Thursday, November 5, 2009

What does it Really Mean to Love Our Enemies?

Perhaps one of the most troubling and ignored commands of Jesus is the order to love our enemies. Spoken in the same context as Jesus’ recognition that we are called to love our neighbors, i.e. those easier to love, Jesus’ command to love our enemies must find equal authority in our lives if we seek to be faithful followers.

Indeed, in the context of Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus reverses an original command, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ to reflect what he believed about the new rule of God, “But I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

These words must have been shocking to his original hearers, as they are shocking even to us who hear them today. Perhaps they tried to explain his command away or simply ignored it all together, much like we do in both intellectual and practical ways. After all, it is perhaps the most difficult command to live.

But we must ask the more practical question, “How are we to love our enemies?” In other words, in what realistic ways are we to express the transformative and redemptive love of God to those who have wronged us? If Jesus has commanded his followers to love their enemies, then such love must be authenticated through tangible action. But through what actions do we express this kind of love?

There are many good deeds we could view as actions of love, but there are some foundational actions that are at the core of the gospel message that God loves the world. In fact, while many acts of goodness could be discussed, it seems to me that Jesus modeled for us three primary actions and reactions towards those who were his enemies.

First, we must respond to the harm that is done to us by our enemies with actions that are nonviolent. When Jesus was arrested in the garden, the height of conflict between him and his enemies, he responded with nonviolence and called his disciples to do the same. While those who came to seize him carried swords and clubs, Jesus reacted to their aggression with peacefulness. Thus, a reaction to a wrong done to us by our enemies that is both an authentic and transformative expression of Christ’s love is always nonviolent.

This does not prevent us from seeking justice, but it does call us to seek true justice that breaks a cycle of hatred and violence. Moreover, Jesus’ command for us to turn the other cheek is not a command for us to become weak in the face of evil done against us. Rather, through our turning our cheek, we express a strength that epitomizes the actions of Christ and opens the possibility for authentic love and lasting peace between us and our enemies.

Second, in loving our enemies we must express to them an unconditional forgiveness for the wrongs they have committed against us. God’s forgiveness for us is not based on our own action of confession and repentance. God’s forgiveness is unconditional and extends to those who have committed the most gravest of sins. Thus, if we are to reveal the character of God to others, then we must extend the same kind of forgiveness that God has so graciously extended to us.

Yet, forgiveness is not simply the overlooking of a wrong that has been committed. Those who commit wrongs against others and against society should be brought to justice. There are offenses and crimes that cannot be excused. However, the justice we seek is not a condition for the forgiveness we are called to offer. We are not commanded to forgive when someone serves their penalty for a wrong. We are called to forgive apart from that penalty.

Third, through the strength Christ gives us to love our enemies, we must be moved to the point of welcoming and embracing our enemies. We can look to Jesus’ experience with Judas, the one who would betray him, to see this very action. Jesus remained in table fellowship with Judas to the very end; an act which served as an expression of hospitality and intimacy. Serving as host, Jesus not only shared a meal with Judas, he also washed the feet of his would be enemy.

To be sure, these are challenging steps for us to take. But loving our enemies is part of the gospel of discipleship. If we only voice an insincere and distant love for enemies in an attempt to convince ourselves that we are right with God, then we have failed to love our enemies and we have failed to live the gospel.

Faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a mental assent to a set of propositions about who Jesus was. Authentic faith can only be expressed by taking up the cross and following Jesus. Discipleship is a call to die to ourselves, including our need for vengeance against our enemies. Discipleship is a call to enact God’s redemptive and transformative love for all people through nonviolence, forgiveness, and embrace of those we see as our enemies.


Lindsay said...

Another really good post, Drew. It came at a time where I'm dealing with this very thing.

asin-an said...

"ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines -- The body of murdered public school head teacher Gabriel Canizares was found near a military camp in Patikul town, Sulu, on Monday, five hours after, and two kilometers away from the place where his severed head was found.

"Canizares’ head was found near the Jolo police station in Sulu on Monday morning and his body was found near the main gate of a military camp in Patikul town.

"Canizares was abducted by armed men suspected to be Abu Sayyaf bandits on October 19. But his case got less media attention as it was overshadowed by the kidnapping of Irish priest Michael Sinnott in Pagadian City on Oct. 11."

Drew, how can I love enemies like these who are living in our midst? I am a Filipino Catholic and while I live in another island away from the scene of crime mentioned above, I can't help feeling intense hatred for the terrorists committing the crime.

By the way, I've been reading almost all your articles and I usually find them elucidating. But this article about loving your enemies... it is quite hard to grasp. I included the news article above to contextualize the confusion I feel about the meaning of "loving your enemies". Am I missing something? I like to believe that Jesus' way of loving your enemies, as you explained in your article, really is the way. But when confronted by these heinous acts, I feel angry and I wish God to strike these guys dead. If I have the means to kill these guys right now, I will do so without hesitation. But what will Jesus do in this situation?


Lindsay said...

Ed, Really curious re: Drew's response to your question. No easy answers that I can think of. The illustration you give reminds me of those I've heard from friends in countries where persecution of believers isn't uncommon i.e. India, Pakistan to name a few.

It helps me to consider how those who were martyred in Scripture responded to their tormentors... with grace that I can't "wrap my mind around". I do know that loving our enemies in instances such as the one you describe takes nothing less than Supernatural love that only God can supply. Hoping Drew will respond publically to your query.

C. Drew Smith, Ph.D. said...

Sorry. I was planning on responding sooner, but you know how things go. I agree with Ed that is is difficult, even impossible to love another who commits such acts of atrocity. As I said, love and forgiveness does not mean we excuse those who do such things. But nevertheless, we are called to love.
I will be the first to admit that I don't do this very well.

But I think there is a more practical aspect to this that is not limited to Christianity or religion in general. If we are out for revenge because we believe that brings justice, then we are only living the way that they live.

What I think Jesus was saying, and what I believe Gandhi's message was about is that to love our enemies is the higher ground- the place at which we reflect the presence of the divine in our lives.

Moreover, Dr. King stated that love is the only force that can turn an enemy into a friend. The end goal is reconciliation.

But I reiterate- this is not easy to do, but those who have done it changed their worlds.

asin-an said...

Thank you for taking time in giving additional explanations about your original article on loving one's enemies.

As I write this comment I read that the kidnappers released Fr. Sinnott, the Irish missionary priest kidnapped a couple of weeks ago. I am relieved but I can not "love" (yet) those kidnappers.

Drew, perhaps there is something amiss in the way I use or understand the English word "love". It is not uncommon for you, native English speakers, to use the word "love" to different life situations.... I love my dog....I love my car...I love my house... Certainly the word "love" acquires different meanings when used in different ways...

In our language, love can either be interpreted to mean "pagmamahal" or "pag-ibig". Though they mean the same thing in English, love, there are fine distinctions as to their usage.For instance, I will never use the word "pag ibig" when referring to my love for my dog; I use "mahal" instead. I use the word "pag ibig" in reference to my wife or a close friend but never about my mother or child. "Pag mamahal" connotes valuing somebody; pagibig connotes valuing plus the element of intimacy. I can go on and on but the point is... we are using different languages in describing or interpreting different life situations.

What was the original word used by Christ in expressing "love your enemies"? In what context was it used?