4/11/11 - I would rather die than hate you

In today's excerpt - in 1630, John Winthrop, leader of the religious colonists who would establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony, delivered to them a sermon that is now considered one of the most important documents in setting forth a vision of America, "A Model of Christian Charity".  Anticipating the hardships they will encounter during the coming months and years, it centers on the impossible idea that we should love our neighbors as ourselves:

"It makes sense that Winthrop, a man accustomed to setting lofty goals for himself, would then set lofty goals for the colony he is about to lead. 'A Model of Christian Charity' is the blueprint of his communal aspirations. Standing before his shipmates, Winthrop stares down the Sermon on the Mount, as every Christian must.

"[It presages] Martin Luther King, Jr., doing just that on November 17, 1957, in Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He concluded the learned discourse that came to be known as the 'loving your enemies' sermon this way: 'So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the eyes of all my brothers in Alabama and all over America, and over the world, I say to you, 'I love you. I would rather die than hate you.' "

"Go ahead and reread that. That is hands down the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical thing a human being can say. And it comes from reading the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical civics lesson ever taught, when Jesus of Nazareth went to a hill in Galilee and told his disciples, 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.'

"The Bible is a big long book and lord knows within its many mansions of eccentricity finding justification for literal and figurative witch hunts is as simple as pretending 'enhanced investigation techniques' is not a synonym for torture. I happen to be with King in proclaiming the Sermon on the Mount's call for love to be at the heart of Christian behavior, and one of us got a Ph.D. in systematic theology.

" 'Man,' Winthrop reminds his shipmates in 'Christian Charity,' is 'commanded to love his neighbor as himself.' In the Sermon on the Mount,  Jesus puts the new in New Testament, informing his followers that they must do something way more difficult than being fond of the girl next door. Winthrop quotes him yet again. Matthew 5:44: 'Love your enemies ... do good to them that hate you.'

"He also cites Romans I 2:20: 'If thine enemy hunger, feed him.'

"The colonists of Massachusetts Bay are not going to be any better at living up to this than any other government in Christendom. (Just ask the Pequot, or at least the ones the New Englanders didn't burn to death.) In fact, nobody can live up to this, but it's the mark of a Christ-like Christian to know that he's supposed to.

"Winthrop's future neighbors? Not so much. In fact, one of his ongoing difficulties as governor of the colony is going to be that his charges find him far too lenient. For instance, when one of his fellow Massachusetts Bay magistrates accuses Winthrop of dillydallying on punishment by letting some men who had been banished continue to hang around Boston, Winthrop points out that the men had been banished, not sentenced to be executed. And since they had been banished in the dead of winter, Winthrop let them stay until a thaw so that their eviction from Massachusetts wouldn't cause them to freeze to death on their way out of town. I can hear the threatening voice-over in his opponent's attack ad come the next election. John Winthrop: soft on crime.

"This leads us to something undeniably remarkable: 'A Model of Christian Charity' was not written by a writer or a minister, but rather by a governor. It isn't just a sermon, it is an act of leadership. And even if no one heard it, or no one was listening, it is, at the very least, a glimpse at what the chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Bay Colony believed he and this grumpy few before him were supposed to shoot for come dry land. Two words, he says: 'justice and mercy.'

"For 'a community of perils,' writes Winthrop, 'calls for extraordinary liberality.' One cannot help but feel for this man. Here he is, pleading with Puritans to be flexible. In promoting what he calls 'enlargement toward others,' Winthrop has clearly thought through the possible pitfalls awaiting them on shore. He is worried about basic survival. He should be. He knows that half the Plymouth colonists perished in the first year. Thus he is reminding them of Christ's excruciating mandate to share. If thine enemy hunger, feed him."


Sarah Vowell


The Wordy Shipmates


Riverhead Books a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc


Copyright 2008 by Sarah Vowell


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