Jesus tells his followers that, contrary to what they have heard in the past, they are to love their enemies and even pray for those who persecute them. (Matthew 5:43) Similarly, Paul enjoins the Christians in Rome not to avenge themselves on their enemies but rather to leave such matters to the Lord, and in the meantime compassionately seek to meet their enemies’ needs. (Romans 12:17-21) What are we to make of this?
Some would argue that to follow Jesus Christ commits one to a kind of faithful pacifism. That is a defensible interpretation of Jesus’ words, and some saints have embodied just that reading of the text. One advantage of following this understanding of Jesus’ words is that the way of life they set in motion makes it clear enemies are an ever-present accompaniment to the Christian life. That does not mean the Christian life is a passive-aggressive pose or quick to take offense or look for some kind of martyrdom, but it does mean the way of the cross can never be far from the believer’s mind or heart or life. Discipleship is always a contested matter. The Christian life is a gift but also a struggle, and the gospel to which it seeks to witness is not the world’s wisdom. Indeed, the way of the cross often commits its followers to a life lived in joyful opposition to the culture’s expectations and norms.
Perhaps this is obvious, though judging by the lack of talk in the church about our “enemies,” perhaps not. So much of the church’s more recent efforts to interpret the faith appear to be aimed at persuading ourselves and others that we have no real enemies, and that our main task as Christians is to be nice, inclusive and helpful. Our efforts at hospitality only confirm our niceness. And even when we split, we do so “amicably,” after which our conversations with each other are confined to pleasantries. We rarely grant the gospel the dignity of its own scandal. Enemies are scary, difficult and, well, time-consuming. How much better to be insulated from such intrusions altogether. Our relative affluence aids us in this regard, granting us the luxury of keeping such intrusions at a safe distance.
I am not a pacifist, but I suspect that our desire to be free of having enemies only testifies the more powerfully to their continuing hold on us, just as our laborious exertions to ignore this aspect of the faith only serve to undermine it while giving more power to the very enemies we deny having.
Why should any of this matter? I am far from the first to note that as a nation our political discourse has become coarser, our rhetoric more vicious, our culture less forgiving. Wiser observers than I have even suggested that we are rapidly becoming a “post-Christian” nation (which raises the question of whether we were ever a Christian nation) that finds such injunctions as “love your enemies” ludicrous or incoherent. While many might celebrate the decline of the faith and even regard it as a liberating sign of maturity, the fact is our growing secularity has not yielded a more generous vision of human life. Rather, it has led to more intense divisions that seem viscerally opposed to one another, creating enmities unredeemed by any higher claims than their own hatred for the other. Unable to appeal to the gift of something as vaporous as “love,” the tribes on the right and the left mirror each other’s rhetoric even as they need each other’s resentments to fuel their own.
So what does “love your enemies” mean in such a context? I do not pretend to know all it might mean. I am suspicious of interpretations that would authorize some romantic effort to embrace our enemies as if we were “passing the peace” during worship. I suspect it requires something more difficult than that. But I am also wary of the temptation to ignore this command as simply unrealistic or worse, or idealize it into a counsel of perfection for especially gifted Christians, or even worse, smother it with sentiment that refuses to recognize the enemies that discipleship inevitably incurs. Whatever else love means in this regard, I suspect the vapors that surround it dissipate when its substance is revealed to be cruciform in shape.
Let me suggest a more modest approach, one I offer not as a comprehensive interpretation of Jesus’ challenging words, but one that seeks to follow in the direction to which they point.
Viewed narrowly, loving one’s enemies makes little sense as a strategy. It makes a great deal of sense as a confession of faith in the One whose love for his enemies denied their enmity power to define his life’s meaning. What these enemies wanted was an enemy. What they meant for evil, God turned to good. The cross, a symbol of shame and rejection, became the one sign of hope for us all, including those who would style themselves as our enemies.
The real threat that our enemies represent to us today is that our hatred of them will define who we are and thus give them power to define the meaning of our lives. That is something the gospel is unwilling to let happen. The meaning of our lives belongs no more to our enemies than it does to ourselves. The best thing we can do to love our enemies is to confess our faith in that One who refuses to take their enmity as seriously as it wants to be taken, and instead absorbs its poison in the ocean of his forgiveness. It is not as if this One denies their enmity or smothers it with a dismissive sentiment of “love,” but rather that he refuses to let their enmity do the one thing it wants to do, which is to claim him for itself. To love one’s enemies is, in this sense, to be set free from engaging them on their own terms. And by raising this possibility, this freedom will enable our enemies to confront, if not discover, a deeper humanity.
In many ways, this seems to me to represent the theology behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s work in confronting a segregationist South. He had enemies, one of whom killed him. But he did not give his enemies the power to define him as their enemy. Indeed, he appealed to their own Christian convictions, basing his appeal on the very Scriptures that informed their deepest beliefs. He took their theology seriously enough to engage it with his own. What was striking about his work was the theological freedom he found in Scripture and his own tradition to preach the gospel, to do what the church has always been called upon to do but always finds so difficult. King was so much more than a civil rights leader or a dreamer or visionary. He was a theologian of the church and a preacher who was sustained by the faith and saints of his own congregation who helped him live the word he was charged with proclaiming, and to do so in such a way that the terms of engagement with the culture would be transformed. His preaching consistently raised the possibility that his enemies (and perhaps also his friends) did not want to be raised — namely, that they too were subject to the gospel Jesus Christ embodied. Such a narrative envisioned not just support for a particular cause but the liberating grace that would free enemies even from their own enmity, setting them free from the enslavement to a racist ideology, setting them free to discover their own humanity.
When King was murdered, and often since then, he has been viewed as a civil rights leader, which of course he was. But what has often been overlooked is that this man was a preacher, a theologian, a pastor. That was the source of his freedom, I suspect, not his political savvy or ideological commitments.
In the early 1930s, when Hitler was just beginning to integrate all of German society and culture into the Third Reich, Karl Barth wrote a pamphlet titled “Theological existence today.” In it, he notes that he was being urged by friends and students to “speak to the situation” as a theologian. He refused to do this, or at least to “speak to the situation” as if the situation was the necessity that dictated what a theologian of the gospel should say. Instead he proposed to do theology “as if nothing had happened.” He did not mean by this that he had nothing to say or that the gospel was too “spiritual” to take on political realities. Indeed, he sent a copy of his pamphlet to Hitler. What he did mean was that the theology and preaching of the church possessed a kind of freedom that could not be reduced to a particular cause, however good it might seem. The end of faith does not yield that kind of victory. What the church is called to do is to preach the gospel. No other agency has that charge. And when the church does preach the gospel, it helps the culture raise the kind of questions that need to be asked. Often these are not the questions the culture thinks important. No matter, the gospel creates its own questions just as it creates its own hearers.
One of the greatest mission workers of the 20th century and one of its great theologians was Lesslie Newbigin, a man who spent over 30 years as a mission worker to India, a Presbyterian who became the first bishop (!) of the Church of South India, a missionary who, when he retired from the mission field in India, settled in Birmingham, England, to pastor an inner-city congregation struggling to proclaim the gospel in what some might regard as an unpromising setting. Consider these words, taken from his book “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society”:
In discussions about the contemporary mission of the Church it is often said that the Church ought to address itself to the real questions which people are asking. That is to misunderstand the mission of Jesus and the mission of the Church. The world’s questions are not the questions which lead to life. What really needs to be said is that where the Church is faithful to its Lord, there the powers of the kingdom are present and people begin to ask the question to which the gospel is the answer. And that, I suppose, is why the letters of St. Paul contain so many exhortations to faithfulness but no exhortations to be active in mission.
It is a mark of our loss of confidence in the gospel that we think that our preaching is not the most radical thing the church can do. Or the most interesting. We would rather “speak to the situation” in the hope of demonstrating the relevance of the church to the world, a form of relevance that soon reduces the church to an echo chamber of the culture, domesticating the message of the gospel to the culture’s norms and rendering that message impossibly boring.
Loving one’s enemies presupposes a gospel that defines its strange and peculiar notion of love in cruciform terms. Such a gospel, far from being neutral or above the fray, redefines what the fray is, just as it has a way of turning defeats into victories, suffering into joy, and most surprising of all, enemies into friends.
THOMAS W. CURRIE is professor emeritus of theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.