Perhaps one of the most troubling and ignored commands of Jesus is the order to love our enemies. Spoken in the same context as Jesus’ recognition that we are called to love our neighbors – that is, those easier to love – Jesus’ command to love our enemies must find equal authority in our lives if we seek to be faithful followers.
Indeed, in the context of Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus reverses an original command, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ to reflect what he believed about the new rule of God, “But I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
These words must have been shocking to his original hearers, as they are shocking even to us who hear them today. Perhaps they tried to explain his command away or simply ignored it all together, much like we do in both intellectual and practical ways. After all, it is perhaps the most difficult command to live.
But we must ask the more practical question, “How are we to love our enemies?” In other words, in what realistic ways are we to express the transformative and redemptive love of God to those who have wronged us? If Jesus has commanded his followers to love their enemies, then such love must be authenticated through tangible action. But through what actions do we express this kind of love?
There are many good deeds we could view as actions of love, but there are some foundational actions that are at the core of the gospel message that God loves the world. In fact, while many acts of goodness could be discussed, it seems to me that Jesus modeled for us three primary actions and reactions toward those who were his enemies.
First, we must respond to the harm that is done to us by our enemies with actions that are nonviolent. When Jesus was arrested in the garden, the height of conflict between him and his enemies, he responded with nonviolence and called his disciples to do the same. While those who came to seize him carried swords and clubs, Jesus reacted to their aggression with peacefulness. Thus, a reaction to a wrong done to us by our enemies that is both an authentic and transformative expression of Christ’s love is always nonviolent.
This does not prevent us from seeking justice, but it does call us to seek true justice that breaks a cycle of hatred and violence. Moreover, Jesus’ command for us to turn the other cheek is not a command for us to become weak in the face of evil done against us. Rather, through our turning our cheek, we express a strength that epitomizes the actions of Christ and opens the possibility for authentic love and lasting peace between us and our enemies.
Second, in loving our enemies we must express to them an unconditional forgiveness for the wrongs they have committed against us. God’s forgiveness for us is not based on our own action of confession and repentance. God’s forgiveness is unconditional and extends to those who have committed the most gravest of sins. Thus, if we are to reveal the character of God to others, then we must extend the same kind of forgiveness that God has so graciously extended to us.
Yet forgiveness is not simply the overlooking of a wrong that has been committed. Those who commit wrongs against others and against society should be brought to justice. There are offenses and crimes that cannot be excused. However, the justice we seek is not a condition for the forgiveness we are called to offer. We are not commanded to forgive when someone serves their penalty for a wrong. We are called to forgive apart from that penalty.
Third, through the strength Christ gives us to love our enemies, we must be moved to the point of welcoming and embracing our enemies. We can look to Jesus’ experience with Judas, the one who would betray him, to see this very action. Jesus remained in table fellowship with Judas to the very end – an act that served as an expression of hospitality and intimacy. Serving as host, Jesus not only shared a meal with Judas, he also washed the feet of his would-be enemy.
To be sure, these are challenging steps for us to take. But loving our enemies is part of the gospel of discipleship. If we only voice an insincere and distant love for enemies in an attempt to convince ourselves that we are right with God, then we have failed to love our enemies and we have failed to live the gospel.
Faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a mental assent to a set of propositions about who Jesus was. Authentic faith can only be expressed by taking up the cross and following Jesus. Discipleship is a call to die to ourselves, including our need for vengeance against our enemies. Discipleship is a call to enact God’s redemptive and transformative love for all people through nonviolence, forgiveness and embracing those we see as our enemies.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.