“What does it mean to love our enemies?” is the question I have been grappling with.
Let me begin to identify what I think it doesn’t mean.
When Jesus instructs us as followers to turn the other cheek, I don’t think it means if your younger sister/daughter is sexually assaulted, give them your neighbor’s sister/daughter. When Jesus says to pray for those who persecute you, I don’t think it also means to aid them in more efficient means of harming you. And I don’t think when he prays to the Father to forgive the crowd at Calvary that He is asking to also keep them free from justice and keep them blind in their ignorance.
I know even those who disagree with me here will agree that we need to appreciate the context of Jesus’ words. Jesus is talking to Jews whose land is being occupied by the Romans. Further, their religious leaders are not looking after the people’s best interest but rather many are not only not defending them but actually exploiting them. So as a young Jewish man gets pushed around while looking for work, Jesus is telling him to not retaliate. Because in so many words, when you do, you yield your control to your enemy/persecutor. So after being slapped in the face, instead of pulling out your dagger and defending your honor, demonstrate your resilience by offering them the other side of your face. This is similar to the idea of the second mile. When forced to carry the soldier’s gear, volunteer your kindness by walking another. You are demonstrating your freedom that God Himself has given you. This is in part what Jesus is saying.
We as 21st century Christians “occupying” the United States have a different perspective in contrast to the aforementioned first century Israeli. I firmly believe that while Jesus’ words still carry much essential relevance to us today, He would have said something different had He been preaching to us now. (I also think He would have said something different had He had the platform to speak to the Romans of His day but that’s another story).
From where I sit, loving our enemies includes many things including: praying for them, expressing kindness to them when possible, seeking resolve, offering peace, etc. I think it’s worth asking, “What does praying for our enemies actually mean?” Am I praying they enjoy a long healthy life, enjoy the love of a good woman, well-adjusted children and the adoration of their grandchildren? Am I praying the Lord will make their paths straight. Am I praying their mission of my destruction be accomplished?
I’ll tell you what I am picturing when I pray for my enemies. That their hearts will be changed by the Holy Spirit. I know how that sounds. But I pray the violent will lay down their weapons and schemes, accept the nearness and love of God Himself. May they also enjoy the benevolence of the world and I pray the world would be generous in loving, giving, and forgiving and may it begin with the Church.
And what about ourselves and others? Loving ourselves, our families, the strangers in our midst also means those things and includes self-defense, standing up for the weaker, taking the plight of the oppressed and seeking the discernment between selfless kindness and moral justice in all situations. Because we cannot enable or cheer on our enemies as they destroy the weaker. In fact, we must act decisively to stop them.
Loving our enemy also brings the notion of correcting our enemy (depending on the position of course). Just as we correct those we love, when our motivation is not rooted in selfishness, correcting our enemy is an act of love. In this way, we are to rebuke our enemy, forgive our enemy, do whatever is appropriate to convert our enemy to our friend. But it also means disciplining our enemy. But this works both ways. We too must be willing to be corrected by our enemy, rebuked, and forgiven by them.
I find Dietrich Bonhoeffer to be helpful here. His participation in the assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler bears great significance to me. In Ethics, Bonhoeffer makes a theological case for human rights as God’s will and as His gift. “Since by God’s will human life on earth exists only as bodily life, the body has a right to be preserved for the sake of the whole person. Since all rights are extinguished at death, the preservation of bodily life is the very foundation of all natural rights and is therefore endowed with special importance” (p. 154). Thus he argus that Hitler’s euthanasia policy is a violation of God’s will and the basic right to life.
Later he creates an analogy that if a plague broke out on a ship that had no facilities for isolation, the healthy could only be saved by the death of the sick. “In this case, the decision would have to remain open” (p. 154). History tells us the decision he went with. (I have borrowed and paraphrased this section from the recent book Bonhoeffer and King edited by Jenkins and McBride.)
I think of other villains like Joseph Kony, human traffickers, the Somali pirates and terrorists in general. It’s nearly impossible to tolerate an argument that says, “We are turning young boys into child-soldiers because of Western Imperialism” or “We are selling young girls and boys as prostitutes because of our poverty” or “We are strapping bombs to ourselves and jumping on buses and trains because we are offended by your materialism and hedonism.” Sometimes propaganda is another person’s gospel and sometimes it’s just deceit.
Now to OBL. Does loving our enemies mean enabling evil-doers? Does praying for enemies mean pardoning a man who killed thousands and ruined the lives of countless more? Like I keep saying, I’m wrestling with the thought of killing an unarmed man. It does frustrate me that the initial reports have changed (from shooting an automatic weapon to being unarmed). There is goodness in bringing such a villain to trial.
That didn’t happen. So what is my response?
In an attempt at being consistent, as I do not believe in theocracies, my posts are geared towards us as a church (in America) should respond. Thus I mourn the evil of that makes such decisions necessary. I pray for the remainder of my enemies that they will allow the Spirit to change their hearts before it’s too late. May me and my community do our part and may we be faithful with the opportunities the Lord has entrusted us with.
As always, know that I welcome the push-backs of my loving sisters and brothers.