward the end of this war strongly saying (and I quote here,) “[W]ar is contrary to the will of God’ - because it destroys [creation] that God has made sacred…Christians should not identify violence against others with the will of God and should always work to prevent and end it.” The pastoral letter urges us to go against our national and personal inclination to war by renouncing the way of violence as the way to build peace. We follow the politics of the Lord Christ who renounced violence against his enemies. Not only did he choose to endure the cross of his enemies, but through his cross and resurrection, he offered them forgiveness and a new life because he believed that his enemies were also his Father’s children, and therefore, his brothers.
This love of enemy stuff…is this just foolishness, an impossible ideal? My grandmother didn’t think so. She believed it to be possible. After the Japanese marched into town, they took her house and turned it into a military barracks. As if that wasn’t enough, she was humiliated when she was conscripted to be the cook for the enemies of her people. I could just imagine her fear, outrage, and bitterness. One of the soldiers became interested in my grandmother’s practice of her Christian faith, and this soldier from time to time inquired about what she believed, why she believed. When a plague broke out, the soldier fell gravely ill. Like Paul in the Acts story who saved his jailer’s life, my grandmother felt it was her Christian duty to save the life of her “jailer.” So my grandmother disregarded her natural inclination to hate her enemy and nursed him back to health. At one point, the soldier, thinking that he would not survive the illness, asked to be baptized. Unable to get a priest and fearing that the soldier would die soon, my grandmother (like Paul in the Acts story who offered the good news of salvation and baptism) made a bold step in administering baptism. But then something else happened. Enemies became friends. The soldier was no longer an enemy, but brother in this one Lord who commands us, “Love your enemies.”
2004 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a queer Filipino priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New York.
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