2000 years ago a group of folks in the first century had the opportunity to sit at the base of a hill and hear Jesus’s most famous sermon– one that’s become known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” In this particular sermon, Jesus offers many critiques on the old way of doing things and issues his followers a new standard that must be met in order to be rightfully called the children of God: the love of enemies.
Over the course of time I’ve obviously written a lot on this topic, particularly in regards to Christian nonviolence. However, enemy love goes beyond the simple unwillingness to harm our enemies; the call to love those who despise us is an imperative which requires loving action on our part. Enemy love is not easy, but for those who claim to follow Jesus this is the ultimate hallmark that we belong to him.
This morning I am back in the office after a weekend in Chicago at the Justice Conference. While there were a host of topics covered, and many fantastic speakers, what I am walking away with more than anything is a lesson on enemy love. This was a result of two interactions– one the night before the conference, and one unexpected interaction the evening the conference ended.
Many of you have seen the “Irish Atheist” at times in the comment section here, and know our story. He showed up on the blog two years ago and declared we were enemies, yet the evening before the Justice Conference began, we finally met in person for beers– because today we’re good friends.
Similarly, the evening the Justice Conference ended, I went to an after party at the hotel across the street. A few minutes after arriving I realized one of my current enemies was in the room– someone who has publicly and consistently made strong (and I feel unfair) criticisms of both myself and many of my friends. When I saw them my first instinct was to pretend our eyes didn’t meet, but then remembered a moment earlier in the day when someone came up to me and said, “Hey– aren’t you that guy from the internet who is always talking about peace?”
Ugh. The choice between discomfort and hypocrisy presented itself to me. While I don’t always get the choice between those options right, that night I did– so I walked over, said hello, and extended the opportunity to have some non-hostile dialogue between each other. Though we both had early morning flights to catch, we stood in the hallway continuing our sometimes tense but fruitful conversation until late in the evening. We certainly didn’t resolve all of our differences, but we both agreed that direct dialogue with each other was probably good, and that we would continue having some off-the-record discussions. My hope is enough dialogue will occur that we’ll be able to mutually see we’re both sincere Jesus lovers, and simply disagree on some of our theology and political opinions.
These two interactions– one with a former enemy and one with a current enemy– got me thinking about some practical steps towards living out Jesus’s command to actively love our enemies beyond the discussion of nonviolence. So, here are 5 practical things you can do to work towards not just passively loving your enemies, but to actively seek peace with them:
1. Be the first person to refuse to shoot back.
It is impossible to dialogue with an enemy– let alone actively love them– while there are still bullets zipping through the air. In many cases both sides are waiting for the other side to stop shooting, and as Jesus followers, we ought be the first people to refuse to shoot back or lob another heap of flames onto their side of the fence. This refusal to shoot back is exactly what Jesus is describing when he says, “do not ἀντιστῆναι” in Matthew 5:38, a term that is often hard to translate into English.
Our insistence on being right instead of being loving is something that complicates all of our relationships at times, most especially with enemies. One of the best ways I have found to disarm an enemy is to surprise them by being the first one to approach with sincere humility in asking forgiveness for your part in the conflict. Even if you don’t yet believe you’ve done anything wrong, the simple humility of saying “I’m sorry if any of my actions have harmed you or contributed to this situation” can go a long way in opening dialogue.
3. Be the first person to shut up and listen.
I’m convinced that half of the reasons why people become enemies are misunderstandings of events, misinterpretation of each other’s motives, or in the case of ideological enemies, a limited or misunderstanding of what they actually believe. Just as enemy love requires one person to refuse to shoot back (perhaps getting shot a few more times in the process) it also requires that one person be the first to shut up and humbly listen to the other.
4. Be the first person to forgive.
In order to move past the state of enemies, there must be forgiveness for all shots fired on all sides– and like the other things I’ve listed, someone has to go first. Forgiveness, (in a biblical sense it means to “send away”), is simply the moment where we release our anger, bitterness, and desire to retaliate. We release these feelings primarily to free ourselves from the burdens they bring, but we also forgive to open the door to the possibility of being more than just enemies.
5. Be the first person to refuse to be enemies anymore.
Living at peace with an enemy (and perhaps even converting them to a friend) isn’t always possible. This is why Paul states in Romans, “as much as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). Ultimate peace takes two former enemies working in tandem, but there are some aspects of the pursuit of peace that do depend on our own selves. At a minimum, we can reject the invitation to participate in mutual combat with enemies (the seed of shalom)– at most, we can become open to making friends out of them (the fulfillment of shalom).
When Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies he was going far beyond a passive unwillingness to kill them– he was issuing a command to actively do good towards them, and to pursue peace. It’s not easy, it is certainly uncomfortable, but comfort and ease are both things we let go of in order to follow the one who went to the cross.
But to do this however, someone needs to be the first.
Be the first in your situation. The first to stop shooting, the first to apologize, the first to listen, the first to forgive, and the first to refuse to live as enemies any longer.
Do it long enough, and you might actually make a few new friends out of the people you least expected.