Loving Our Enemies

Loving Our Enemies May 22, 2019
Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

In Matthew 5.44-45 we read these words, “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. (cf. Luke 6.35)

A couple summers ago now, I spoke at a convention where at the end of one of the sessions, a participant asked the question, “What is it that prevents the present hegemony from simply being replaced by another hegemony when it is overthrown?”

I think this gets to the heart of one of the benefits of Jesus’ vision of revolution. Jesus’ vision is not one of hegemony. It is a world where there is no more domination, and no more subjugation, a world where every person has treated with the same indiscriminate egalitarianism that is expressed in the shining of the sun and the falling of the rain.

The question about replacing one hegemony with another is a serious and important one. The challenge with most revolutions is that the revolution’s “enemy” is framed as someone to be defeated and then subjugated as they had subjugated others. This approach doesn’t remove pyramids of oppression but simply replaces them with a different pyramid of oppression founded on a different set of values. And this is not the vision of the Jesus of the gospels.

Not only can we win liberation from oppression, but as we take power away from oppressors, we can also leave open the possibility for our oppressors to choose to change and join us in this liberation work. The goal, again, is that everyone gets to enjoy the sunshine and the rain: everyone.

Rather than seeking retributive justice against the revolution’s enemies, which too often grows out of an attempt to extract an eye-for-an-eye, Jesus’s enemy love is rooted in distributive, reparative, transformative, liberative justice, justice that frees all parties involved. I want to be clear. I do not read in the gospels a call for reconciliation with our enemies without reparations for the harm they have done. Yet this enemy love does includes reparations and reconciliation.

Enemy love requires us to see our enemies as human, too. The liberation of those who face oppression is a change of a different character than the changes the lie before oppressors, but change is possible for both.

I do want to say a word of caution though, about this teaching. Jesus was a poor Jewish teacher in first century Palestine and lived under Roman rule. He was not, as many of us are, a citizen of any of the most powerful nations in the world. To illustrate this difference, Howard Thurman once wrote, “Jesus was not a Roman citizen. He was not protected [like Paul] by the normal guarantees of citizenship—that quiet sense of security which comes from knowing that you belong and the general climate of confidence which it inspires. If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar [as Paul did]; he would be just another Jew in the ditch . . . Unless one lives day by day without a sense of security, he cannot understand what worlds separated Jesus from Paul at this point.” (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 33)

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus was not part of the Jewish wealthy elite. Jesus belonged to the community of the Jewish poor (Luke 2.24 cf. Leviticus 12.8). In this context, when Jesus spoke about loving one’s enemies, he was also not part of the wealthy Jewish elite telling the oppressed and poor Jewish craftsmen and rural farmers and workers they needed to love wealthy oppressors in spite of the hardship and injustice the elite had caused them.

First, Jesus was speaking to his fellow impoverished Jews, inspiring them with an approach that, rather than destroying their enemies, to not let go of the humanity of their enemies.

Recently, a police officer who was attending one of my presentations objected to my support of the Black Lives Matter movement.  His objection was based on his perception that a sector of that movement sees using more violent means, in order to be heard, as a viable option.  (Being a police officer, the irony of his concern over the use of violence was lost on him.)

To live in a social location that benefits from the violence of oppression while critiquing oppressed communities when they respond with violence, is violent.  Sometimes there are intra-group variations who (within the same community) can speak to these matters less oppressively.

I don’t read Jesus’ enemy love teachings in the gospels as this coopted form of enemy love used by those in places power and privilege. Jesus spoke powerfully and convincingly to the poorer class of Jews of his time, yet Jesus’s message of enemy love to the oppressed was accompanied with a strong requirement that oppressors restore justice toward the oppressed. Like the Jewish prophets before him, he did not call for charity the leaves oppressive structures unchallenged, unchanged and underwritten. He called for distributive justice.

Luke 12.33: Sell your possessions and give to the poor.

Luke 19.8: But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Luke 7.29: All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right . . .

To only call the oppressed to love their enemies without calling for oppressors to make reparations and restore justice is a subtle form of violence to those who have been wronged. If enemy love is going to be taught, it must, with the same breath, be taught alongside emphatic calls for justice to be restored.

Nor is the goal to replace one hegemony with another, to place the oppressed on top with others now on the undersides of society. The goal is rather a world where every person participates in equity, where each can share abundance, enjoying the sun and rain side by side, and where there is enough for all.

One last word: loving your enemies is not “letting them off the hook.” It is not ignoring what they have done, lessening its value, or pretending that it’s nothing. It takes their offense seriously and yet also holds on to their humanity and desires change for them, as well. Loving your enemies is the desire that they don’t face mere retribution but rather encounter a new way of seeing, thinking, feeling, and choosing. It is the desire for them to experience healing and to choose to reject their place in great machines of injustice. And who knows, they might just join you in trying to transform the very ones whom they used to resemble.

The question we must wrestle with is whether the radical transformation of the Zacchaeuses in our lives is enough. Do we need them to suffer as a form of vengeance for what they have done? If they should be brought to a place where they desire to give out of a sincere wish to restore, would that be enough?

It really does come down to asking the question of intent. What do you desire for your enemies? Is it a world where now you are on top, dominating those who once wronged you? Or do you desire a world where your enemies have undergone radical transformation alongside of societal, structural transformation? Is your desire a world where there is no more domination, no more oppression, no more subjugation, discrimination, or injustice?. A world where the sun shines and the rain falls on all alike? Could you share a world with those who have wronged you if they underwent genuine change? If they were transformed rather than just destroyed? Could you live in a world alongside them if they, too, were redeemed?

If your answer is yes, you are moving toward the heart of the message of Jesus as he admonishes us to love our enemies.

Jesus used strong words to those who need to restore the justice they have violated. That part of the message is vital along side the message of enemy love. Both messages are what we must wrestle with if we want a world that is truly safe and compassionate for everyone.

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your [Parent] in heaven. [God] causes [the] sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (cf. Luke 6.35)

About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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