The Toughest Commitment: Love your Enemies | September 15

Texts: Scripture: Matthew 5:43-48; Romans 12:14 &17-20

Speaker: Julie Hart

I realized I was in serious trouble one summer working with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Israel and the West Bank when I began to look at every Israeli Settler I saw as an irrational, fanatic, out to get me.  Certainly, there was some basis to my fear.  Day after day patrolling the streets of Hebron I would greet each person I passed with acknowledgment and a hello in the appropriate language.  And each time I passed an Israeli settler, I got a similar response.  The most common response was a cold stare cutting right through me as if I were either a non-person or an evil one.  The bolder youth and men responded with such phrases as, “Go home Nazi” or “Christian Bitch save your own people.”  The young men, when walking in groups would often monopolize the entire street and refuse to move despite my presence.  It was a scary situation for me.  I never knew how they might respond by what appeared to be such hatred. 

But even more frightening than their behavior was my mental response.  I was building the blocks of enemy formation.   Not that this was the first time that I allowed myself to hate.  Back in the 1980’s, I worked with Kate at a College in Ohio.  We both taught health promotion and fitness courses at the college.  Kate was the most self-centered person I had ever known.  We worked as a team with seven others as part of a Community Health Education Center and over our 5 years together, Kate’s needs always came first.  Once when we were traveling together to an exercise training workshop, I felt the need to arrive early the second day in order to attend a remedial session.  Kate wasn’t struggling as I was and didn’t want to be rushed with her morning routine so that I could go early.  It was her car but I was desperate for a ride from the hotel.  If I couldn’t pass the criteria by the end of the second day, I wouldn’t be certified. But still she resisted my request.  Finally, in tears, explaining my fear of failure, she agreed to change her morning routine and arrive early with me.  Over time, I nursed a growing resentment with her chronic insensitivity.  She slowly moved from colleague status to that of enemy. When she became pregnant, my resentment got the best of me and I found myself wishing something bad would happen.  I didn’t wake up to the evil I was engaged in until I learned three months after the birth, that her new baby had a heart defect that would require surgery.  When we allow ourselves to resent those who harm us, we can become just like the person we hate.

While Jesus and the scriptures admonish us to love our enemy, our world, our politicians and our culture often encourage us to dehumanize them, marginalize them, blame them and even kill them.  Yet Christians can’t ignore Jesus’ love of enemies in the Sermon on the Mount if we wish to truly follow Jesus.

Certainly some Christians would disagree with me on this and suggest that in the case of a child molester, a cold-blooded terrorist, or a violent dictator, killing is the appropriate and even biblical response.  I would suggest that they are stuck in a non- biblical understanding of justice. 

Theologian Clarence Jordan finds a transformation in the understanding of justice throughout the bible.  He likens that transformation to that of human development through the lifecycle. We move from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood.  With each stage of maturity, there are greater abilities and greater expectations for each of us. For example, in Genesis 4, we see an infantile response to the enemy as demonstrated by Lamech.  In return for being physically wounded by a young man, Lamech retaliates with murder.  As we move to childhood and gain some control over our emotions, limitations are put on acts of violence.  In Exodus 21, justice is tempered with mercy.  With the Law of the Tooth, we learn that justice must be limited to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  Murder in response to losing an eye is now inappropriate.  In what might be seen as appropriate to adolescent justice, Leviticus 19 counsels love for neighbor, kin, or clan whether they love in return or not.  This love stops at the enemy though.  Then Jesus arrives and challenges us to be adults when it comes to justice. Jesus’ standard of justice is to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us.  We are to be as perfect or mature as God is with each of us.

But surely, this is an impossible task.  After all, when someone threatens our safety, integrity, identity or life, the natural response, the culturally sanctioned response is to protect ourselves.  When someone attempts to hurt us or our families or do evil to us, we want to distance ourselves or to threaten them in return.  When someone ignores our needs for safety to meet their own selfish needs, or outright oppresses us, they have lost their right to mercy or love- right? 

In fact, we carefully construct enemies in our minds prior to acting to harm them.  First, as I know from direct experience with Israeli settlers, we tend to separate ourselves from the enemy.  In the us versus them categorizing that we all engage in to simplify our world, the person who has threatened us becomes the them, the other.  But that is just the beginning of enemy formation. Next, we label the ways that they are different from us as negative, bad, or evil.  They are clearly to blame for the problem.  In order to protect and justify ourselves, we exaggerate the threat that they pose.  In our minds, the “other” is irrational and out to get us with no justification.  Next, we polarize. The “other” is not only wrong but we are right.  We are justified. We are superior.  Finally, we rob them of any human characteristics; we dehumanize them.  We do this in our own minds and we also mobilize others to our cause. This final step allows us to hurt them emotionally or physically; whatever we deem to be justified.  And we can do it now without guilt ,because they deserve it!

And what about love of enemy?  Since Jesus’ time, it has often been abandoned or ignored as unrealistic, naive, ignorant or dangerous.  Some say, the commandment is meant only for those who have taken the highest religious vows such as pastors, priests and nuns.  Perhaps, others suggest, Jesus meant love of enemies as a standard for the Second Coming but surely not for today.  Others suggest the command may be appropriate for personal enemies but certainly not for international ones such as terrorists.  Sadly, there is considerable support for these views of enemy love, even among Christians.  But if we did have a community to hold us accountable for this toughest of commitments, what might that love look like?

Well, Jesus and the Epistles all use the word for agape love, divine love, unconditional love when they speak of love of enemies.  Agape love is indiscriminate.  Just as God makes the sun to rise on the good as well as the evil, we also are to love everyone without exception.  Agape love is bold.  It suspends social and cultural norms and religious traditions to care for the other.  It makes us look radical, naive or out of step with society. Agape love is inconvenient.  It is based on the others’ needs rather than our own.  Agape love is risky, often making us vulnerable to harm from the enemy.  Agape love can be expensive.  We are asked to extend ourselves without expectation of return.  Agape love may even jeopardize our social status.  Agape love involves caring deeply for others authentic needs for respect, forgiveness, support and safety despite what others think.  To love the enemy unconditionally, we must let go of or at least proceed despite our fear.

Imagine one of your enemies, someone who has hurt you or shamed you or robbed you of security.  Perhaps you’ve had a Kate in your life, a difficult co-worker or family member.  Now imagine applying agape love to that person.  Try applying 1 Corinthians 13, the famous love scripture.  Imagine yourself being patient and kind with your enemy or a white supremacist.  Can you see yourself celebrating his or her success?  You avoid rudeness despite their own.  Any pride that you may feel for not stooping to their level of cruelty is out.  Imagine being more concerned with their wellbeing, their needs, than your own.  You must let go of any righteous anger and stop keeping score on their offenses.  Imagine even after they have let you down 20 times, giving them the benefit of the doubt and being willing to hope for only the best for them.  Imagine persevering with them until the end.  This impossible task is just what God has done with us and asks us to do in return. There must be no expectation of reciprocity or even confession of wrongdoing.  The only rewards for persevering in unconditional agape love, even with our enemies, is that we resist becoming selfish & hate-filled like them.  Apostle Paul adds in Romans 12 that when we return evil with love, it will seriously make them think.

So, is there any hope for any of us as we face this toughest of commitments?  Is it possible that I could learn to care deeply about the authentic needs of the extremist Israeli settlers in Hebron who treated me like evil incarnate and oppress the Palestinians around them?  How could I avoid the kind of dehumanization I engaged in with my co-worker Kate when I face another self-centered colleague in the future?

Jesus had an interesting relationship with his enemies, with those who saw him as a threat to Judaism and plotted his death.  In response to his opponents within the Jewish hierarchy, Jesus often took a time out.  He withdrew for regrouping and renewal of his energies.  He gathered his disciples and he developed two new weapons.  First, the parable and second active nonviolent confrontation.  Jesus’ parables tend to call people to account for their actions but did not directly condemn them.  Parable stories invited self-examination.  They were pointed enough to call his detractors to reassess their lifestyles and yet usually affirmed the enemies dignity as human beings. The parables allowed them freedom to choose their own path.

On the cross, Jesus prayed for those who mocked him.  He asked God to forgive them, for he sensed that they didn’t have a clue what they were doing.  Even with his disciples who betrayed him, Jesus treated them with gentle directness.  On the night of betrayal, as Judas approached Jesus for the identifying kiss, Jesus calls him friend.  He clearly understood human frailty but called Judas beyond it.

Still, admitting that God is not done with me yet, I often feel incapable of such gracious love of enemies.  I can catch myself demonizing others and stop the process of enemy making but the thought of sincerely putting the others’ needs before my own seems insurmountable.   I need baby steps to even consider loving some enemies in the political arena today. Perhaps we all do. 

As I’ve grown in my faith over the years, it is clear to me that there are small steps we might take in the journey toward loving enemies.  First, we must catch ourselves in the early stages of enemy making in our minds.  We can then differentiate between the other person’s evil behavior versus being evil. Clearly, through a process of discernment, we must name evil practices and systems in the world but we should stop prior to condemning evil persons to hell.  Second, it helps to imagine the others woundedness and pain and to imagine how they view the situation.  Most people are not engaged in outright conscious cruelty but are simply protecting themselves and their family.  This is the progress I was able to make with the Israeli settlers.  Third, scripture suggests that we pray for those who persecute us.  I know the importance of prayer for dealing with enemies.  Turning the stressful relationship over to God and asking for healing and guidance for both myself and the enemy moves the relationship in a more loving direction.  As we listen to God in prayer, we can begin to confront the fear that the “other” creates in us and turn that fear over to God.  Fourth, I have found release in sharing my struggles with empathetic, nonjudgmental friends.  To share our stories and have them acknowledged can aid in the journey.  Fifth, in some cases, it is appropriate to share our concerns with the enemy and to hear their perspective. When we are willing to be transparent and to listen, we have a chance of moving beyond our righteous indignation.  But in the end, I believe that agape love of enemy, the sixth and final step, is a gift from God rather than an act of will.  Perhaps the most important step is to open ourselves to this divine love in prayer.

Dostoyevsky in his classic novel Brothers Karamazov counsels, “At some ideas you stand perplexed, especially at the sight of human sins, uncertain whether to combat it by force or by human love. If you make up your mind about that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world.  Loving humility is a terrible force; it is the stronger of all things and there is nothing like it.”

After all Jesus says, if we love only those who love us, what reward will we have?  And if we welcome only our brothers and sisters in the faith, how are we any better than nonbelievers?  But I tell you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be Children of God.

Testaments of Love by Leon Morris
The Upside Down Kingdom by Don Kraybill
The Love of Enemies and Nonretaliation by William Swartley
The Journey toward Reconciliation by John Paul Lederach
Love Your Enemies by John Piper
Love of Enemies: The Way of Peace by William Klassen
Engaging the Powers by Walter Wink
Shared 1/14/2001


Matthew 5:43-48; The Message Version.  This is Jesus preaching to his followers

43-47 “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ Today, I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a reward? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. 48 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Romans 12:14-20; The Message; this is Apostle Paul advising the new church in Rome
14-16 Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t aim to be the great somebody.
17-19 Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”20-21 Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; transform evil by doing good.