“Love your enemies…”

by Steve Elde

Texts: Genesis 45:3-11,15; Psalm 37; Luke 6:27-38

“I say to those of you who listen,” Jesus said, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and if someone takes your coat, give them your shirt as well…If you love only those who love you, what good is that? Even sinners love those who love them.”

Later, in Luke’s gospel, a lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. “What is written in the law?” Jesus asked him. “Love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself,” he answered. “You have given the right answer,” Jesus said. “Do this and you will live.” Trying to get off the hook, the lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells him the story of a merciful Samaritan.

In this story, it is interesting that no one asks Jesus the equivalent question: “Who is my enemy?” It’s a good question. Enemy is one of those words whose meaning seems obvious, but isn’t. Who is my enemy? We might think of an enemy combatant on a battlefield, or someone who threatens us with bodily injury.

When I was in college, I took a Christian Ethics class. Our professor, Dr. Mel Soneson, asked us that question: “Who is your enemy?” We came up with all kinds of ideas. This was during the Cold War. “The Russians,” someone said. Given the ongoing headlines about Ukraine, history seems to be repeating itself.

We were, at the time, also mired in the Vietnam War. “The Viet Cong,” another classmate said. “Really?” Soneson asked. “I don’t see any Russians or Vietnamese in this room.” “Who is your enemy?” he asked us again, not letting us off the hook. “Your enemy,” Soneson said, “is anyone who threatens your personal sense of well-being.” “That could be anyone, anywhere,” someone said. “Exactly,” he said. “Anyone and everyone who threatens your personal sense of well-being at any time, in any place, is your enemy. Your enemy could be sitting in this room.” That brought it home.

If my enemy is anyone who threatens my personal sense of well-being, that means I will have to love my enemies every day. Every time my gut tightens, every time my heart pounds, every time I react with fear, or anger, or defensiveness, every time I don’t feel safe, emotionally or physically, every time I feel like I must fight or run, every time someone puts me down, every time I put someone down, I have an enemy. Anyone who abuses you, verbally, emotionally, or physically, is your enemy. Any time or any place. It could be a person close to you. It could be someone in your workplace, someone in the church, someone in your family.

If you are a Black person in this country, your enemy could be anyone who is white. Given recent events and American history, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery being just one example, if you are Black you have good reason to think that. If you are a woman, anyone who makes you feel uncomfortable, unsafe, is your enemy. Anyone who threatens you existentially is your enemy. It could be with a word, a look, an unwanted encounter. Anyone who makes you instinctively recoil, react, pull back or pull away, is your enemy.

Politics in this country has become absolutely toxic. Social media makes it worse; more easily transmissible. We characterize those with whom we disagree politically as “idiots.” Religion is sometimes used as a threat, wielded like a weapon. Many people wouldn’t be caught dead walking into a church, because in the church they feel threatened, in the church they have been hurt. You may be someone’s enemy and you don’t even know it. There are more guns than there are people in the United States of America. Think about that. Whatever your view of firearms, it says a lot about our fears and our insecurity, how much we fear our enemies, real or imagined. The cycle of fear and reaction is self-perpetuating.

Jesus doesn’t say, “Like your enemies.” You don’t have to like your enemies, against your own instinct for self-preservation. Loving is not liking. Loving is choosing, in your freedom, to see others as human beings, even, maybe especially, when others are a threat to you, when the odds are against loving. But love is active, not reactive.

How do you love your enemies? You assume the best and not the worst motives in those who threaten you. Jesus assumed the best, not the worst, motives in those who were killing him. From the cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” They’re clueless. To love your enemy is to see their humanity amidst their inhumanity, when there is no evidence. It is to break the cycle of fear and retribution, to act, not react.

The story of Joseph in the book of Genesis is a story of loving your enemies. Joseph’s brothers, full of resentment, hatred, and fear, sold him into slavery in Egypt. They wanted to kill him and would have killed him but for the intervention of one of the brothers. They told their father Joseph was dead. As evidence, they brought back his hated coat, stained with blood.

It would be understandable if Joseph had lived every moment of his life thereafter plotting his revenge, looking for payback, longing to make his brothers suffer as he had suffered, humiliate them as they had humiliated him. Joseph’s brothers stole his coat, soaked it in blood, and got rid of him—or so they thought. “If anyone takes your coat,” Jesus said, “give them your shirt too.” Give them what they don’t expect. Give them what they don’t deserve. And so, when the tables were turned, and Joseph had in his hands the power of life and death over his brothers, his treacherous brothers, who came to Egypt to beg for food, instead of killing them he gave them the shirt off his back. Instead of taking retribution, he loved them.

His brothers did not know him, didn’t recognize him. Fear and hatred twist and warp your mind. Joseph recognized them. Love empowers us to see the humanity in others, even those who try to kill you. Joseph cleared the room of everyone, except he and his brothers, then revealed himself. They were terrified. “Come closer to me,” he told them. “I am your brother, Joseph, who you sold into slavery. Don’t be afraid, and don’t hate yourselves because you sold me. It was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. God sent me ahead to ensure your survival on this earth and to deliver you from death in a way no one could ever have imagined.” Later he tells them, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good, for the saving of many.” Joseph assumed the best, not the worst, in those who had tried to kill him, in those who hated him. His own brothers were his enemy. After all they did to him, he loved them, and he wept. Joseph’s tears and love changed everything, broke the cycle of fear and retribution.

Who is your enemy? Ask Joseph. Anyone who threatens your personal sense of well-being is your enemy. How can you love your enemy? Ask Joseph. He loved his enemies when he could have killed them. “The rotten things you did, God used for something good. Don’t be afraid. I love you. I forgive you.” He asked them, “Is my father still alive? Tell him I am alive and bring him here.”

“Love your enemies,” Jesus said. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Does this mean, then, that we let others abuse us? Of course not. What it means is that you will not give back as bad as you got. You will love those who threaten you, if for no other reason, that you know they don’t know what they are doing. This doesn’t mean you must be vulnerable or defenseless. What it means is that you must be strong in love, that retribution born in betrayal, hate, and fear need not determine what you will do or who you are. Joseph had the power to destroy his brothers. But he loved and forgave them instead.

When someone can make you hate them, they have power over you. Love is the one thing, the only thing, that can dismantle hate without destroying those who are hateful. Love is the only thing that can transform fear into courage and set us free from those who threaten our personal sense of well-being. Loving, we are no longer bound to react. Instead we are set free to act.

“Do not fret, worry, become resentful, of those who do wrong,” the psalmist says. “Do not envy or want to become like those who do wrong, for soon they will fade like the grass. Trust in the Lord and do good….God will give you whatever you need, will give you the desires of your heart…Refrain from anger and forsake wrath….The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy, to kill those who do what is right. Their sword shall enter their own heart and their bows shall be broken.”

In The Guardian not long ago there was a story of a doctor in Bristol, England, Adam Towler, who, in 2019, was stabbed nine times in a “random, unprovoked attack.” The attacker knocked on his door, and when Towler opened it, pulled him into the street and began stabbing him with a knife, passing within centimeters of his heart. At the man’s sentencing, Towler looked at his attacker and said these words: “To begin, I want to say I am not upset or angry with you. I don’t think you owe me an apology or anything, but I do want you to know what it’s like for me.” According to The Guardian, the judge in the trial described Towler’s statement as “extraordinary.” “Whether,” he said, “it is the effect of intellect, or faith, or kindness, or understanding, I don’t know. If it is the consequence of intellect, I admire it. If it is the consequence of faith, I envy it.”

Towler later told the BBC: “The fact that we are here talking today, I got lucky. I’m living quite a normal life, a comfortable life [more comfortable than my attacker]. I guess in some odd way I felt a sense of connection with him. He and I were two individuals connected in this event. I haven’t been able to speak with him…but I don’t feel angry with him. What happened, happened.” “Neither of us,” Towler said, “can unwind the clocks on those events, so now I have the rest of my life before me, and he does too.”

At the attacker’s sentencing, the judge told him: “There is no logical explanation for [what you did] other than that you are a highly dangerous young man with a wholly distorted view of life and appropriate conduct.” He was sentenced to twelve years in prison. Love is not without boundaries or consequences.

In Jesus, you have been set free from the cycle of hatred and retribution. As Jesus said, “Do this, and live.” Amen.