How Can We Love Our Enemies?

Lesson: Matthew 5:38-48

I follow a Methodist pastor named John Pavlovitz on Facebook and Twitter. Pavlovitz has an excellent blog called, “Stuff That Needs to Be Said.”[1] A few days after the presidential election, he posted this on Twitter – or “tweeted” this, to be perfectly correct: “That whole ‘love your enemies’ thing Jesus preached? Much harder to do when you actually meet your enemies, ain’t it Christians? #GutCheck.”

Isn’t that the truth? We’re again looking at Jesus’ challenging teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. We might think about his words this morning in the same way C. S. Lewis thought about forgiveness: “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until he has something to forgive.” Likewise, loving our enemies is a beautiful concept until we’re facing an enemy who is destroying our world before our very eyes and we’re unable to stop it. An enemy, perhaps, like ISIS; perhaps the suicide bomber who walked into a Sufi shrine in Southern Pakistan a few days ago with enough explosives to kill himself and at least 80 other people. Or – maybe the teacher who’s bullying your child. Could it be the Breitbart editor who tried to speak at UC Berkeley last month – or those who shut him down? Or the neighbor who lets his dog bark all night long? The current administration – or the mainstream news media?[2] Or that kid who convinced your son or daughter that using drugs was cool?

We think about these folks, and then we start thinking maybe loving our enemies is for other times and places; maybe Jesus was unrealistic; maybe this was more of that ancient Middle Eastern hyperbole that we saw last week. Maybe right now we need anger, hatred, and contempt, if not worse, to address the threat, make our world safe again, and then we can wave the flag of loving our enemies once all our enemies have been eliminated.

Some people say what Jesus is asking here is just impossible; that he couldn’t really have meant it. They argue Jesus really didn’t expect us to do any of this; he only said these things to remind us how much we need God’s forgiveness and grace. They bolster this theory with the seemingly ridiculous command at the close of the passage, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”[3] I don’t blame anyone for thinking, “You’ve got to be joking!” when you hear this. Especially when these are the last words we’ll hear from the Sermon on the Mount before we transition into Lent; perfection sets a pretty high bar on Lenten disciplines, doesn’t it?

But here’s the thing: Jesus is not asking for perfection; Jesus is asking for persistence. The root of the word that our Bibles translate as perfection is telos. “Perfect” is one possibility but better translations are “completion, intended goal, determined end.” In other words, Jesus is not asking us to be perfect, but to persist in the goal Jesus has for us. Being a disciple does not require perfection but persistence toward bringing the Kingdom of God to bear.[4]

We are to persist in loving our enemies. Really. I think this raises two questions: Why? And how?

One answer to “Why?” is “Because Jesus said it,” but as we talked about last week, Jesus was not all about following the rules for the rules’ sake. Another reason, as I explained to the children, is that God loves everybody. Everybody. Who are we to hate those whom God loves?

But there is a more practical reason. Jesus knew what Martin Luther King, Jr. put so well: “Why should we love our enemies? … Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says ‘Love your enemies,’ he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies – or else? The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”[5]

“The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” Besides this, hate destroys the person who hates. Dr. King, again, wrote, “Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.”[6]

So that’s why. But how? What does loving our enemies look like? I’ll share with you a couple of practices that help me with this; they boil down to thinking of love as compassion. I don’t do these practices perfectly, but I persist. I learned the first practice from Brené Brown’s book, Rising Strong. Brown had an encounter with an obnoxious roommate in a hotel at a conference that sent her straight to her therapist’s office. The therapist challenged Brown with this question: “Do you think it’s possible that your roommate was doing the best she could?” Brown’s immediate reaction was, “Are you kidding me!?!” and so, being a researcher, she went into research mode to find out whether other people think people are always doing the best they can. This turned into a journey of personal transformation.

Brown noticed that everyone who thought people aren’t doing their best were hard, unequivocal and judge-y in their responses. They didn’t just say “no.” They said, “Hell, no!”  On the other hand, the people who believe people are doing their best “were slow to answer and seemed almost apologetic, …, but just couldn’t give up on humanity. They were careful to explain that it didn’t mean that people can’t grow or change. Still, at any given time, they figured people are normally doing the best they can with the tools they have,” given their experience, upbringing, abilities, and brokenness. Brown’s husband Steve answered the question this way: “I don’t know. I really don’t. All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.”

People so often ask Brown the next obvious question that she says, “I should win the Most Likely to Be Asked About Serial Killers, Terrorists, and Assassins Award.” Writes Brown, “Do I believe serial killers and terrorists are doing the best they can? Yes. And their best is dangerous, which is why I believe we should catch them, lock them up, and assess whether they can be helped. If they can’t, they should stay locked up. That’s how compassion and accountability work. Hold people accountable for their actions in a way that acknowledges their humanity. When we treat people like animals and expect them to emerge from prison newly minted as loving, empathic, connected people, we’re kidding ourselves. Requiring accountability while also extending your compassion is not the easiest course of action, but it is the most humane and, ultimately, the safest for the community.”[7]

I practice believing people are doing the best that they can, given their particular woundedness. Which leads to my other practice, which is to see that person I might want to label as my enemy as a wounded child. When I see someone acting out because of, say, narcissistic personality disorder, just as a random example, my practice means seeing a person who has never known love. Or, more likely, only knows transactional love, who has only known approval for successes but does not know any possibility of being loved in the messy failure that is real life: not for others, not for himself.[8]

But let me be as clear as Brown on this point: Neither of my practices means that we ought to refuse to call out evil or injustice when we see it. On the contrary, Christians must stand up in loud, strong, and unequivocal opposition to injustice. As one commentator writes, “We must love our enemy while protecting his victims from him. These are a single act of love.”[9]  Loving our enemy; protecting his victims.  One single act of love.

Hugh Hollowell runs an organization called Love Wins, a ministry of presence and pastoral care for the homeless and at-risk population of Raleigh, North Carolina.[10] He tells a story about Erica. Erica is not nice. She’s rude and mean and bigoted and often very drunk. She’s always on the brink of homelessness. Several times a year she ends up in a relationship where she gets physically abused, but she’s figured out if she hits first, it’s harder for people to hurt her, so she’s also an abuser. When she shows up for the ministry’s Breakfast in the Park on Saturdays and Sundays, she cuts in line, pesters folks for money, complains about the color of the free jacket she’s been given or says someone else got a nicer one than she did. If she isn’t watched she’ll cut in line again for extra shoes or a jacket, which will end up being exchanged for a fix. She yells at the Latinos in line and complains loudly that they smell. Erica herself is Black, adding more racial tension to the equation. Hollowell said he often wishes she’d just go away because every time she shows up, he has to remind himself of what it means to love someone you don’t really want to love.

Then one day, Erica’s annoying behavior hit a new low. One of the organization’s volunteers is Samir, a kind and gentle man from India who lives in that gray area between housed and homeless. As Samir was wrestling a coffee urn out of a car, Erica shouted, “I don’t want that A-rab touching my food. He looks like a terrorist or something.”

Hollowell just couldn’t take it anymore. He shouted at Erica, “Shut up! Just shut the hell up! Samir is our guest, just like you are. If you don’t want the food he’s touched, you can leave.”

Erica mumbled something under her breath and Hollowell was pretty sure it wasn’t “I love you.” She took her food and marched away, and Hollowell was thankful for the quiet. He remembered a story in The Brothers Karamazov, in which a young widow talks to the wise old priest about her future plans. She tells him of dreams she’s had, in which she’s showing Christ’s love by serving the poor and tending the sick. But as the priest leaves her house, she worries that the poor will be petty and rude. What would she do if they were unappreciative and demanding? She isn’t sure she can handle it. The priest tells her, “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Hollowell writes, “I think that priest must have known some Ericas.”

As it turned out, the next week Erica returned to Breakfast in the Park. Hollowell thought, “Oh boy. Here we go again.” But Erica approached him and apologized. “I was wrong,” she said. “And you were right to chew me out. Can we be friends?” Hollowell said yes and Erica gave him a bear hug, and got in line behind some Latinos, to whom, he was grateful, she said nothing.[11]

I think there are a handful of takeaways from this story. First, that tidy happy ending, Erica’s apology, doesn’t always happen. There are no guarantees that loving our enemy will “work” by giving us what we want in any given situation. We just know it works better than anything else in bringing about God’s kingdom. And Jesus doesn’t say it’s easy. Love in practice is harsh and dreadful. In an article I read this week, a theology professor wrote, “One central idea I try to impress upon my students is that, if you’re finding it easy to be a Christian while largely living by the standards of our broader culture, you’re probably doing it wrong.”[12]

The second takeaway is that maybe loving our enemy means, at some level, discovering we’re more alike than we want to admit. We lose our temper. We respond selfishly. We’re afraid. We want what we want when we want it. As Dr. King wrote, there’s some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.[13]

And the third takeaway is that loving our enemy means calling out the oppression, the bad behavior, even when that’s not fun. Because in asking for the oppression to stop, we are calling out the value not only of the person being oppressed, not only of the victim, but of the oppressor as well. We are calling out the oppressor’s humanity. We are saying, “You are a child of God, too. We expect you to act like the child of God you are.”

Hollowell says he and Erica aren’t quite pals, but they’re civil when they run into each other. He writes, “The last time I gave her a biscuit, she said thank you and I didn’t want to punch her, so maybe she has progressed more than I have. But we are working on it.”[14]

We are working on it. Martin Luther once said that the Christian life is not about arriving but always about becoming.[15] David Lose writes that we might translate that “Be perfect” verse in Matthew loosely as, “Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be.” If we read it this way, Jesus’ words are less command than promise. God sees more in us than we do. God has plans and a purpose for us. God intends to use us to achieve something spectacular. And that something spectacular is precisely to be who you were created to be and, in so doing, to help create a different kind of world. Jesus calls this new world the kingdom of God – where violence doesn’t always breed more violence and hate doesn’t always kindle more hate.[16]

We are working on it. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

[1] http://johnpavlovitz.com/.

[2] “President Trump, in an extraordinary rebuke of the nation’s press organizations, wrote on Twitter on Friday that the nation’s news media ‘is the enemy of the American people.’”

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/17/business/trump-calls-the-news-media-the-enemy-of-the-people.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0.

[3] Matthew 5:48.

[4] Karoline Lewis, “Be Perfect,” in Dear Working Preacher, February 12, 2017, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4818.

[5] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” in Strength to Love (Harper and Row, 1963; reprinted gift edition: Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 47.

[6] Martin Luther King, Jr., ibid.

[7] Brené Brown, Rising Strong (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015) 107, 113-114, 128.

[8] J. R. Daniel Kirk, “Love Your Enemy: Thoughts on Donald Trump,” February 11, 2017,

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/storiedtheology/2017/02/11/love-your-enemy/ .

[9] Kirk, ibid.

[10] http://www.lovewinsministries.org/.

[11] Hugh Hollowell, “A Harsh and Dreadful Thing,” in The Practice of Love, Jonathan Brink, ed. (Folsom, CA: CivitasPress, 2011), 258-261.

[12] Charles C. Canosy, “Loving Your Enemies During a Trump Administration,” December 4, 2016, https://cruxnow.com/commentary/2016/12/04/loving-enemies-trump-administration/.

[13] King, 45.

[14] Hollowell, ibid., 261.

[15] David Lose, “Telos,” February 13, 2017, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/02/epiphany-7-a-telos/.

[16] Lose, ibid.

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