It seems to my three and a half pound brain that one massive problem with Christians today is we can’t agree on who our enemy is. Or worse yet, too many Christians think of our enemy as a category of people. In spite of the Apostle Paul’s clear teachings, too many of us think our enemy is fellow human beings. Then, on the occasion that an enemy is a human, we neglect Jesus’ teaching on how to treat that enemy!
In the wake of recent cultural moves and world events, I’m struck by how desperately we need Martin Luther King to guide us on what love of enemy looks like. But before we hear from MLK, a few notes of interest:
1) Reading MLK’s sermon, partially quoted below, I was struck by the stark contrast of his context and ours. King’s enemies were actively trying to kill him and he returned their hate with a strong force of self sacrificial love. The stakes for most of us** are not remotely so high, yet we seem to have lost our minds to outrage and fear instead of remembering that we are a people of love.
2) John Lewis reinforced this stark contrast in his stunning interview over at On Being. During the interview, that great man calmly described why he always maintained eye contact with the people who were physically beating him to a point of unconsciousness. “With my eyes, I show them that I am a human being of dignity and worth. It is difficult for the oppressor to oppress the one who is looking him right in the eye.” I can’t begin to imagine the inner fortitude required to maintain eye contact with a man whose eyes are full of hate for you and whose hands are holding a club coming down on your head. I don’t know that I would have such fortitude, but I do know that we would all do well to practice more eye contact. And while our eyes are locked, perhaps some much needed ear contact as well.
3) As Scot McKnight and Nate Pyle have eloquently noted lately, social media is fueling a growing outrage that easily causes us to lose perspective. I’ll refer to the links above, rather than belabor their excellent points.
4) The good news for many Christians is that we are relieved of the burden of determining who our enemy is. The only reason we might need to determine an enemy is to focus on who we are commanded to self-sacrificially love.
**I fully recognize that some Christians are not relieved of this burden. I pray for, but cannot fathom the challenge of following Jesus and serving your country in the military. I have good friends who have done so, navigating a challenge I have the luxury of avoiding, partially because of their service. Some of course, say the way of Jesus is always the way of peace. No exceptions. Others say that Jesus calls us to stop tyranny. Honestly, I find both perspectives to be nuanced options. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the 20th Century’s finest theologians, was compelled to assassinate the tyrant Hitler for the greater good. For those few in that position, I find Miroslav Volf’s perspective to be helpful:
I have always felt that Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who attempted an assassination of Hitler, had the right perspective on such acts. Bonhoeffer was convinced that he was doing the right thing—even though doing the right thing entailed doing the wrong thing. He was doing a right thing for which he felt he had to repent. He was doing the right wrong thing. Taking a life is always the wrong thing. The choice Bonhoeffer had was doing the lesser of the evils. However, the fact that one has to do evil and chooses the lesser one doesn’t mean it becomes not evil. He must still repent of his sin. The self-righteousness with which we go after those who have assaulted us and the absence of any sense that we ourselves are implicated in their act is to me deeply troubling.
But the overwhelming majority of us are not facing these difficult paths. Too many Christians have determined that fellow humans are their enemy when they simply are not. For most Christians, our so called enemy is not waging physical war against an oppressed people. We have, instead, chosen the easier, less Christian path of engaging a “culture war.” We have forgotten that love is cruciformed. We have forgotten that the power of God is manifest in the strength to love those who are against us.
Is our culture making moves that are not traditionally Judeo-Christian? Yes, rapidly. But when that occurs, it does not automatically produce an enemy for Christians to rail against.
But enough from me. Here it is from someone who lived it and was killed by his enemies because of it. Martin Luther King’s Sermon “Loving Your Enemies.”
To our most bitter opponents we say: “… Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.