Other Flock Ministries

Min. Ken Stuczynski / 716-868-1329 / ken@otherflock.org

{The dreadful motivation for this sermon comes from a newsletter I received saying “Church leaders in Jesus’s birthplace decided to cancel Christmas festivities this year. Reverend Munther Isaac, who leads a church in Bethlehem in the West Bank, said: ‘It’s impossible to celebrate when our people are going through a genocide… If Christ were to be born today, he would be born under the rubble and … shelling.”}

Never before have I come so harshly face-to-face with a truth in the Gospel.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I used to frame loving one’s enemies as a personal challenge — a spiritual discipline to not become jaded or engage in self-destructive hate. It wasn’t about wars or geopolitical conflicts. It was about trying to see redeemability or at the least having pity on sinners. After all, there are so many reasons (rationalizations?) why “turning the other cheek” doesn’t work as long as there is evil in the world, and the best we can do is hate the sin, not the sinner. But I’m not sure we can rise above hating both.

I recently discovered the nuance of the original language. The term “neighbor” meant kinsmen — your countrymen or those you identify with ethnically. The term “enemy” was more about being outside your group, not necessarily a hostile adversary. This is consistent with the Biblical virtue of helping the refugee or being kind to strangers (literally, foreigners). Of course, this is the opposite of the Nativism traditionally associated with American Christianity since before the Philadelphia Bible Riots. The biblical-scale hypocrisy (pun very much intended) is heartbreaking enough to see in unapologetic display during these times. At best, we hear anecdotes of medics coming to the aid of opposing forces in combat, a “sin” not always forgiven by the powers that be, or public opinion.

But the Gospel passage has taken on a whole other dimension for me now. It’s because of the children.

In October of this year, dozens of children were kidnapped in the Holy Land. They immediately became paws in an ongoing geopolitical game. The world was then flooded with posters and memes to “Bring Them Home”, some showing the faces of the three dozen or so hostages. That became the storyboard, or rather, half the story, which I will explain.

First, we must understand that empathy is a funny thing. We praise animals who display it and think more of them for it. But it’s nothing special. It’s biological. It’s simply loving those you love, and we don’t deserve any praise for being empathetic as homo sapiens. To feel empathy, all we need is a trigger. We SEE a child’s face (or that of a dog or cat in a shelter) in an advertisement. We are reminded of the suffering in this or that country every day in our news feed, or we eventually stop giving — and caring. Marketers know this. Politicians know this. Media companies know this.

But empathy has nothing to do with the Gospel. We are called to Love those we do not see, or cannot empathize with. It is a choice, not a reflex. Empathy is setting the bar for animals. For human beings, the Gospel demands Compassion. And I see now that the world has next to none.

Empathy for children in particular can inflame our primal parental instincts to blind outrage. Anyone can feel for our family and friends and allies. But when such horrible acts as the mass kidnapping occurred, it’s all we can see. One passionate woman wrote an editorial, “The mind is filled to the brim with our own pain, and no space is left to even acknowledge the pain of others … But outsiders who are not themselves immersed in pain should make an effort to empathize with all suffering humans, rather than lazily seeing only part of the terrible reality.”

And that’s where the other side of the story begins. The hostages were taken to exchange, in part, FOR OTHER CHILDREN in military prisons. Hundreds of children from occupied lands are placed under military arrest each year, often suffering all sorts of abuse (some would describe as torture), often without trial for years, and for alleged offenses as small as throwing a rock at a tank or making a social media post. Because of the hostage exchange, many of them have finally been returned to their families, or what is left of them.

Someone asked me why I was speaking out against hateful statements against one set of victims and not demanding the release of the children — or at least the ones THEY thought I should be empathetic toward. Apart from the inefficacy of appealing to militant groups or governments on Facebook, my focus was curbing the bigoted attitudes of my friends and countrymen. I would rather use my “pulpit” to call for decency and, well, what the Gospel teaches us.

The burning question is if the people around me would speak up for ALL the victims. So few people have transcended the kindergarten version of geopolitics to even know there IS another side to the story we’ve always been taught. But do they even care? Or would they see nothing wrong in blind retaliation regardless of the loss of innocent lives? Worst of all, would they deem all victims of one side NOT innocent (or guilty enough by association) to allow their consciences to accept the unconscionable? Would nonsense about human shields somehow excuse (in their minds) more bombs being dropped than the entire war between Ukraine and Russia? The answer is clear — and it nearly killed my soul.

Many of us DON’T want everyone to have their children back, just the ones on the poster. So when some of us didn’t march in the “bring them home” parade, it wasn’t because we didn’t care. It’s because almost no one else cares about the OTHER children and it just felt WRONG. It was like some children were worth more than others. It feels like pictures of these children were being used not just to cope with trauma, but as a war cry. Unlike our selectively caring friends and neighbors, we aren’t losing our minds over one day’s tragedy because we know such pain is business as usual every day in occupied lands just on the other side of the fence. We’re not upset because of their empathy, we’re upset because of the mindblowing lack of — or resistance to — compassion.

The military committed a massive “response” days before any discussion of hostages started and there were no specific targets or objectives, making half the residences of the territory uninhabitable almost overnight. And it gets worse. This has been so politicized by fanatics that even the thought of a ceasefire (that every international agency and NGO is calling for) is anathema. Anything short of constant total war is seen as surrender to evil. The pre-existing humanitarian crisis is now definable as genocide by international law. And most of us are okay with that. We simply refuse to accept the designation or rationalize that it’s necessary. We don’t care to remember that historically, every atrocity and crime against humanity was “necessary” thanks to fear and one-sided empathy.

The sharp-as-a-stick rhetoric was that more Jews were killed in the initial attack than on any one day during the Holocaust. This may be true, and the comparison hits home hard for Jews and every decent person who abhors the idea of genocide. Or does it? More children have died on average per day since October 7th than children did in Auschwitz. Who is going to empathize with them if we’re too busy already having taken sides? Why does there always have to be sides AT ALL? And if there does, why is it always “us” versus “them” instead of those who don’t want genocide against “their” people and those who don’t want it at all? There are people under every label — Palestinian, Israeli, Muslim, Hebrew, Christian, Arab, American, and beyond — who are calling out these atrocities for what they are. It’s not about who is doing them and who it is being done to, but that it’s being done at all. Taking sides without compunction is the real enemy.

And this is where my heart breaks. Anyone can care about the children of what is framed as a terrorist attack on an ally. But that is where the empathy of otherwise “good people” who love their family, their friends, and county ends. So much violence and destruction is written off as a military necessity even when it is obvious to the rest of us that it is not. Maybe a few crocodile tears will be shed, but some people today stamp their feet and insist that to fight evil we must do evil, no matter what. When people are taught to fear that their very existence is at stake, they are primed to extinguish other people, no matter how pointless or irrational or misplaced. It is the great “because” that is supposed to cover the very worst sins.

This is the absolute opposite of the Gospel — and how genocide becomes possible. Even a small taste of what they condone or support would stop them from sleeping for days if the roles were reversed, where they identify more with the victims than the perpetrators. Billions would be sent to different governments and missiles would be fired in the opposite direction.

I try to avoid politics for general reasons, but conscience regarding silence on this has always been an issue. Some of us have seen the long game of ethnic cleansing for decades and were too afraid to talk about it. We just hear the rhetoric and grit our teeth and pray for change. I used to fear the stigma attached to any criticism of a nation-state created for people who suffered so much historically. And it’s unthinkable that anyone should be accused of perpetrating the sort of evil that had been done to them. It pains me most how the accusation of prejudice has been used as a shield from such criticism, no matter how justified. No one can win that game.

But another fear now takes precedence. I am afraid of how many friends and relatives are fine with mass indiscriminate killing, even of children. How many will hide behind their politics and allegiances, historical grudges, and ethnic mythology? How many will be outright bigoted about one group or another? I am so tired of hearing  “but …” in response to any call for peace or even basic human decency. Or rather I am afraid I will lose respect for others if I give them the chance to say such things.

The most challenging irony in all this? Applying the Gospel here — no matter how much war and evil is favored over decency and Love by those we care about, we will choose to Love them just the same. We were all children once … if only we could see the Christ Child in each child — and adult — wherever they are, even amidst a pile of rubble.