“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Thanks, Jesus. Like this is going to be easy. Can’t we hate just a few people? The really heinous ones? It would be so much easier.
Okay. Love your enemies. So a few questions arise about this:
If we start by looking at some role models, we may get some clues about how to go about loving our enemies.
There is, of course, the role model of Jesus. He set the bar high. He prays, even at the end, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Forgive them—even as they are killing him. Yow. Can we say that he loves the scribes and Pharisees who keep trying to trip him up? Or Herod, who killed John the Baptist as a party favor? Does he love these people? Yes. It’s an extreme example, but yes. Even in his death, he keeps trying to show them a better way.
So Jesus is one role model. Kind of ancient, but still relevant. Another role model who comes readily to mind is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When King committed to the work of racial justice and nonviolent action, he was fully invested in Jesus’ creative, bold, loving, nonviolent example of showing a better way. And King paid the consequences. Ultimately he paid with his life, but all through his ministry he was vulnerable, attacked, and condemned. After events landed him in Birmingham jail, white religious leaders told him to wait, that this was not the right time, that he was pushing too fast and too hard for change and justice.
Here is part of his response to those white religious leaders in the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:
I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channelized through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist. I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized.
But as I continue to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love—“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice—“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” … So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice—or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? … Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. So, after all, maybe the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. [12-13] [“Letter from Birmingham Jail, http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf.]
Like Jesus, King and everyone in the Civil Rights Movement were standing up against oppression, abuse, and hate. King hoped to lance the wound of racism in our society and let it heal. But over fifty years later we have another role model, Michelle Obama, still dealing with the exact same thing. Because when Barack Obama was elected president, a whole lot of white people felt like he had cut in line; he had gotten ahead of them. If we have a caste system in this country, as one writer has recently suggested, Barack Obama dared to rise above his caste. The Obamas had to deal with all kinds of hatred and racism being spewed at them. And you may know that their mantra was, “When they go low, we go high.” So Michelle Obama addressed this recently at the Democratic National Convention. She said,
Over the past four years, a lot of people have asked me, “When others are going so low, does going high still really work?” My answer: going high is the only thing that works, because when we go low, when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehumanizing others, we just become part of the ugly noise that’s drowning out everything else. We degrade ourselves. We degrade the very causes for which we fight.
But let’s be clear: going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty. Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top. Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one nation under God, and if we want to survive, we’ve got to find a way to live together and work together across our differences. [https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/17/politics/michelle-obama-speech-transcript/index.html]
Loving our enemies is hard work. We don’t want to do it. And. Jesus calls us to be our very best self—our most generous, forgiving, loving self. Even with our enemies.
Perhaps by now one aspect of loving your enemy has become clear. Michelle Obama referred to it. Loving your enemy does not mean allowing abusive behavior to go unchecked. Pastors have been known to counsel abused wives to return to their abusive husbands, to “love” those husbands by tolerating such abuse.
No. Absolutely not. This is not loving, to allow someone to abuse another instead of setting appropriate boundaries and expectations for acceptable behavior. It’s not good or loving for the abused person, and it’s not good or loving for the abuser. Sometimes love means saying no. Loving your enemy means loving yourself enough to draw the line. It means insisting that the abuser do better.
So I’ve talked about some role models and some examples of loving our enemies: showing them the way of love, practicing nonviolent demonstrations in the face of injustice, making ourselves vulnerable, when they go low we go high, being willing to pay the price of jail time, or even putting our lives on the line. Let’s get to that other question I posed right at the beginning: What difference can loving our enemies make—in ourselves, in our communities, and in the world?
When we hate our enemies, there is some part of us that gets stuck in that hate. God loves us more than we can ever take in—just as we are. Even the parts of us that hate others. And God loves us too much to let us stay stuck in hate, in cycles of oppression—as the oppressed or the oppressor. God invites us, always, to keep growing into our best possible selves. God invites us to stand up for love and justice, to risk something big for the sake of something good, to be builders of God’s realm here and now on this good earth. We start by working on our own temptation to hate, because that impacts how we are in the world and what we can hope to accomplish.
This week yet another Black man was shot in the back by police. Jacob Blake was shot with his children nearby, and he may be paralyzed for life. Many of our athletic teams took a nonviolent stand on the racism against and oppression of Black people in this country. They said, “Sports are a privilege of a functional society. Right now, our society is not functional.” What a model of nonviolence and love that insists on justice. If we as a society and as individuals want to be whole, we all have to stand up and say “Enough.” We all have to confront the racist legacy of this country that allows these shootings to keep happening. We have to set the bar as high as Jesus did, invite everyone to be their best selves. We will change. Our communities will change. And the world will change.
It isn’t easy. As those in antiracism groups will attest, it’s hard, hard work. We make mistakes. We realize how hateful we can be ourselves, and we have to confront that enemy within. But we keep showing up, keep trying, keep going high when others go low. We have met the enemy, and it is not only those people out there, but us. God loves us anyway and invites us to love ourselves into wholeness.
So be extremists for love. Be complete. Be merciful. Be whole, as your heavenly Creator is complete and merciful and whole. Hate is an awful place to be stuck. When we are whole, or merciful, or complete, we move past hate to a place of love. Jesus shows us how, invites us to come, and walks with us, every step of the way. Let’s do this. Amen.