Everyone knows that Jesus said something somewhere about loving our enemies, but to look at his followers you’d think it was just a passing suggestion or a euphemism for something much more complicated. Many modern factions of Christianity are not unlike other insular groups, very sure of who our enemies are and what God has in store for them. Even the prophets and apostles of scripture can’t seem to resist defaulting to an “us versus them” mentality, which only fuels today’s followers by providing them with “biblical” rhetoric about God’s impending vengeance on the bad guys. (Watch Paul wrestle with enemy love in Romans 12:14-21, and see him get downright scary in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12.) We give those ancient authors a pass because of the times and culture in which they lived and for the persecution they faced, but the fundamental problem persists. The results today range from easily ignored pop-culture revenge fantasies to deeply disturbing calls to arms against specific groups of perceived enemies.
Was Jesus simply being unrealistic when he commanded his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44)? Some have taken an approach similar to Paul’s in Romans 12; we should outwardly tolerate our enemies right now like Messiah said, but only in anticipation of judgment day when he’s coming back to settle the score. We win, they lose, we just have to bide our time. But that’s not so much “love” as it is “sanctimonious condemnation and self-delusion.” The Romans 12 approach is really just the 2 Thessalonians 1 approach with a smiley face painted on it.
What about Jesus? Did he practice what he preached vis-à-vis enemy love? The biblical evidence indicates that radical empathy and subversive affirmation of the “other” are central to both Jesus’ message and his legacy. Here are just four ways that Jesus modeled love of enemy, according to the gospel accounts.
1. Jesus refrained from cursing Israel’s enemies
Jesus stood in the tradition of Israel’s prophets. The earliest prophets saw their task as twofold: 1) admonish Israel’s kings and priests on behalf of YHWH, and 2) comfort the nation by pronouncing divine wrath upon her enemies. Later prophets (like Isaiah and Jeremiah who were a major influence on Jesus) intensified their challenge to Israel, especially in light of the “curse” of exile, but still maintained that God would ultimately and eternally punish the pagan powers who carried the curse out. Jesus picked up the prophets’ call for reformation (he called it “repentance”), but he dropped the oracles of fire and brimstone against Israel’s enemies. He spoke some harsh and difficult words, but the worst of them were reserved for the religious authorities in his own land. This is not to say that that he condoned or ignored the brutality of Rome (for example), it simply demonstrates that he made a conscious decision not to frame his prophetic message in terms of “us versus them.”
2. Jesus told stories that inspired empathy for enemies
Along the same lines, Jesus told parables to ignite his followers’ imaginations and to challenge their presuppositions. A major theme of his storytelling is a radical rethinking of both “us” and “them.” One of the best known stories concerns a detested political and ethnic enemy who turns out to be an Israelite’s true “neighbor” (Luke 10:25-37). To love this neighbor as much as oneself, says Jesus, is to know God. In one sense Jesus’ parables are subversive and shocking, and yet they are not without precedent in his own tradition. Hebrew texts like Ruth and Jonah (both invoked by gospel authors) offered stunning and countercultural portrayals of hated enemies as sympathetic and beloved of God. Jesus claimed and amplified this vision.
3. Jesus interpreted scripture by filtering out violence and retribution
It is fascinating when studying the gospel texts to consider when and how Jesus invokes the Hebrew Scriptures in his teaching. Which books does he quote? Which books does he not quote? Which passages does he quote, and when? What does he leave in, what does he leave out? There is a growing scholarly interest in “how Jesus read his Bible.” One of the patterns that emerge from such a study is Jesus’ apparent intentional hermeneutical move away from violence and vengeance. This finds broad expression in the way Jesus reframed the Torah law to focus on relationships and empathy rather than technical compliance (see Matthew 5:21ff.). But consider also Luke 4:16-30, wherein Jesus quotes Isaiah (61)’s announcement of “the year of YHWH’s favor” (when God rescues “us”) but omits the very next line about “the day of God’s vengeance” (when God punishes “them”). By the end of the passage, Jesus’ disappointed neighbors are trying to throw him off a cliff. This dimension of Jesus’ bible teaching is challenging on a number of levels, in its original context and our own. (This topic is addressed in a fascinating book called Healing the Gospel by Derek Flood, who is currently writing another book specifically about violence in scripture.)
4. Jesus blessed his enemies as they murdered him
It’s one thing to avoid hateful rhetoric and to reconfigure an abstract religious/political framework around love and empathy. It is quite another to stare an enemy in the face as he brutalizes you and to declare him “forgiven.” This is exactly what Luke portrays (in chapter 23) when Jesus is crucified and prays, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” The ramifications of this moment in the gospel narrative cannot be overstated. On the one hand, our notions of right, wrong, and forgiveness are turned inside out, as a divine agent pronounces forgiveness over unrepentant murderers. At the same time, Jesus is living out his own teaching to the utmost extreme, practicing his preaching to a confounding end. It is one of the great climactic moments in our Bible, second only to what comes a chapter later. (And there’s more that could be said about the non-vengeful nature of the resurrection tradition in contrast with popular messianic expectations.)
Of all the moral imperatives in scripture, none remains more elusive and challenging than Jesus’ call to empathy and selfless love. This is the theme not just of his teaching, but of his life, his death, and his glorious legacy.