Jesus taught us to love our enemies. While central to everything he taught, the church has long evaded its straight-forward implications. What then are we to do with his words?
This teaching goes against all reason, a love that goes beyond common sense. This teaching reflects the love revealed on Calvary, but this goes against our instinct of self-preservation, and it goes against a conviction we have all been enculturated to believe. We are trained to operate within the logic of the myth of redemptive violence, which assumes that violence solves problems.
For the first three centuries, the church embraced this non-violent perspective, but things changed when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and then gave them a seat at the table running the Roman empire. Thinkers like Augustine spent extensive energy to find ways to justify violence. As a result, we eventually ended up with what is called the Just War Theory, where a group can argue that we should kill one-another if we have logical reasons to do so.
But there is a problem: People always feel justified when acting violently. Thus, we water down “loving enemies” into something like, “loving our grouchy in-laws.” But Jesus calls for an un-commonsensical love. For first century Palestinian Jews, “enemies” were the Romans, who were terrorists. If there was not an exception in the first century for the Romans, there are no exceptions for any other time.
Another tactic taken by Augustine operates around the question: What really is love? Commenting on Jesus’ teaching to never retaliate and to turn the other cheek, Augustine wrote, “What is here required is not a bodily action, but an inward disposition.” He argued, you can love someone in your heart while nevertheless torturing them. Therefore we don’t actually have to take Jesus’ words seriously.
Let’s consider this passage from this point of view: What if someone broke into your home and was threatening to harm your spouse, friend, child or partner? What if we start with the assumption that, if we can’t see the goodness of a teaching of Jesus when he’s teaching on love, the problem is with us. If we practice non-violence day in and day out, we’ll develop the character that sees the goodness of Jesus’ teaching. We then will be more likely to develop a character that isn’t just trying to obey a rule. We actually love the aggressor.
Therefore, we would do everything we could to prevent this person from harming a family member. Not only because I love my family member, but also because I love my enemy. Killing is off the table. Obeying Jesus’ teaching only makes sense, and is only made possible, when we live in an eternal narrative instead of a finite narrative.
Stanley Hauerwas writes:
“We cannot deny that in certain circumstances it may be necessary to watch others die unjustly – which is surely harder even than envisioning our own deaths. The only thing worse would be our failing to witness to our brother and sister that God’s love took the form of a cross so that the powers that make our world so violent might be defeated. That our death and the death of others might be required if we are faithful to that cross cannot be denied, but it would only be more tragic if we died in a manner that underwrites the pagan assumption that nothing is more tragic than death itself. Without such an eschatological conviction, how the Christian pacifist serves the neighbor in a violent world cannot help but be unintelligible.” – Stanley Hauerwas, “On Being a Church Capable of Addressing a World at War”
We can only commit to loving life-threatening enemies to the degree in which we’re confident we never really die.
A person or people group will always feel justified using violence to defend or promote their highest ideals – whether this ideal be a country, a philosophy, or themselves. Unless their highest ideal includes the call to love enemies and the absolute prohibition on violence, people will continue to kill other people in the name of their highest ideal. Our job is to be like John the Baptist and prepare the way of the Lord. To be a window through which those who have eyes to see can behold a reflection of this beautiful, loving, and non-violent Kingdom.
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