It’s right there in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus calls us to love our enemies because God loves God’s enemies. Jesus further states that as we love our enemies, we become children of God. The Greek actually says we shall become “sons of God.” Jesus’ Jewish culture had not yet advanced to inclusive language. However, in Jewish thinking to be “the son of” something meant to show the character of whatever you are the son of. If you are the son of righteousness, then you are a righteous person. If you are the son of darkness, then you are an evil person. Jesus by using the phrase “the son of” announces that as we love our enemies, we are like God. We demonstrate God’s radical, unconditional, indiscriminate love.
But let’s face it. This is probably the most difficult teaching for us to follow. There are other traditions in other religions which also call for its adherents to love their enemies. Jesus, however, made it a central and distinct factor of his teachings and his life.
I would suggest that there are several problems we have regarding loving our enemies (other than the fact that it is difficult to do and runs counter to our natural tendency to hate, condemn, and strike out at our enemies). I want to explore some of these other reasons as to why we may have so much trouble with this teaching.
- We tend to have a rather sentimental notion of love. Too many of us think that to love someone is to like them. But Jesus did not say, “Like your enemies.” He said we are to love our enemies. The kind of love Jesus is talking about is not about emotions or sentimentality. There are some people we simply do not and cannot like. I don’t think I could ever like Hitler, a rabid KKK member, someone who abuses children, or some of the religious and political leaders of our day. The love Jesus commands us to have is what some have called “in spite of” love. In spite of what others do and are, we are called to want the best for them—to truly pray and work for their joy and healing. The love Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount is a product of the will, not of the emotions. We don’t have to like anyone, but we are called to love everyone. And in doing so, we are like our Heavenly Mother/Father.
- William Sloane Coffin has thousands of insightful and instructive quotes. Here’s one: In contrast to many a preacher today, Jesus knew that “love your enemies” didn’t mean “Don’t make any.” If we faithfully follow Jesus we will make enemies. If we speak truth to power we will make enemies. If we seek justice we will make enemies. If we stand with the oppressed and disadvantaged we will make enemies. Frankly, anyone who has no enemies is probably not a devoted follower of Jesus. Our Lord had enemies. They condemned him and some of them called for his death. Pilate, who ordered Jesus crucified, was Jesus’ enemy. Recall all those in the various justice movements in the last century and you will find that every one of them faced opposition (sometimes violent opposition) and made enemies. Jesus is aware that our faithfulness to his gospel message of justice, peace, and reconciliation will make us enemies. He assumes that will be the case which is why he tells us to love our enemies. Archbishop Dom Helder Carmara once said that when he fed the hungry, he was called a saint. When he began to ask why people were hungry, he was called a Communist. Once he asked why there is such debilitating poverty, he made enemies in the church, the government, and his culture. If we have no enemies, perhaps we should reexamine our faith and discipleship.
- Is it possible that telling the truth to our world and our enemies is a part of the love to which we are called? The enemies we make who oppress others and create painful conditions for many in our world need the truth which alone can set them (as well as those they oppress) free. Jesus confronted those who excluded, condemned, persecuted, and endangered others. He did so as a prophet who spoke truth to power. But he still loved those he confronted.
One of my favorite followers of Jesus is John Woolman (1720-1772). He was a Quaker who was among the first to call for the abolition of slavery. He met with slaveholders and convinced some of them to free their slaves. He spoke truth to power but always in love. And he perceived that the slaveholders also suffered from slavery. Their souls withered as they treated their fellow humans so cruelly. Woolman sought to liberate the slave from his slavery and the slaveholder from the sin that was destroying his very being at the deepest level.
The kind of love Jesus was calling us to have for our enemies does not mean we are never to confront our enemies with their part in the injustices that afflict our world. In fact, the strong and courageous love Jesus calls us to embrace and demonstrate requires us to speak truth to power. Only when evil is exposed and defected from can there be a healing of both the oppressed and the oppressor. Truth/ confession/ repentance must always come before there can be healing and reconciliation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu taught us that through the Truth and Reconciliation movement after the end of Apartheid. We must love our enemies enough to tell them the truth. (Of course, we must also examine our own sin and complicity before, during, and after we speak the truth. But we must speak the truth about the sin of oppression which is suffered by hundreds of millions of God’s children every day they draw breath.)
Caryll Houselander (1901-1954) was a Christian mystic who one day discovered an amazing truth which emerged from her belief that Christ is everywhere. If Christ/God is everywhere, then Christ/God is also in the sinner—even in the most terrible sinner. After this revelation she wrote the following:
I saw too the reverence that everyone must have for a sinner; instead of condoning his sin, which is in reality their utmost sorrow, one must comfort Christ who is suffering in him. And this reverence must be paid even to those sinners whose souls seem to be dead, because it is Christ who is the life of the soul, who is dead in them; they are his tombs, and Christ in the tomb is potentially the risen Christ.
Let me tell you something that very few Christians are aware of today in our churches. In the fourth century CE the majority of Christians believed that everybody will be saved, healed, redeemed, and made whole. The amazing grace they experienced as they centered themselves in God’s love and the astonishing truth of the resurrection of Jesus made them so much a people of hope that they had hope for every single person who had ever lived, was living at that time, and would live in the future. They believed that Christ was in every part of creation—even in the darkest soul of the worst of human beings. And they trusted that the same grace which liberated them would liberate all. With such faith, hope, and love there was no place for despair for themselves, others, or creation itself. Christ might be dead in the souls of many in the sense that they have rejected the way of Christ and the love of God. But those early Christians believed that the dead Christ in those souls was destined for resurrection. And they saw the love they had for their enemies as they spoke truth to power, exposed evil for what it was, and trusted in the final victory of God over death (both physical and spiritual death) for every part of creation to be a contributing factor in that universal healing and reconciliation.
I am so comforted and challenged by the words of Caryll Houselander. In fact, I am astounded that I never made the connection she did as I too believe with the Rhineland mystics that the Cosmic Christ is everywhere. With that insight, I can love my enemies with a reverence for the Christ who is suffering in them, who is buried in the tomb of their souls, and who potentially can be the risen Christ even in such desolate graves. So, I will try to love my enemies by speaking the truth in love, exposing the evil which is hurting the oppressed and the oppressor (but always with humility—I did say I will TRY) and always hold close the hope that Christ can rise again even in the darkest of tombs.