Time for Lent: Love Your Enemies


(system) #1

G. K. Chesterton observed, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Arguably, this statement is most clearly true in Jesus’ call to love our enemies.[1] If you’re anything like me, you embrace this teaching at a cerebral level and yet have difficulty responding with kindness when even slightly provoked or criticized.

Even though Jesus came to bring peace, he knew that his ministry would divide people.[2] Enemies would inevitably be created; however, these individuals were still to be treated with love and respect. We see an example of this when Jesus was traveling through Samaria en route to Jerusalem. [3] When the Samaritans rebuffed Jesus, the disciples wanted to call down fire from heaven. However, Jesus quickly corrected the error of their violence. Commenting on this story, Ellen White states,

“There can be no more conclusive evidence that we possess the spirit of Satan than the disposition to hurt and to destroy those who do not appreciate our work, or who act contrary to our ideas”.[4]

In contrast to the disciples’ attitude, Martin Luther King Jr. embodied love for one’s enemies:

Do to us what you will and we will still love you….But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.[5]

Last May I participated in a peaceful demonstration calling for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.[6] While marching from Congress to the White House, I talked with a protester who was passionate and well-informed about human rights and geo-politics. However, his description of what he thought should be done to members of the Bush administration was hardly peaceful.

My fellow demonstrator was not really against torture; he just wanted a different target. Only by following King’s call to “overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression” are we able to avoid becoming the pigs of Orwell’s Animal Farm.[7] Rather than responding to our enemies with violent thoughts, words and actions, we, as disciples of Jesus, are learning to respond with acts of healing.[8] We do not do this in our own power. Jesus must live in us and grow his love in our hearts.

“It is only this deep rootedness in God’s all-inclusive love that can prevent the peacemaker from being ravaged by the same anger, resentment, and violence that leads to war.”[9]

Today’s social action assignment is to seek out a conversation partner who disagrees with you about a topic you care deeply about—health care, free-market capitalism, immigration, etc.[10] Rather than maintaining peace by avoiding difficult conversations or destroying peace by engaging with venom, try to deeply hear the person’s opinions, rationales and fears. Stephen Covey’s admonition to seek first to understand and then to be understood can be a powerful communication tool, though it is incredibly difficult for many of us.[11] As we converse, may we treat others in a manner consistent with Worthington’s definition of love: "being willing to value the people on the other side and being unwilling to devalue people."[12]

On Sunday this series is going to turn a corner. With our commitment to prayer, community and loving our enemies, we will turn our attention to specific social issues. Also, I have invited guest writers to offer their unique voices on a number of these topics. I hope you’ll welcome them warmly even if they push the conversation in uncomfortable directions.

[1] Matthew 5:43-48. See also Romans 12:14-21 for Paul’s teaching. For commentary on turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-42), see Walter Wink’s essay, “Christian Nonviolence” (http://www.zcommunications.org/christian-nonviolence-by-walter-wink/). For a powerful story of loving one’s enemy, see pp. 260-263 in The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne.

[2] Luke 2:14 and Luke 12:49-53/Matthew 10:34-39.

[3] Luke 9:51-56.

[4] Ellen Gould Harmon White, The Desire of Ages (Battle Creek: Review and Herald, 1898), 487.

[5] Martin Luther King (Jr.) et al., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr: Symbol of the movement, January 1957-December 1958 (University of California Press, 2000), 341-342.

[6] http://advactivism.wordpress.com/2009/05/07/100-days-campaign/

[7] http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-acceptance.....

[8] Mark 3:5. See Nooma:Store (http://nooma.com/nooma_store_016_rob_bell.php/).

[9] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Peacework: Prayer, Resistance, Community (Orbis Books, 2005), 71.

[10] If your enemy is an abusive parent, cheating spouse, or the like, your pressing assignment is to find safety and support as opposed to finding someone to verbally spar with. Alternatively, if you are feeling courageous, your assignment is to seek reconciliation with a current “enemy.” For motivation, read Chapter 2 of Walter Wink’s book, When the Powers Fall (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998).

[11] Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 15th ed. (Free Press, 2004). Another book that has influenced me is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, 1st ed., Kerry Patterson et al., (McGraw-Hill, 2002). This short article at Utne is also insightful—“The Great Divide.” My friends and family members can affirm that I have sometimes (often?) done a poor job of living these principles, and yet I believe my wife would say there is marked if not linear improvement. The less I feel I have to win the argument, the better positioned I am to listen.

[12] Everett L. Worthington Jr., A Just Forgiveness: Responsible Healing without Excusing Injustice (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 153.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2187