What it Actually Means to Love Your Enemies
Digging into Jesus' most unreasonable command.
How much do you love the members of ISIS?
Or the latest person who shot up a school or church or movie theater?
That question may seem absurd. And maybe it is. I think “love your enemies” is the most unreasonable thing Jesus says.
And that’s saying something, because it’s coming from a guy who also says stuff like “eat my flesh and drink my blood,” “hate your mother and father” and “sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor” (John 6:56, Luke 14:26 and Matthew 19:21, respectively).
But love your enemies? Come on.
And this is more than just the inconsiderate jerks who pop up occasionally in your life. We’re not just talking about the guy at work who keeps stealing your lunch, or the lady who cut you off on the highway and then gave you the finger.
Jesus and His audience lived under an oppressive occupying Roman government. The Romans employed torture and murder to keep people in line. Everyone listening to Jesus talk about this “love your enemies” stuff had plenty of opportunities to experience “I hate you with every ounce of my guts” enemies in the soldiers and prefects that carried out this daily social domination.
Not Just Monsters
As I read about the latest shooting, or the latest beheading, my natural response is to dehumanize the people who do these things. I think of them as monsters. Or demons. Or something else that allows me to pretend that they are not fellow humans.
But that’s not true.
Each one was born. Each one has a mother and a father. They eat. They drink. They have personal stories and experiences full of pain and joy.
They are human. And if I take the narrative of the Bible to be true, they are fellow children of God. They are loved by God.
I want to be very clear: I’m not supporting or accepting of terrorism or mass shootings. I’m also not arguing against legal consequences for those actions.
But if I hate the people who undertake these actions, I am not hating monsters or demons. I’m hating fellow humans.
Some are suffering from mental illness, or from personal anguish or from religious manipulation. In the midst of grief and anger for those who suffer, can I not spare some compassion for those who have missed out on the life filled with grace and hope that Jesus has called all of us to live?
We like to live in a binary, black and white world, where everyone is basically “good” or “bad.” But life isn’t so cut and dried. Someone can be guilty of terrible things and still deserve compassion.
The Hope of Humanity
I’m not seeking to humanize terrorists and murderers because they deserve it or because I am ignoring their actions.
I’m seeking to humanize them because it’s true.
It is also the only way we can hope to stem the tide of terrorism and shootings at schools and malls and workplaces and houses of worship.
Because if these actions are the work of monsters and demons, I am powerless to stop them. I can only shake my head and feel sad that such beings cannot be stopped.
But if I’m dealing with humans, I can have hope. Hope that messages of love and acceptance and peace can be heard. Hope that God can redeem even the worst of sinners. Hope that God can redeem my deep, dark sins, too.
I look to examples like the Civil Rights movement, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, where I see clearly that only when we treat our adversaries as humans—no matter how flawed—can we hope to prevail in our cause: the cause of ultimate justice. The belief that God will eventually set all the wrongs to right.
As Miroslav Volf says in Exclusion and Embrace, “If you want justice and nothing but justice, you will inevitably get injustice. If you want justice without injustice, you must want love.”
Much more could be said on the topic of justice, but that is perhaps for another time.
If you’ve been willing to go with me this far, perhaps you’re willing to ask the next question: How do I love my enemy?
Pray for Your Enemies
I’m not talking about “please give that person what they have coming to them” prayers. But I also don’t mean that you need to spend an hour each night asking God to pour blessings upon them. There’s a way to pray both for justice and for the hearts of those committing injustices.
If you have hate in your heart for somebody, maybe it starts with “God, I hate that person, and I don’t want to.”
As C.S. Lewis has said, “[Prayer] doesn’t change God—it changes me.”
Praying for your enemy opens you up to the work of the Holy Spirit in your heart.
Forgive Your Enemies
Martin Luther King Jr. in Strength to Love posits that forgiveness is the decisive factor in how much you can love your enemy. I fully agree.
When Jesus looks at His executioners from the cross and offers forgiveness, can there be any doubt of His love for them?
When relatives of the victims in the South Carolina church shooting offered forgiveness to the young man who murdered their loved ones, could anyone doubt that they were seeking to take Jesus’ words and example seriously?
Loving your enemy does not mean you have to add them to your Christmas list, or make them your best friend. It doesn’t mean you excuse their actions. It means you forgive them, with the knowledge that God is both merciful and just.
Jesus faced grave injustice with sacrifice. Through prayer and forgiveness in our hearts, let us go forth to conquer injustice in our time by the courage not to demand retribution, but rather to repay injury with blessing and hate with love.