“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Matthew 5:43-48 (NIV)
I imagine by this point in Jesus’ Sermon, many in his audience were scratching their heads. “The meek will inherit the earth? Did I hear that right? Blessed are those who mourn! Really? How?” And then Jesus kicks the absurdity up a notch by pointing out that loving only those who love us is not good enough. “Now he’s telling us to love people who hate us, and to pray for our persecutors! Who ever heard of such a thing?!”
For Jesus’ audience, the obvious “enemies” and “persecutors” were the Roman occupiers who ruled over them. The Romans were so fundamentally different from the Jews. They worshipped other gods, consumed forbidden food and drink, wore different clothing, spoke a different language, had different ideas about how society and government should work—everything about them was anathema to the Jews. And to make matters worse, these Roman infidels were in control, and could abuse them at will with few if any negative repercussions. How could they be expected even to pray for such people, let alone love them?
With this directive, Jesus introduces an entirely new paradigm of selfless, undiscriminating love—the kind of love that when confronted with unfair treatment by an enemy turns the other cheek and goes the extra mile. A perfect love that casts out fear and humanizes the “other.”
As Jesus’ followers, we believe that he meant what he said when he told us to love one another, to refrain from judging one another, and to treat our neighbor as we would want to be treated. We believe he wants us to live the way he did—to offer hope, acceptance, healing, forgiveness, generosity, and grace to everyone, including (and especially) the outcasts of society. We believe that he wants us to love our enemies: those we perceive as being fundamentally different from ourselves.
In light of these beliefs, it baffles me that Christians can hold completely opposite views from each other concerning how to treat the most vulnerable people in our communities: refugees and other immigrants, people of other faiths (Muslims in particular), and the LGBT+ community, to name just a few examples. When I observe Christians whose positions on how to treat these people seem un-christlike, it is very tempting to see them not only as my enemies, but as enemies of Christianity. And yet some of my most loved and respected family and friends stand on the opposite side of the fence, and may indeed see my stance as the unchristian one. It seems incredible that we can all be looking at the same issues and people and see them so very differently.
In ruminating on this, I’m realizing that one of our biggest challenges as humans is learning how to understand and love our enemies—the people whom we perceive as being fundamentally different from ourselves—whether that difference is race, culture, language, religion, gender identity, sexual preference, or political and/or theological views. For guidance, I look to Jesus, who spent the majority of his life ministering to people fundamentally different from himself. He not only preached the virtues of those perceived as having the least value in his society, he interacted with them personally, one on one, defying cultural taboos and breaking Pharisaic laws in the process: healing the diseased and disabled with his touch (including Romans and Gentiles—and on Sabbath, too!), offering rescue and forgiveness to a prostitute, sharing a conversation with a Samaritan woman, sitting down to a meal with a tax collector.
Jesus gave freely of himself to these “others,” offering healing and hope, making them feel loved and valued as fellow children of God. When Jesus looked at people, fear and prejudice held no power over him. He recognized the divine image of the Creator in each person, and responded to the deep longing for love and acceptance buried in each heart. And when confronted with torture and death, Jesus didn’t judge or condemn his persecutors; he prayed that God would forgive them. Mother Teresa said: “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” When we allow fear and prejudice to dominate the way we see others, and choose to see “the other” as “the enemy,” we miss an opportunity to love as God loves. Experiencing this courageous, selfless love requires that we step out of our comfort zone and interact personally with the “other,” asking the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to understand and love them. As we practice this “effortful” love, our hearts will be transformed, making it increasingly difficult for us to see anyone as “the enemy.” God’s love does not discriminate, and ideally, neither should ours. This is how we build the Kingdom of God: just love today, dear friends. Love.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”