Love Your Enemies… An Ethical Exhortation

* What follows is based on a seminary assignment where we were encouraged to use the indicative (what God has done) to lead to an ethical imperative (what we can do). I wrote a mini-sermon or sermonette 🙂 It is very personal and a bit longer than the average post (about 1500 words), but I trust that if you take the time to read that thoughts will be moving. Love to hear your thoughts…

There once was a boy who lived in the tension between joy and pain; happiness and hurt; light and darkness. At an early age, his parents who loved him dearly, got a divorce. He would go on to live primarily with his mom and would visit his dad every other weekend. This happened at such an early age that the he did not know anything different. Having a family in tact only existed in his clouded dream-like memories, which he could not even confirm were more than mere dreams.

Around the time that this boy was getting ready to begin school, his mom began a relationship with another man. After all, she could use the financial stability that comes from some relationships, because she struggled to maintain a job and mostly relied on welfare. Soon after, this new man began to show his true colors of anger, alcoholism, and abuse. On a sporadic and yet regular basis, this man would beat the boy’s mom and would even take his rage out on this child. At home with mom and the man, this boy’s life became a constant nightmare that he never could seem to quite wake up from.

Now it is true that along side the pain, the boy also experienced joy. His dad, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and church gave him opportunities to know love. Unfortunately, the boy chose to keep these people in the dark because if such things came to light, he feared that his mom would get into trouble. He was protecting her. After all, she truly did love him and hated seeing her son get hurt, but she could not see a way of escape. Nevertheless, as he grew older he knew that a time would come when he would be strong enough, brave enough, and big enough to fight back. If this man, his greatest enemy, continued to make life hellish; a day of vengeance would come when the boy would be able to defend his mom.

There is a story in the bible that we don’t know much about. It comes from Genesis immediately after Cain has killed Able. You may remember that God has mercy on this murderer and makes known to all people that: “anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over” (Gen 4.15). After this, a character named Lamech enters the story and admits to having committed murder. He claims for himself what God had said about Cain: “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (v 24). Notice that this story is a warning to the enemies of Lamech. Anyone who kills or tries to harm Lamech will receive vengeance 77 times worse. This is a story rooted in the idea of the fear of retaliation.

Now in the first century there was a man who taught about a way of God that was rooted not in vengeance, but forgiveness and love toward enemies. One day he was approached by a disciple named Peter who asked: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matt 18.21). Listen to Jesus’ rabbinic response: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (v 22). Can you imagine how revolutionary his words would have sounded if you were a first century Jew for whom the story of Lamech was part of your heritage? You would be saying: so… in the same way that the story of Lamech claimed vengeance toward enemies, Jesus says that this is how often we ought to forgive our enemies! Wow! But we should remember that this is not the first time Jesus has said something like this. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus taught this lesson in another way. He said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” This would be an acceptable ethic to the Lamechs of the world. But the Jesus ethic is different: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matt 5.43-44). Jesus’ way is never about vengeance but is always about reconciliation and forgiveness. He demonstrated that in the most compelling fashion in his journey to the cross. 1 Peter reminds us:

But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps…. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. 1 Peter 2.20-21, 23

Now think back to the boy in our story and the pain he endured in his life. How would he respond to his enemy? To this man who acted as an intruder into his family and caused so much darkness and pain? Eventually he would be strong enough, brave enough, and big enough. But maybe the question should not be about: how should the boy respond? Perhaps a different question is required. What if the answer is not embedded in the question of the boy’s response, but rather is rooted in this question: what has God done as a response to his enemies? Well this begs another question: who exactly are God’s enemies? To discern these questions, lets turn our attention to Romans 5.10 which states: “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” So lets think about this. Who are the enemies of God? We are… But in spite of this reality, notice how God responded to his enemies (aka: humanity). He initiated relationship with us by absorbing the violence of evil through the obedient action of his Son Jesus! Jesus not only taught forgiveness (which has as its ultimate goal, reconciliation), but he took the initiative on God’s behalf to reconcile his enemies to a properly centered relationship with him! He could have fought back. Jesus is strong enough, brave enough, and big enough; but instead of the road of retaliation, he chose to walk the road to the cross. This is because his accomplishment on Calvary is so great that it makes impossibilities, possible. We, who were the enemies of God, have been reconciled by the faithful action of Jesus!

Lets return to the boy in our story one last time. A time finally came when he was probably strong enough, brave enough, and big enough to fight back. By this time, the man was far removed from the family that he had once brought pain to. Even so, in the back of the boy-turned-young-man’s mind was the thought that if this enemy ever were to creep back into the picture, he could now fight back. But then this boy-turned-young-man had an encounter with Jesus that changed the question from: how to respond? [to] how has God responded? God through Christ’s faithfulness offers forgiveness for the purpose of reconciling his enemies to himself. And having received such a generous and restorative gift the boy-turned-young-man came to realize that he could not help but give it away, even to his childhood enemy. God’s attitude and action toward his enemies not only served as an example for him, but also had become the overflow of his heart. How could he not pay forward the generosity that he had experienced from his heavenly father to forgive this quasi-earthly-father? The boy, whose name is Kurt, eventually (with God’s help) decided to let go of vengeance and to extend forgiveness. To let go of the need to be ready to defend, and to choose to learn a posture of love toward my enemy. Because of this, I have been able to pray for my childhood enemy. I have been enabled to wish God’s best for him. This is not always easy and at times in my journey the temptation has been to return to hatred and un-forgiveness. However, as I grow into the love of God, I cannot help but dream of the day when my childhood enemy will experience the reconciling love of Jesus and will encounter the possibility of turning enemies into friends.

So, who is your enemy? A co-worker, a boss, a relative, an abusive person from the past, a spouse? Or perhaps your enemy is a group of people: conservatives, liberals, terrorists, gays, non-Christian religions? Can you imagine the possibilities that could burst into your situation if you chose to respond to your enemies out of gratitude for how God has responded to us? Can you envision the healing that could take place in your life and in our communities if those who are our enemies were reconciled to us through sacrificial forgiveness? May we respond to our enemies in the same way that God has responded to us. May we choose to live less like the Lamechs of the world, and to embrace the reality of reconciliation that has ultimately been accomplished through the self-sacrificial love of the cross. May we show our enemies a nonsensical love that is rooted in the nonsensical love of God. May we choose to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute” us. Lets Pray…

* Let me add that my mom and I have a great relationship and God is working in her life like never before. Things are not perfect, but broken pieces have been put back together by the grace of the Lord Jesus!


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  • Daniel


    • Kurt Willems

      Thanks bro!

  • Thanks for the personal sharing here, Kurt. I affirm your lesson.

    Where things have gotten more murky for me (hypothetically; thankfully not in a concrete way), is with the question: what about defending the defenseless, not for vengeance, but with a forcible intervention against the aggressor?

    Applied to your own situation, you are right in your response not to seek vengeance or hold onto hatred, but what if that man was still with your mom, and still abusing her, today? Love takes time to work, and that may not be time you would choose to risk for Mom’s benefit. Would you intervene, physically and forcefully if necessary, to spare your Mom further injury or worse?

    You know I still come down –mostly– on the side of nonviolence. In point of fact, my observation is that most of those who preach defensive exceptions, seem loathe to apply any reasonable critique to the many violent actions of individuals and nations that are clearly NOT cases of defense either of self or other. Nevertheless, the struggle for me is the idea of letting someone else suffer or die for my convictions. Have you wrestled with that side of the equation?

    • Ben

      I would like to Amen as well!! That’s so crazy because one of my students just asked me about the significance of 77. I recalled to the best of my ability Mr. Vanderlaan’s synopsis of 1st century Jewish context. This is a great affirmation to the response I gave last week. Thanks for sharing

      • Ben

        sry…that wasn’t supposed to be a reply to Dan’s

  • Very nice Kurt, Here is my take on loving our enemies

    Dan, I have thought about your question to Kurt. In fact just last night I heard someone say that they are a modified pacifist, and that they thought there was a time where maybe violence is justified. So that got me thinking. It seems to me that if we are going to be really serious about the example of Jesus and his teachings about loving our enemies, violence (at least anything that will result in the death of someone) needs to come completely off the table. I understand that the world is big and complex, and that we need police (and I might even say the armed forces, although I still argue that if we put half the money that goes to equipping the military into humanitarian work we’d be a pretty safe place) but for me at least, the option of taking someones life and following the teachings of Jesus are non-compatible. We can get lost in hypothetical situations where I need to use violence to protect the weak, but when we step in we turn the aggressor into the weak one who needs to be protected. Violence will always cycle and cause more violence, more people being oppressed. Personally I cannot get my head around the idea that if I kill someone I have either killed a fellow brother in Christ, or even worse I have been responsible for sending someone to the judge before they have had a chance to enter into relationship with Christ. Neither of these are acceptable options for me, and so I have to take seriously the words of Jesus to love my enemies, even those who are violent and hurt people, and work where I can to alleviate suffering and try to break the cycle of violence.

  • I’m afraid my question still stands, Nate. I don’t know if you’ve read any of my stuff on war & peace, but if you had, you’d know that I am not a defender of military adventure…in fact I have suggested that it is incompatible for a follower of Jesus to submit him/herself to the military chain of command, thereby abdicating his/her responsibility as a moral agent to evaluate the morality of contemplated actions.

    The painful reality is that, with the exception of the time he himself was being led to the cross, Jesus did not give us any example of how to respond when another individual’s life was at stake through a third party’s actions (with the exception of the woman caught in adultery, where he shamed the accusers into silence). I am not sure that the way of Jesus precludes the immediate–even violent–intervention to avert an immediate threat to the life and limb of a third party.

    Nevertheless I qualify that statement heavily–in that nearly none of the violence perpetrated by humans either individually or through the state, rises to that standard. What I am not comfortable with is the blanket statements that many Christian pacifists make, as being any more defensible than the statements of their Christian Romans-12 opponents. I think life is somewhat more nuanced than the ideologues on either side might have us believe.

    For example, while I do not hold to the Augustinian “Just War” theory (at least not completely), I see a great deal of potential value in engaging those who claim they do, to apply that standard to their own (our own) nations. It wouldn’t have required a nation of pacifists to prevent the Iraq war; a nation of committed Augustinian Christians who really stood as a conscience to their government would have been just as effective. By laying down these blanket markers, I think at times we manage to cut off productive debate, with the result that the “other side” becomes so hardened they cannot hear otherwise-valid critique.

    But back on Kurt’s topic, loving my enemies, and stopping violence perpetrated upon third parties (friend or enemy) are not mutually exclusive concepts. There are many creative and nonviolent ways of stopping violence; I do not suggest that killing the perpetrator is the best or first way. I’m only saying I can’t quite rule it out as a “never” way, either. Maybe that’s because of a lack of faith or imagination on my part, but that’s where I’m at.

    • Kurt

      Dan and Nate…

      I don’t have tons of time right now, but thought a quote from Miroslav Volf may help us to wrestle with the tension between nonviolence and the need for justice. Before I get to that I want to say that I think that there are occasions for “force.” I am not comfortable with ever calling myself a “pacifist” but I am comfortable saying I hold to “nonviolence.” I am against war. I am against settling disputes by using violence. I think that Christians should probably avoid military service (although I will not hold in judgment those who differ). I AM however a believer in “police” and even the “coast guard.” I think that we have to have systems in place to protect from violence that is perpetrated against the innocent. But, like I often say about the police… “they would be a bit better off if they used more bean bag bullets and less lethal ones.” I think that I am ok with protecting the innocent as long as it doesn’t lead to “dehuminizing” the other. This can be a hard line to define, which i think followers of Jesus are called to live in the tension. We should NOT universalize our views of justice and peace. When we do that, we end up with “just war” theory and violence is easy to condone. We must handle each situation, as it depends on us, to stay at peace with all people. But when it comes to protecting those that cant protect themselves… I am ok with using force… not killing… to defend them. Nonviolence (third ways options) should always be the norm and other things that come up should be unfortunate and unjust exceptions. What do you think of the Volf Quote…

      What I’m concerned about is the religious legitimation of violence. I do think there are situations in which violence must be deployed by Christians, but it is never religiously sanctioned or justified violence. It is the lesser of two evils – an evil that does not become good on account of its necessity. One could sketch scenarios where I very clearly wouldn’t think that it would be morally responsible not to deploy violence. Nonetheless, repentance for violence would be in order even in those situations; in my view there is no innocent use of violence.

      (Miroslav Volf, “Conversations with Miroslav Volf on Exclusion and Embrace.” The Conrad Grebel Review, Special Issue: Miroslav Volf, 18, no. 3 (Fall 2000), 79, (accessed November, 2009).)

  • I think that Volf quote encapsulates it quite well. Religiously-sanctioned violence (which is most of the violence committed under color of authority this country) is IMO a failure to recognize the tension between the way of Jesus and the fallen world.

    I basically agree with your entire statement in this last comment, with the exception that–though with grief and repentance–I cannot go so far as to say that I would never move to lethal force in such circumstances. It must be a true LAST resort (not merely mouthing those words).

    That’s what the Augustinian “Just War” theory claims, though IMO those who carry Augustine’s banner–and likely Augustine himself–rarely or never truly considered all other options before resorting to that “last.” This is what I mean when I say that, rather than screaming absolute pacifism, we ought to engage those who claim there are criteria for just and unjust application of force, and call them to a truly critical exercise of conscience.

    The Right-wing Evangelical position that as long as a conservative government orders the military to do something, it’s justifiable, is a wholly-unacceptable perversion of Just War theory. So I say the same thing there I say to others fighting Evolution with the Bible: You can’t have a reasoned discussion with people unless–at least for purposes of the discussion–you start from some common ground of authority or assumption. In other words, reasoning with an atheist from the authority of the Bible is useless. Likewise, reasoning with a just-war theorist from the standpoint of absolute pacifism is useless in the same degree.

    We need to be more ready to engage people where they are, instead of where we are. And that’s my biggest problem with candlelight prayer vigils at military bases. . .

  • First, it is great reading all of your comments in this blog. Many times it is better than the blog itself (just kidding kurt!)

    I am trying to process how I want to address this conversation as it is one that I have spent tons of time talking to Kurt about and I have a lot of thoughts (not all that good though) and it is very close to my heart.

    So, here is a thought…

    It seems to me that this conversation (pacifism vs just war vs whatever) is similar to the conversations in youth groups about dating. The question that is always asked, “How far is too far?” Similarly, we ask in regards to violence, “What level is ok?” You know how you respond to high schoolers when they ask that question… “Instead of asking how far, you should ask yourself how pure can I be…” As cheesy as that sounds I think that relates to violence. If we only focus on what situations we are allowed to do it, we rob ourselves of the time we should be thinking about developing the imagination to do something different. Instead of thinking about what situations will we allow violence why not look at stopping the stuff that lead up to war/violence (i.e. dehumanization, racism, prejudice, poverty, etc…).

    Just a thought…

  • Jason, that is an excellent comment and one I wish to affirm. It’s true not only of specific situations (e.g. war or sex) but also of the general notion of salvation itself. . .are we trying to do the bare minimum to stay out of hell, or are we trying to live heaven-incarnated lives?

    Please understand I’m not defending just war. Although I lend some limited credence to the just war doctrine, I have yet to see an example where it’s been implemented. Part of my call is to try to find ways to engage those who DO believe in just war, to seriously apply those principals to the conflicts we do wage as a nation, because I believe that –however flawed the theory– actually applying the theory would result in far less use of violence than is now the case.

    My only point, and probably not well phrased here, is that absolute statements that we will never/can never use deadly force may (1) be overly broad, and (2) may unnecessarily polarize a discussion that would be more possible/productive if we were somewhat more general and less absolute about our own position(s). Might those who proclaim peace have had a little more chance to influence the Iraq war debate, if we hadn’t been just relegated to a corner as blithering pacifists? I don’t know, but I wonder.

    Plus, bringing it back to Kurt’s excellent post which started this whole thread, while I affirm Kurt’s lesson on forgiveness and enemy-love 100%, I wonder if we don’t still need to be prepared–far more than many of us may be–to intervene when/if we encounter violence in progress perpetrated on third parties. I do not suggest that such intervention must be violent or deadly; I do suspect that I at least, can’t fully and finally rule out forcible intervention. Not to justify it, not to train for violent encounter, not to go out and get a concealed-carry permit and pack heat; just to recognize that I can’t forsee all eventualities with enough confidence to state categorically what I would or would not countenance.

    I hope this makes a little more sense.

  • Dan, I really like what you are saying about engaging in conversation with those Just War supporters. I have found since moving to the States that it seems like armed service and Christianity are together a lot more. So continually find that I must defer any final statements about whether it is right or wrong to serve in the army, or use deadly force. So as Christians we challenge and engage and sharpen each other…. I think all of that was to say, thanks Dan, I like what I have been picking up from you. I also really like Jason’s line, so much good stuff here.
    One thing I was thinking about though, is what happens (on a personal level) when we leave room open to say that there might be a place where violence is acceptable? I think about C.S. Lewis and you read Surprised by Joy which was his theological reflections on suffering, and then you read A Grief Observed, which is where his theological reflections met his real life. I think he was able to overcome the death of his wife, in part, because he had already laid his theological groundwork, before he was put into that situation. I wonder if the same could be true on the topic of violence and forgiveness. If we do not have a strong theological framework saying that on a personal level I will not resort to violence, and I will always forgive, when faced with a situation we will jump to use of violence, instead of actually looking for another option?
    Not sure if any of this makes sense, cause I haven’t had my coffee yet. So thanks for suffering through my thoughts.

  • Nate, thank you for your welcome challenges. I agree with you (if I may rephrase) that cultivation of conviction and character precede their being lived out in conduct (wow, I’m not usually so good at alliteration!).

    At the risk of flogging my own blog too much, I actually addressed this very issue in a post on my personal pilgrimage, as part of a much-longer series on war and peace. The thumbnail is that I grew up an absolute Mennonite pacifist, and then was confronted with the question of whether I could let someone else die for my convictions. I’ve never been fully satisfied with my answer, but it knocked the supports from under my prior, absolutist convictions.

    I do not consider the issue closed, however, and I welcome challenge!

  • Your position Kurt, is a thoughtful one. And I appreciate it. Hard for me to know where to draw the lines in my Christian Pacifist stance, though I do.

    • Kurt

      Thanks for you comments Ted! The lines are difficult… but I’d rather them be difficult than the clear lines of War that the church has embraced for so long… since the sword of Constantine.

  • Moriah

    I agree with loving our enemies. I do not agree this means passivity or becoming their doormat, otherwise we just leave ourselves open to repeated abuse. I think there is a loving way to stand up against someone else’s abuses and mistreatment and confront them with a very clear boundary that you will not tolerate being mistreated by them ever again, without hating them or taking vengeance on them. I am trying to learn where that line is drawn and it is not always easy, especially when others want to pass judgment on you for what you say or how you say it just so they can save face or fig leaf themselves, or allow themselves the delusion that you are to blame somehow for their wrongdoing, or that if you were a “real” Christian you would lay down and let them walk all over you. I see Jesus exhorting us not to retaliate, to pray for those who do us wrong, and to repay evil with good, but I don’t believe He means we are obligated to permit others to repeatedly abuse us.