Which Part of “Love Your Enemies” Don’t We Understand?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

As I write this, I’m reeling from what I read this morning: 3 people dead, 9 others wounded in an attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.

Just a few days ago, I woke up to a news story about white supremacists shooting 5 people at a Black Lives Matter protest. This was only a few days after over 100 people died in multiple attacks in the city of Paris. Over 40 dead in bombings in Beirut. Countless dead in Iraq and Syria every day.

The litany of death coming from the news is unending, and it feels like I have lived my entire adult life in the shadow of violence and terrorism.

One of the most hurtful things about this shadow is that it’s been the shadow of my own faith and the faith of so many others around the world.

Before I continue, let me say this: I do not believe, as many do, that religion is the cause of every violent act in the history of mankind. I don’t even believe that religion is the cause of most violent acts. Political ideology is at least as potent a motivator for violence as religion is, and it’s unfortunate that those two get confused in so many cases. Religious extremism can often be traced back to a political ideology that uses religious language to justify itself: Dominionism, Nationalist Zionism, and ISIS are all examples of this.

However, I do believe that people of faith, as a whole, have not done enough to condemn and resist the violent attitudes that take root in the language of faith. Our Muslim brothers and sisters have actually led the way in this regard, with influential Muslim scholars and clerics denouncing violent extremists after ever high-profile attack carried about by radicals that use Islam as their justification.

Christian leaders, on the other hand, have fallen far behind in condemning the violence in our own house. When someone carries out a religiously motivated attack in the name of Christianity, they are characterized as a “lone wolf” or “mentally disturbed”, rather than as radical Christians or Christian terrorists. Regardless of what some groups would have you believe, there is no mass profiling of Christians as potential terrorists or dangerous radicals. There are no calls to shut down churches or make Christians carry ID cards or wear ID badges.

Yet, there are Christian terrorist groups at large in the world. “Anti-balaka” groups, or Christian militias, in the Central African Republic have been engaged in a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” (read: genocide) against the minority Muslim population for years. Groups like The Army of God, The Phineas Priesthood, and The Concerned Christians operate in the United States, advocating and perpetrating violence against non-white Americans, Muslims (or any people of Arabic descent), and abortion providers. And, while groups like the Family Research Council and the American Family Association – as well as individual religious leaders like Franklin Graham – continue to espouse non-violent means, their irresponsible and inflammatory language against LGBT persons, abortion providers, liberals, and Muslims over the years (comparisons to Nazis, claims of persecution against Christians in America) have certainly had the potential to incite violence against these marginalized groups (though it would be difficult to prove a direct link.)

There is no difference between these groups, other than the ideology that they espouse. Their purpose, one and all, is to establish the dominance of their particular political ideology, and they use the language of faith as justification. Each of these groups desires the death of their enemies, and each group is willing to use horrific and barbaric means to achieve those ends.

My knowledge of Islam is that of a student, rather than an adherent. My knowledge of Christianity is that of a lifelong adherent. I have been in the church – and have considered myself devout – for all but a few of my 33 years. And, so, I write today primarily about the Christian side of this equation.

I cannot pretend to speak to those groups that actually perpetuate violence in the name of our faith. These people are so far gone from the Way of Jesus that I don’t know that words can soften the hardness and stubbornness of their hearts.

No, today I speak to the enablers and the inciters: to the Franklin Grahams, the Pat Robertsons, the Ken Swansons, the Tony Perkinses, the Bryan Fishers, and the Kim Davises of the world. I speak to those men and women who have violent attitudes, who use violent means – even if that violence is not a physical violence. I speak to those whose violence is psychological and emotional. Not only to those whose names are familiar, I speak to all of those whose platforms are Facebook, Twitter, and the family dinner table. I speak to all of those Christians around us who use the same kind of violence. And, I ask a simple question.

What part of ‘love your enemies’ don’t you understand?

I quoted Jesus on this issue at the top of the blog. It’s one of the most well-known of all of Jesus’ teachings, and possibly the least followed. It’s a teaching that’s unpopular with both Christians and non-Christians. It’s the hardest teaching of all.

And, as I have said many times, it is a teaching that can save us.

We have created a lot of enemies in post-9/11 America. Our President at the time famously said, “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” (Jesus is credited with saying, “Whoever is not for us is against us”, but another Gospel credits Him with saying the opposite, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”) That attitude of opposites, the attitude of polarization, of us-vs-them has been the guiding force of much of our cultural conversation since 9/11. Conservatives and Liberals have slowly slid further away from each other on the political spectrum. Cultural conflicts have become sharp divides in some cases, all-out warfare in others. We have been in armed conflict in the middle east for 14 years without ceasing (and sporadically in the years prior.) We have made enemies of Muslims in the Middle East, of racial and cultural minorities here at home, of law enforcement, of nearly every group imaginable.

And, it’s killing us. It’s a slow death by suicide, this constant state of war that we have declared on ourselves. We have made enemies without and enemies within, until all that’s left to fight is ourselves.

Jesus was all too familiar with this state of affairs. He lived under a brutal occupation by a vast and powerful empire. He made enemies of many of the leaders of His own religion. And, still, He preached a message of enemy love, and enemy forgiveness.

So many Christians (myself included) are willing to follow Jesus when it makes us feel good. Jesus tells us to give to the poor and feed the hungry, and we do it. Many of us do it because we have compassion, but we can’t deny that it makes us feel warm inside as well. Jesus tells us to be humble, to avoid wealth, to remain faithful to our spouses, to not divorce… and we do all those things, because those are rules, and rules are relatively easy to follow. There is a quality of right-and-wrong, good-and-evil to those commands: a dichotomy that fits comfortably into religious faith. It goes along with the obsession with the Levitical law and the rules of Paul: rules are easy.

Loving enemies is difficult, because it requires flexibility, and attitudes and actions that are absolutely counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. Since the dawn of mankind, we don’t love our enemies; we kill them. We don’t forgive our enemies; we hold grudges and create lifelong feuds. We don’t pray for our enemies; we curse them.

But, Jesus demands this of us. I’ve said before that we’re only taking Jesus seriously if we take this teaching seriously.

Loving our enemies means giving up the constant ideological and cultural battles that we engage in with those with whom we disagree.  It requires that we give up warfare as a tool of accomplishing our goals – even if our goal is noble. It requires that we sacrifice our pride.

Loving our enemies doesn’t mean that we condone their behavior, or that we do nothing to stop the spread of dangerous ideas and dangerous behaviors. It does mean that we stop using violence of any kind to resist the people who spread those dangerous ideas and behaviors. We ensure that our words and our actions that resist these dangers are rooted in love (and NOT in the kind of “love” that we invent as an excuse to kill evil people.)

We cannot love our enemies by killing them. We cannot love our enemies by being vindictive towards them. We cannot love our enemies by mocking them or inciting hatred towards them.

We can only love our enemies by praying for them, by forgiving them, by doing good to them.

And, as we commit ourselves to this, we will soon find that we have no enemies left, that all of our enemies have been turned into friends – indeed, into brothers and sisters.