Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Must I Like My Enemies?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 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.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? – Matthew 5: 43-48

Love your enemies is easily one of the most annoying commandments of Jesus. Partly because hating your enemies is a fantastic way to feel smugly superior to them and partly because it’s so darn hard to do. And I suck at it. I mean I wouldn’t wish death upon my enemies and I was pretty disgusted at the crowds of people celebrating Osama Bin Laden’s death.[1] And, as a follower of consistent life ethics, I’m staunchly anti-death penalty. But part of me struggles with the whole loving part, especially when there’s a good joke to be made at their expense.

And it’s because loving people we see as a threat is incredibly hard and counterintuitive to our minds.

In fact, the Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber makes an astute observation in her book Pastrix:

“Where exactly is the verse that says you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemies? Because I hadn’t remembered reading that in the Old Testament, which is where Jesus usually gets his best material.

Paul was right. It’s not in the Bible. But when I hung up, I realised why “love your neighbour and hate your enemy” sounds so familiar… I’m pretty sure it’s in my heart. It’s like, in my DNA.”[2]

Simply put, hating those who are different from us and who we perceive to threaten us is part of our survival instincts. And Jesus’ command is that we are to go against these instincts if we are to follow his new way.

But for now let’s assume that we all agree with Jesus[3] and look at what I think is a more interesting question: Do I have to like my enemy?

Or put it another way: what the limits of loving your enemy?

In fact, spend enough time on Christian message boards and you’ll probably end up in a debate over whether the command to love your enemies means you can keep a 12 gauge shotgun to shoot home intruders or is Jesus limiting you to a single 9mm handgun? And this is a very real question for some Christians who are facing actual persecution (i.e. actual death, not “the cashier said happy holidays rather than merry Christmas”). And I’m painfully aware that I can’t understand what they are going through, nor am I going to pretend to. But I’m going to look at a Christian who did suffer grave oppression: Martin Luther King Jr.

In his sermon Loving Your Enemies, King asks the question of whether we are called to like our enemies. And his answer is no. In fact he says that we should be glad that Jesus only commanded us to love our enemies and not to like them because liking someone implies affection and approval of their actions.[4]

In his words:

“How can we be affectionate toward a person whose avowed aim is to crush our very being and place innumerable stumbling blocks in our path? How can we like a person who is threatening our children and bombing our homes? That is impossible. But Jesus recognised that love is greater than like.”[5]

I think starting from here we can pinpoint to principles when it comes to loving our enemies even if we don’t like them:

1. We are called to speak out against injustice without mirroring injustice.

One of the central themes of the Bible is the responsibility of God’s people to confront injustice and protect the vulnerable. Isaiah 1:17[6] says

         Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

The Bible is clear that all humans have an innate dignity because they are made in the Image of God. And guess what, this includes our enemies!

King writes:

“Second, we must recognise that the evil deed of the enemy-neighbour, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy.
This simply means that there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. When we look beneath the surface, beneath the impulsive evil deed, we see within our enemy-neighbour a measure of goodness and know that the viciousness and evilness of his acts are not quite representative of all that he is. We see him in a new light. We recognise that his hate grows out of fear, pride, ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding, but in spite of this, we God’s image is ineffably etched in his being. Then we love our enemies by realising that they are not totally bad and that they are not beyond the reach of God’s redemptive love.”[7]

Any act of injustice mars the humanity of both the victim and the perpetrator. The victim is dehumanised by the cruelty of the perpetrator and the perpetrator is dehumanised by giving into cruelty and prejudice. This can be because it stands in the way of peace that God intended us to live in. As a prophetic voice we are required by God to speak out in these situations. But the peace that the Bible talks about (shalom) is not just the absence of conflict; it is the flourishing of humans in their relationship with God and each other. Therefore Jesus does not command us to be peacekeepers; he commands us to be peacemakers who seek the reconciliation of victim and perpetrator and restoration of their shared humanity.

2. We mustn’t spread false witness against our enemies.

Or for those who don’t speak King James English: don’t spread false rumours or allegations about your enemies. For one, it’s often illegal. In most countries freedom of speech laws don’t extend to libel or slander. But it’s also part of the Big Ten in the book of Exodus: do not bear false witness against your neighbour. This commandment originally applied within a legal sense within Israel. To bring false charges against another Israelite was a very serious crime. In fact, if the judge discovered that you had brought false charges in a criminal case you would often receive the punishment for the crime you accused the defendant of committing (up to and including execution!).

James goes a step further and writes:

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” – James 3: 9-10

Again this theme of the dignity of humans comes up. When we spread false words about our enemies we make it easier to demonise and dehumanise them. When we lose sight of the humanity of others we lose opportunities for reconciliation and the higher path of loving them.

There is also a pragmatic reason for not spreading lies about our enemies: we can weaken our case by doing so when standing up to injustice. There is a rhetorical technique/informal fallacy called strawmanning. The straw man fallacy is when you take your opponent’s argument, misrepresent it, and then “knock down” this distorted version of their words. The problem is that while this may convince the impressionable, an intelligent person will see through this and you will lose credibility in their eyes. Instead, let your enemy’s words speak for themselves and let them be judged for it.

However way you decide to engage with your enemies you must do so while remembering that they are fellow humans loved by God. Even though it is really hard to do. It may be a cliché but Nietzsche was right when he said “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.”              

Post note: I have previously written an entry about what a Muslim taught me about loving your enemy here

Photo credit: bobsfever

[1] Ah, there’s that smug sense of superiority.
[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), loc1195.
[3] You wouldn’t want to be seen disagreeing with Jesus, would you? WOULD YOU?
[4] Martin Luther King, A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings, The King Legacy Series (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012), 48.
[5] Ibid.
[6] If you aren’t familiar with Isaiah he was a prophet in the Bible. Prophets were people chosen by God to speak on God’s behalf to the people. Isaiah was so important that he’s considered one of the “major” prophets and he has a really long book in the Bible that’s kinda boring at first but gets really good about halfway through. 
[7] Martin Luther King, A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings, The King Legacy Series (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012), 47.

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