We, all of us, I suspect, know about the witness of Heather Heyer, her death, on Saturday and her subsequent memorial service on Wednesday. You really couldn’t get away from it, even if you tried.
Heather’s story has reminded me of that of another young woman. I thought I would start today’s sermon by telling you about this second young woman.
Her name was Amy Biehl. Amy was born in April, 1967. She was raised in a white, affluent, Roman Catholic family in Newport Beach, California. As a young woman she was attractive---thin, but not skinny, with long blond hair and an almost ear-to-ear broad smile—you know like she is eating a banana sidewise—at least that is what I gathered from the pictures of her on the internet. Amy was bright, too. She graduated from Stanford University. In 1992, she received a Fulbright Scholarship to continue her studies at the University of the Western Cape, in Cape Town, South Africa.
Now just to set this in context, in 1991, a year before Amy got there, South African President De Klerk had begun multi-party talks attempting to stem ugly apartheid. In 1993, his country would agree on an interim constitution giving rights to blacks. South Africa’s first ever non-racial elections were planned for April of 1994.
Amy Biehl was in South Africa at an important, though tumultuous moment in that country’s history. She was passionate about the anti-apartheid movement in her adopted country. When she was not studying, she helped register black people to vote in that upcoming 1994 election.
Then, on August 23rd, 1993, just a few days before Amy was due to leave Cape Town(She would be returning to the states to resume her studies at Rutgers), Amy was driving three Black colleagues home. They came upon some Black protesters shouting “One Settler, one bullet.” Settler was the protesters’ term for White people living in South Africa. The protesters saw Amy’s white face and blond hair as she sat behind the steering wheel. At first they just threw stones at her car. But then the protesters got bold. They pulled Amy out. Someone hit her in the head with a brick. Someone else pulled out a knife. He forced the blade between Amy’s ribs and into her heart. Her frantic colleagues were able to collect Amy and drive her to a police station. That is where Amy died.
Police arrested four young men for Amy’s murder. These men stood trial, were convicted and sent to prison with life sentences.
I hope, like me, you see the similarities between Amy’s life and tragic death, and Heather Heyer’s life and tragic death. They had the same passion for what is right. They both willingly put themselves in harm’s way for a greater good. They both died in the midst of mob violence. There’s another similarity though. An important similarity. I suggest that they both held to some basic Christian beliefs. That is, they believed that the world is basically good, and our creator is a loving, good God. At least I will assume that that was foundational to their personal belief system. They were both raised in Christian families.
And, that is why I chose our Genesis passage for today. It is something that unites them with us. They lived out of and we live out of the same belief system that is expressed in scripture, from the very first page of scripture.
You know, right, that the creation story in Genesis is a myth. No one in this sanctuary is going to have heart failure, when I say that God really didn’t create the world in 6 days. The scientific theory—and I say theory because no one was around to witness the creation of the universe—the scientific theory is that the universe was created with a big bang. Again, the theory is that microbes, followed by plants, animals and finally humans evolved slowly after that—some 9.8 billion years after that initial big bang. So, again, our creation story in Genesis is a myth. By that I do not mean, however, that the Genesis story is not true. It makes an important truth claim. Again, that truth claim is that the world was created by a good and loving God. The world that God created was also good.
You may be thinking right now, “Well, that doesn’t seem like such a remarkable idea.” Actually, though, it is.
Over many, many millennia, different groups of people have composed different creation myths to answer some very basic questions: How did we get here? Who or what created us? How do we move and breathe and have our being in the world?
A very different creation myth from Genesis comes out of Babylonia, for instance. it is called the Enuma Elish and it is one of humanity’s oldest myths, if not THE oldest myth. That myth describes our universe as coming into being when Tiamat, a pregnant goddess, was slain by a rival God. This rival ripped open Tiamat’s body and released her babies, who became still other gods. As is clear, this myth is all about power struggle and violence, and a lot else that is evil that existed from the very beginning of all that is.
There are lots of other myths out there. Just as a for instance, Nazism. That’s the ideology, or belief system, or myth that Black people and Jews and Muslims are inferior to Whites. A lot of people who subscribe to the Nazi myth were in Charlottesville last weekend. The young man who allegedly murdered Heather was a self-described Nazi. But you probably already know that.
The myths we embrace make a difference in how we choose to lead our lives. If you believe in a good God and good creation your life will reflect that. If you believe that life is a power struggle and that violence is the norm, your life will reflect that. If you embrace the notion that you belong at the very pinnacle of a social pyramid because of your skin color, because of your ethnicity, your life will reflect that.
And now I want to move on to talk about what happened after Amy Biehl’s death. Amy’s parents founded the Amy Biehl Foundation in South Africa. The purpose of that foundation is, and I copied this off the internet, “to develop and empower youth in South Africa’s townships and to discourage violence.” In other words, they are giving back in the way of money and energy, to the very people that were responsible for Amy’s death. They decided that Foundation would be Amy’s legacy.
Likewise, Heather Heyer’s mother said on Wednesday at the memorial: “Find what's wrong, don't ignore it, don't look the other way. Say to yourself, 'What can I do to make a difference?' And that's how you're going to make my child's death worthwhile…This is just the beginning of Heather’s legacy.” Amy’s legacy is a fact. Heather’s legacy is still in process. But that legacy will bring about good, too. When we believe in a good God and a good creation, when we have a God centered point of reference, we cannot help but work to create more good in the world.
Our second scripture reading for today is “Love your Enemy.” A rabbi friend of mine, Ian Wolk, told me once, “Everything that Jesus ever said or taught is right there in the Hebrew scripture—well, every teaching except one. Jesus says to love your enemies. That’s not in Hebrew scriptures.” Darn. Why did Jesus have to say that? Couldn’t he just have said love, and left it to us to fill in the blank, whom or what we choose to love?
Love your children, love puppies and kittens, love chocolate. Love your enemies?
Ian and I both agreed, and I think you will agree, too—there is nothing more difficult than loving your enemies. But it can happen.
In 1998, just a few short years after Amy’s death, Desmond Tutu established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. The commission’s purpose was to encourage dialogue among Blacks and Whites so that healing could happen. The four men who killed Amy participated in the Commission. So too Amy’s parents. The four men claimed that they had been caught up in the horrific political climate of that time. They apologized to the Biehl family. Amy’s father actually shook the murders’ hands. He asked for their release from prison, and so they were.
Today two of Amy’s murderers, their names are Easy and Ntobeko, work for the Amy Biehl Foundation, and WITH Amy Biehl’s family. Amy Biehl’s mother was interviewed in 2008. She said this about her relationship with her daughter’s murderers: "I don’t know how it happened that we became friends. I am not going to try to analyze it. I will just say that Easy and Ntobeko are fascinating and I really do love them. They have given me so much.” She actually used that four letter word—LOVE.
Hard to see that happening here, though, right? In Charlottesville? In Virginia?
As Christians, must we try to love even those angry, hateful mostly young men wearing camouflage uniforms and toting Ak 15’s? Actually, we have to try to love them, for three reasons: one, to save ourselves. When we hate we move from living in the light, to living in the dark—just like those White Supremacists are living in the dark. In the dark, we swear, we think ugly thoughts, we get angry a lot, we don’t sleep well at night and we can’t focus. Maybe like me this week, you have found yourself doing mindless things—like putting cucumbers in the freezer. Or hopping in the car to go to the grocery and ending up at the hardware store! That’s hate getting in the way of joyful, focused living.
Two, we must try to love the enemy rather than hate the enemy because when we hate, we start a negative chain of hate and violence—It’s like when the cat scratches the dog, that dog bites the mail man, who yells at the woman who smacks the child and so on and so on. On the other hand, we choose to love, and that starts a positive chain of love, that just goes on and on, circling the planet.
And three. We must try to love the enemy rather than hate the enemy, again, because as happened to Easy and Ntobeko with God’s help, redemption is possible.
As you know, I have been re-reading some of the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King delivered a sermon on loving the enemy in Alabama’s Dexter Baptist church in 1957. I will end this sermon, with his words:
There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet. Jesus discovered it centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi of India discovered it a few years ago, but most men and most women never discover it. For they believe in hitting for hitting; they believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; they believe in hating for hating; but Jesus comes to us and says, "This isn’t the way."