I enjoy reading Rabbi Mark Gellman’s The God Squad column in the weekly paper. On the topic of, “Loving An Enemy…”, Rabbi Mark says that it is beyond his comprehension: “If you do not hate someone who has savaged your loved ones, who would you hate? Moreover, Jesus’ teaching is not just a command to forgive an enemy who has come to you with a sincere appeal for forgiveness and repentance. No, Jesus is teaching his followers to actually love an unrepentant enemy! It is not only that I cannot accept this teaching, but I do not even understand it.”
On one level I can understand Rabbi Mark’s reaction to Jesus’ teaching that seems contradictory, and is definitely counter-intuitive. But I think that Jesus’ teaching is more complex than Rabbi Gellman makes it seem.
First, Jesus is referring to personal insults and mistreatment, not to the behavior of groups of people, nations, or armies. People have often interpreted Matthew 5:38-48 to justify pacifism, which may have its own merit, but pacifism is not the focus of this passage. The intent of the law in Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21–which Jesus is quoting–was to limit punishment for certain crimes so that a culture of revenge would not ensue. The intent was for the wounded individual to receive justice in such a way that the “punishment fit the crime.”
Second, what Jesus reinterprets for the scribes and Pharisees of his day is this: If you are truly a follower in God’s kingdom, you are willing to forego personal mistreatment, in order to bless your enemy and show them the love of God. Jewish people in the 1st century would have been mistreated by Roman soldiers or officials, cheated by tax collectors, and in other ways marginalized by those more powerful in society. Jesus is not saying that we should forego defending ourselves, or that we should not pursue criminal charges against a perpetrator. Rather, he is preparing his followers to be mistreated and insulted. There is a difference between personal mistreatment and a crime committed against you.
Thirdly, Jesus is teaching that love for one’s enemies is what makes a Christ follower distinct from those who love others in self-serving ways. It is easy to love those who treat us fairly and to love those who agree with our opinions. That kind of love is not sacrificial at all. But to love someone who has ill-will towards you takes another level of humility and compassion. Love for one’s enemies is not a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome”, where a prisoner begins to feel compassion for his or her captor. It is, rather, a love born out of a recognition of common humanity, which includes an awareness of how evil my own heart could be at any given moment. Jesus has already taught that one’s anger is a form of murder in God’s eyes (Matthew 5:21-26), so when I find myself being mistreated or insulted, I am immediately confronted with my own reaction and desire for revenge. Since my own anger often goes well beyond justification, I can feel compassion for the person whose rage is out of control; on our worst days, all of us are captive to the depravity of the human heart.
Fourth, Rabbi Gellman conflates affirmation and acceptance with love: “Love is affirmation and acceptance, and the hostile acts of an enemy defy both.” Richard Wurmbrand spent a dozen years in Communist prisons in Romania, suffering for being a Christian. He tells in his book “Tortured for Christ” how he and his fellow prisoners were able to love their captors and pray that the guards would be delivered from the hate that consumed them. In no way did Pastor Wurmbrand and others “accept or affirm” what their captors were doing to them- beatings, torture, psychological manipulation, insults, starvation, etc. They surrendered to mistreatment, all the while recognizing the evil in the guards’ actions. Just as a parent will love a child who has strayed from the home and made a mess of his or her life, just as a spouse will love a husband or wife who continues to struggle with an addiction; in the same way love does not mean blanket acceptance of a person’s behavior.
Fifth- unconditional love for one’s enemy should not be confused with unconditional trust. The genius of Dr. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach was that the conscience of white Americans was awakened to injustice when they saw how blacks were being treated by police during marches, protests, etc. People saw that Dr. King and other civil rights leaders were willing to go to jail and willing to forgive those who mistreated them. But once Dr. King had whites in power at the negotiating table, then there was a need to decide on future actions to address injustice. Those white leaders would need to be held accountable, not trusted unconditionally without a plan in place.
Of course, loving one’s enemy is most difficult when we cannot see any good will in the other person. We often put ourselves in the arrogant position to judge who is worthy to be loved or not be loved. This is essentially what Rabbi Gellman states: “To be commanded to love what cannot be loved just cheapens love and deprives us of the right to be outraged at an immoral and unjust assault on our life and freedom.” Notice the subtlety of these phrases: “what cannot be loved…deprives us of the right to be outraged.” Continuing to use “our rights” as the main filter by which we judge others’ actions is a recipe for less and less empathy for others. Furthermore, Jesus is not bound by “what cannot be loved”- is he not the one who forgives murderers, adulterers, liars, thieves, and all sorts of other sinners?
I agree with Rabbi Gellman in this regard: Jesus’ command to love our enemies is impossible. But it is impossible precisely because we are finite human beings who need God’s help. Only with the supernatural help of Jesus, and the humbling realization that he died for me and for the evil deeds, thoughts, and intentions of my own heart, can I begin to love my enemies with a new heart. With Christ’s help it is possible to love one’s enemies, because he died and rose again for me, the worst of sinners.