This post first appeared as the cover article from the parish newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of The View and learn about St. John's, click here.
In a long list of his difficult teachings, Jesus’ command to love our enemies is perhaps the most challenging. Love our enemies. Love? We are supposed to love them? Maybe Jesus was mistaken, or maybe we misheard him. Maybe he meant to tell us to deal respectfully with those who disagree with us. Maybe he wasn’t talking about our real enemies. After all, Jesus did not know anything about ISIS or Al-Qaeda. Surely he would not ask us to love those who behead his followers and post the gruesome videos on the Internet. Surely Jesus would not ask us to love those who terrorize his people and indiscriminately kill men, women, and children by the thousands. Love, after all, is what we feel towards our spouses and children. Love is what we do for those whom we treasure in our hearts. How can love be an appropriate response to violence, hatred, and terrorism? How can love be God’s answer for those who represent everything that God is not?
This morning, I concluded a nine-week bible study on the contradictory nature of scripture. Entitled “Two Testaments, One God,” it explored a range of topics like war and women and slavery in an attempt to demonstrate that reconciling the inscrutable passages of the bible with our experience of and belief in God is not as simple as saying that the New Testament trumps the Old. The final subject in our series was vengeance, and we could not help but wrestle with last weekend’s attacks in Paris and our instinctive desire for retribution.
With those headlines and death-filled images still fresh in our minds, we read about the great flood in Genesis 6 and 7. We studied the Passover in Exodus 12. Had we not run out of time, we would have read Jesus’ mini-apocalypse in Matthew 12 and the opening of the seven seals in Revelation 6. Each of those is a horrifying, terrifying, and head-spinning account of God enacting his justice against the unjust. In a moment like this, when all people of faith yearn for the Almighty to right the wrongs of terrorism, those passages offer a glimmer of hope—a reminder that someday God will impose his final and complete vengeance upon the earth.
As we all know, however, the bible does not speak with one voice when it comes to divine justice. In our study of vengeance, we also read from Romans 12, in which Paul wrote, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Easy enough, you might think; we can relax and know that eventually God will punish our enemies on our behalf. But do not forget about the next two verses: “To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
What does it mean to “overcome evil with good?” What does it mean to “turn the other cheek?” What does it mean to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?” We might want to see the destruction of those who hate us. We might wait with expectant glee for God to wipe our enemies off the face of the earth. But that is not God’s invitation to us. I believe that Jesus meant what he said. I believe that he asks us to love the very worst among our enemies. I believe that he wants us to let even the most inhumane killer into our hearts because that is what God would do. That is what God does.
I do not pretend that it is easy, nor do I maintain the illusion that my miniscule experience of suffering even compares with the agony and anguish of those who stare godless, gun-wielding terrorists in the face or who bear the scars of their horrific acts for the rest of their lives. But I do believe that loving our enemies is what God calls all of us to do. To love means to let someone into our heart. It means to hope for the best for someone. It means to care about them and suffer with them—even for them. It means to remember that beneath the inhuman persona of a terrorist lies a human being, created in God’s image and loved by God as much as he loves you or me. How is that possible? I do not know…except that, with God, it is.
If we reject Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies, we lose the entire gospel along with it. God loves you and me. Even though we are sinful, God still loves us. Even though we turn our backs on him, his love is certain. Even though we reject him and his love on a daily basis, God’s love is guaranteed. Why? Because that is who God is—because God chooses to love even the unlovable. There can be no limits to God’s love. That is the message of Jesus. That is the declaration of the cross and empty tomb. That is what it means to be a Christian. And, like it or not, that is precisely who we are called to be.