You’ve probably all seen Coexist bumper stickers of various kinds. They are often taken to signify that adherents of various spiritual paths or no faith at all should move beyond their differences, foster understanding, and get along.* Certainly, there is a need for us all to coexist, to get along and understand one another better, as the world gets smaller due to high-speed technology and travel, population growth and turbulent migration patterns, and increasing partisan hostilities and tribalism. So, coexistence and social cohesion are good things, just so long as they do not undermine important distinctives between various communities and traditions, including the value some faiths place on tenacious love. Can you imagine if coexistence were the fundamental feature of biblical religion? God would not have desired to remain in covenantal communion with his people when they sinned against the Lord. Nor would Jesus have ever come to earth at Christmas!
To coexist and cultivate forms of social cohesion are good things. Tolerance is vitally important. But tolerance of differences does not go far enough. I am very thankful that John 3:16 does not say, “For God so tolerated the world that he chose not to send his Son.” I marvel at Christmas that John 3:16 does read: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (ESV). For whom did God give his Son? For us? And who were we when Jesus died for us? According to St. Paul, we were ungodly sinners and enemies of God:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Romans 5:6-11; ESV).
Jesus calls on his followers to pray for their enemies and bless those who persecute them. We are not to love as the world at large loves, which only entails loving one’s own kind. Jesus calls on us to love those not like us, and those who don’t like us. Here’s Jesus as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48; ESV)
Thank God that Jesus came to earth to model enemy love. There is no way we can do this without agape, which comes to us as Jesus is born and grows in our hearts through the Spirit at Christmas and beyond.
One of the most powerful reflections on enemy love at Christmas comes from the heart of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He spoke the following words in his Christmas sermon in 1967:
I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.” Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” December 24, 1967.
Dr. King returned hatred and indifference with tenacious love. He sought to wear people’s hate down with long-suffering agape. He did not seek to get even, but rather make whole, pursuing freedom for his people in such a way that it involved sharing life in solidarity with all people, including former enemies. If Dr. King, as a persecuted ethnic minority can say this, pray this, and live this, surely should those who belong to the dominant culture. May we all cease seeking to dominate and be constrained and compelled by God’s undying, enemy love.
Do we have the same heart as Jesus who came to earth to love God’s enemies? Do we love our enemies and pray for God’s mercies on our enemies, just as Jesus did on the cross? (Luke 23:34) Do we pray that not only would God free us from bondage to various forms of oppression, but also that God would win over our enemies and us in the process, so that we would experience a double victory? Do we do more than stick coexist bumper stickers on our cars? Do we place tenacious love sign posts over our hearts at Christmas and beyond?
*Moving beyond associations people make with various renditions of the symbol, refer here for information on the organization that bears the “Coexist” name.