Love who?!

Once upon a time, I was sitting in a class at the theological college when the concept of ‘love your enemy’ came up. The pastor of a large church became annoyed and said, “I’ve got no idea why we waste time talking about this. We’re Christians—we have no enemies!” His comment revealed what is actually a fairly common idea: Those of us who are not actively oppressed by a violent regime, and who work very hard to be nice, often think we love everyone. But is this true? And can we throw the whole idea of loving our enemy out?

To answer this, we need to go back to the context in which Jesus was teaching. His first audience were poor people living under Roman military rule—and in what we just heard, he is talking about how to resist being dominated by other people’s power. For example, when someone hits you on the right cheek, they are hitting you with the back of their hand. Man-to-man, this is, and was, shameful, for you are being hit like a child or, perhaps, a woman: a no-person in that world. So Jesus says, when this happens, turn your other cheek: invite the powerful person to hit you as an equal. Don’t fight back, but don’t let them use their power to dominate your sense of self.

“When someone wants to sue you and take your tunic,” that person would be richer than you. So Jesus says to give them more, much more: also give them your cloak. He’s speaking to people who own only two garments: their tunic, and their cloak. These people also know the laws of Deuteronomy: “If you take your neighbour’s cloak in pawn—if you give them money in exchange for their cloak—you shall give it back before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbour’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbour cries out to me—God—I will listen, for I am compassionate” (Deuteronomy 24:12-13).  In other words, when you are sued for your tunic, don’t fight back; instead, give them everything you have, because in your nakedness their exploitation of your poverty will be evident to everyone, even God.

“When someone forces you to go one mile,” that someone is a Roman soldier. A soldier had the legal right to force a peasant to carry his pack one mile, and one mile only. But Jesus says, “Go a second mile with him.” Don’t resist. Instead, carry the soldier’s pack cheerfully and graciously, and keep right on carrying it for a second mile. The chances are the soldier will be hopping alongside you trying to get his pack back, for fear of military punishment.

In other words, these teachings of Jesus are not about submitting to domestic violence or bullying. Instead, they are about nonviolent resistance and political theatre in the face of great social injustice. And so these teachings helped shape the Indian nationalist movement led by Mahatma Gandhi; the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr; the Liberian women’s movement for peace led by Leymah Gbowee; and many other movements; and they are shaping Love Makes a Way in Australia now.

But there is a potential problem: even creative nonviolence can become a form of retaliation. Jesus began by saying, “Don’t use violence to resist evil!”—but I don’t think he meant that we replace physical violence with shaming, humiliating or labelling anyone. And that is always the risk. I was chatting with someone who is part of Love Makes a Way and who attends sit ins at a parliamentarian’s office. (And I know about fifty people across four cities in this movement, so don’t bother trying to guess who!) “How can those staffers live with themselves?” they asked. “They participate in such evil, I can barely look at them.” I don’t think that the person who made this comment would call the staffers their enemies, and yet they said, “They participate in such evil, I can barely look at them.”

It made me think of my own domestic sinfulness. I’ve noticed that when I’m really angry with my husband, I can’t bear to look at him. As soon as I meet his eyes, the burning anger melts away. But there are times when I want to hold onto my anger. I don’t want reconciliation: I want to hurt him; and I want him to grovel in the full knowledge of just how angry I am. But I feel that way only as long as he is an idea: my horrible husband, my intimate enemy. As soon as I look at him properly, I see a person: the beloved friend I have chosen to share my life with. The anger fades away, and we find our way into peace.

Political staffers, husbands—maybe we Christians do have enemies, after all! And it happens when we place other people into the abstract. We stop treating them as people, and start treating them as ideas: ideas of ethnicity, or sexuality, or class, or politics, or any one of a thousand other markers. And when a person becomes merely an idea, it is easy to be brutal. Just think of the way internet trolls or cyberbullies work: they attack a person in ways they almost certainly would not were they to engage face-to-face with that same person. The idea, embodied in a person, makes them an enemy.

So resisting evil is Christlike only when it is performed in the spirit of Jesus’ next words: “Love your enemy! Pray for those who persecute you!” Then nonviolence is about inviting your enemy into their full humanity as a child of God, for when they recognise you as an equal; or recognise your need and their responsibility to exercise compassion; or recognise the burden the military places upon the population, they are invited into their full humanity. Jesus does not seek the marginalisation of any enemy; not even when our enemy is brutally violent; not even when our enemy is nailing us to a cross. Instead, he demands our transformation into people who honour the image of God, that is, the personhood, of every other person we encounter: friend and enemy alike.

We do this when we look through the eyes of love and seek even our enemy’s full humanity. We must never turn our eyes away, for then the person remains an idea. Instead, we look deeply and prayerfully and tenderly at our enemy—even those who work in politician’s offices, even husbands. We find ways to know them as persons; perhaps, in our gentle era, we simply invite them for a coffee, not to change their minds, but to talk about the weather and their dog and what they most fear and long for in this life. We pray for them: not for our will, but that God’s will be done in their lives. We love them, because God loves them first: and in loving even our enemy, we may learn to love even those sinful parts of ourselves.

When we live like this, there is no guarantee that justice will be done. Jesus doesn’t promise that our enemy will respond to our invitations or our prayers, or become our friend. In fact, this way often leads to persecution and suffering, and a publicly humiliating crucifixion. But for those of us who follow Jesus, it is the only way. Later in the service, we will pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…” As we just heard, Jesus says, “Love your enemies! Pray for the people who persecute you! That way—that way—you’ll be children of your father in heaven.” There is no other way.

If we dare to say “Our Father in heaven”, we cannot retaliate against those who persecute us; we cannot keep them as our enemy; we cannot avert our eyes. Instead, we love them, and pray for them, and seek to look upon them as God’s beloved, however difficult that may be. And if that all sounds too hard, hear now the good news: As we enter deeply into this looking and loving, seeking the welfare and full humanity even of our enemy, then God’s kingdom, God’s cultural renewal, will surely come on earth as it is in heaven: right here, right now, in us. Amen. Ω

Reflection on Matthew 5:38-48 presented to Sanctuary, 19 February 2017. Header mage found here.

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