Perhaps the most challenging and perplexing thing that Jesus ever said was his commandment to love our enemies. Those words have stared up at us from the pages of the Bible for over a thousand years, and they still dumbfound the most vocal of the advocates of Christianity. Everyone who claims Jesus as his or her Savior/mentor is forced to deal with them in some fashion.
Like so much of the Bible, this passage is simply ignored, because it is so stupefying.
What do any of us do when we encounter biblical instruction which defies our innate sense of what is right. This particular verse is far from the only place in the Bible that draws that sort of reaction from our minds. I doubt anyone who has seriously read the Bible can say they don’t find numerous passages troubling for one reason or another. In every case the reader is inclined to dismiss in some way what seems unacceptable. Maybe this is an uninspired addition to the scriptures by some ancient scribe. Maybe the translators got the words wrong. Maybe these words are hyperbolic and not meant to be taken literally. I’ve pondered each of these reasons myself, on occasion. Maybe you have too.
So with all of that said, I endeavor to make one more pass at explaining to myself what in the world Jesus was saying and why? I, too, feel the pressing desire for safety and security in my life. I share the apparently innate idea that an enemy is the very essence of a threat to that safety. How could Jesus expect me to embrace the very one who wishes me harm. On the surface, it makes absolutely no sense at all. It’s suicidal, idiotic. Say it’s not so, Jesus.
In this effort to reevaluate how anyone could love their enemies, I reflect back on exactly who I have identified as enemies in my past. Firstly, I rarely recall seeing a particular individual that I considered my direct, personal enemy, someone with whom I interacted directly and saw as a physical menace. Maybe in school, I encountered a bully whom I considered in that way. Maybe in my career I saw others as career rivals and therefore opposed to my well being, but that was a political matter, not physical. Then maybe I had a strong distaste for a political leader or other celebrity, which I viewed as a dangerous demagogue, but I again I wasn’t directly threatened in a way which should call me into fight or flight mode.
I suspect that for the most part, my “enemies” were all part of some generic group which I chose to consider detrimental to my best interest. In reality I decided someone was my enemy because they differed in opinion, worldview, politics, or religion. I rather arbitrarily chose to have amorphous groups of enemies, people I didn’t even know in any real sense. They just wore a label that I found offensive. Could it possibly be, that I had so many perceived enemies, simply because I felt a need for them. In some way they served as a validation of my identity as a worthy, even righteous human being. They were in effect my reason for being, to fight in the great war against that nebulous power of darkness the Bible speaks about.
It is difficult to miss the great prevalence of the language of warfare and conflict that pervades our culture, religiously, politically, and commercially. Everywhere we turn, we are bombarded with a call to arms, literally or rhetorically. Naturally, a life based on a culture of conflict and competition has to have enemies. You have to fight against and compete with someone. Thus we are indeed attuned to the abundance of essential enemies, just by being raised in a particular cultural heritage.
The establishment of the idea of enemies goes all the way back to Genesis. The necessary prerequisite to identifying who’s the enemy is the means to measure right and wrong, to differentiate the good from the bad, to make a value judgment of one another. The Genesis story has an implied message that is rarely considered but forms the very essence of the Bible narrative. God warned mankind against the Knowledge of Good and Evil; it was declared lethal. And yet, religiously we are pounded with the idea that, in order to be worthy, one must know what is good and live to promote it, often by opposing others.
It would seem that Jesus was indirectly pointing us back to the first human problem, when he enjoined the love of enemies. As bizarre as it sounds, maybe his words are really nothing more than the conclusion of the whole matter. Tit for tat, eye for an eye justice is and was the direct result of the fateful first sin. In the beginning mankind initiated a history long string of enemies, largely of their own making. Now near the end of the story, God reveals the solution. Our decisions predicated on the knowledge of evil are what make enemies in the first place. Refuse the fruit of the forbidden tree and make friends instead of enemies.