The Sermon on the Mount challenges us with the kind of “unnatural” behavior God expects from citizens of the Kingdom. Here is a sermon that I wrote in March, 2002 about the challenge of turning the other cheek and loving the enemy. 2002, of course, followed 2001…
Regarding the Enemy
A Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48
(With allusions to Ephesians 4:22-5:2 and Romans 12:9-21)
In those days, the name Jesus was a common name. In fact, there is another Jesus in the gospels. He appears during the trial of our Savior in Matthew 27, and his name is Jesus Barabbas. Jesus Barabbas was a violent revolutionary, one of many who were bent on using any means necessary to force the Roman boot off the necks of the people of Palestine.
Under Roman occupation, Judeans, Galileans and all the rest of the people of Palestine bore a more painful tax burden than we Americans have ever experienced. Roman soldiers were all about. At any time they could force civilians to do some job for them, and there was no right to say no. The Romans came down hard on any act of resistance. Right around the time of our Savior Jesus’ birth, for example, a rebel broke into the Roman arsenal in Sepphoris, just a few miles from Jesus’ home town, Nazareth, and looted it to arm a band of revolutionaries. The Romans destroyed the town and crucified two thousand Jews who had participated in the uprising (Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 60).
This didn’t deter the resistance movement one bit. People hated the Romans, and many gave revolutionaries and even terrorists like Jesus Barabbas a sympathetic ear. At the time of the arrest of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Barabbas was in prison for murder.
With that kind of history, with brutality so near, and with people’s hearts filled with pain and anger, how can Jesus of Nazareth even dare to suggest offering the other cheek, and going the second mile for the oppressor, and letting somebody have the shirt off your back as well as your coat, and loving and praying for the enemy? Jesus, don’t you know that’s the way to get run over? Are you telling us to cave in to evil? Let the enemy get away with this?
This week I learned some more about the ideology that drives Osama bin Laden and the al Quaeda terrorist network. It was an article in the Christian Century outlining why bin Laden and several other like-minded leaders do not have the authority to portray themselves as teachers of the way of Islam. Included in this article is an excerpt from a statement that bin Laden and four others issued in 1998. Here is what they accuse the United States of, and I’m quoting: “[f]or over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples” (Christian Century, Feb. 27-Mar. 6, 2002, p. 28f). And it goes on in that vein. In other words, bin Laden and his cohorts are accusing the United States of engaging in a war to annihilate the people of Iraq and humiliate all Muslim people.
Bin Laden’s prescription is this, and again I’m quoting him, “The ruling to kill the Americans and the allies—civilian and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim” (ibid).
That sure makes my blood get hot. But I caution you: remember that bin Laden does not have teaching authority in Islam. This is not official Islamic teaching. This is bin Laden’s opinion and that of the other writers of the document. It is not binding on any Muslim.
Last fall, however, twenty-plus hijackers and all their helpers believed bin Laden’s word was gospel, something worth dying for, and they killed thousands in one blow.
Now, Jesus, how can you tell us to love this enemy and pray for this enemy? How can you ask such a thing of those who mourn their dead loved ones, crushed and incinerated on 9-11? It is hard enough to love and pray for those who hurt us in everyday ways!
If anybody has the right to hit back, to hate, to take revenge on his enemies, to issue a death decree, it’s God. Over and over again humanity has slapped God in the face. It started when Adam and Eve ignored God and set out on their own path in the garden. Slap! Humanity has taken the gifts of God, the gifts of creation and the gifts of the Spirit, and squandered them, wasted them, ruined them. Slap! Instead of behaving as a loving human family, people hate and hurt and kill each other. They—we—wander away from the path of love to the path of greed and selfishness. Slap in the face of God! We have behaved as the enemies of God and it has meant anger and anguish and unspeakable grief for God. God is cut to the heart!
If anybody has reason to hit back, it’s God.
But that is not God’s way. God puts no boundaries around God’s love. This is pure, unbounded love. As Jesus points out, God sends the sun and rain on the good and the bad, on those who try to love him back and those who couldn’t care less. In the Lukan version of this teaching (Luke 6), Jesus points out that God is good to the ungrateful and to the wicked. God is merciful. Nobody, not even the most notorious of enemies is beyond the love of God.
What does God see when God looks at an enemy? God sees somebody that God created, that God called into being. God sees somebody worth dying for. God sees somebody worth going to the cross for.
We see that in Jesus Christ. When Jesus’ enemies verbally abused him, and spat on him, and slapped him, Jesus refused to hit back. And even as they tortured him to death, Jesus put those enemies into God’s hands. He loved them and us to the end, and did what he had to do to accomplish good for us.
When he calls his disciples to love our enemies, Jesus doesn’t say, “Force yourself to feel warm, friendly feelings towards them.” There’s not one word in his teachings that says excuse evil and condone hurtful behavior. Loving the enemy does not mean pretending they haven’t hurt us. They have hurt us! This is not a call to say things are all right when they’re not all right. God certainly hasn’t issued any cheap, “Oh, it’s okays” to us. Sin is not okay with God!
What Jesus is calling us to do is to refuse to return evil for evil. Or as my Daddy would say, don’t wrong the other, because another wrong won’t make a right. Loving the enemy is an act of the will to seek what is good for the enemy, no matter how that person responds. And what is good for the enemy sometimes means challenging, or restraining him. What Jesus is telling us to do is to regard the enemy from God’s point of view.
Both Jesus and Paul in the text we read from Ephesians remind us that we are children of God. Children of God do what God does: namely, they love their enemies. Anybody can love their friends, those who love them back. The real test of love is how we choose to behave towards the enemy.
The call to love and pray for the enemy does apply to national enemies as well as personal enemies. It applied then to the Romans. It applies now to bin Laden and al-Quaeda.
Christians must wrestle with the call of Jesus and let it shape what we expect of our government and military. Some conclude that Christians cannot support or participate in acts of war at all. Others—and this is where I am—believe that there are certain circumstances where the evil of war is necessary in order to prevent an even greater evil. But war never ceases to be evil, even when it is unavoidable.
Terrorism is not all right. Restraining, containing, and stopping it is necessary. But in the name of Jesus, on the basis of his teachings, Christians must monitor how it is done. Here are a few of the considerations:
• Revenge can never be the goal!
• We can never sink to bin Laden’s level and issue death decrees against Muslims. There cannot be any rounding up or internment of Muslims the way we rounded up and interned people of Japanese origin in WWII.
• There can be no rejoicing over the war and over the deaths of the enemy. War is not fun or holy. It is the lesser of two evils at best.
• It matters how our officials treat prisoners, like those we have in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Even as we restrain them, Christ calls us to do what is right to them, no matter what they have done to us.
• Doing good includes taking responsibility for recovery and rebuilding. In this case, we have a moral and spiritual responsibility to do good to the people of Afghanistan. United States bombs have done great damage there.
• We have a moral and spiritual responsibility to respect our Muslim neighbors—yes, the Muslim is my neighbor! And there are many in Rocky Mount. We must behave towards them the way our Savior would. That means love.
It’s tough to apply Jesus’ teaching as we face national enemies. It may be even tougher to apply it when we face the people close to home who have hurt us. The wounds can be very deep. Lord Jesus, how can I see as you see, when my eyes are filled with tears? How can I see as you see, when pain and anger are all I can see? All I want to do is hit back!
This week I read a most compassionate book entitled Forgiveness, the Passionate Journey (Flora Slosson Wuellner, Upper Room, 2001). The author stresses that learning to love the enemy is a process, a journey, often a very long journey, that may not come to complete resolution until we are at home in eternity. If we try to get over a deep injury too quickly, the pain goes underground and festers and gets infected. It is enough in the beginning to recognize what Jesus said, and not strike back automatically. In time, ways to live out his word will become apparent. This requires time, patience, and spiritual struggle.
Maybe that’s why the first thing Jesus says after “love the enemy” is “pray for the enemy.” Notice that this is what Jesus himself did. On the cross, Jesus didn’t say, “It’s okay. I’m not hurt. I forgive you. It doesn’t matter.” He said, “Father, forgive them.” Jesus put all his enemies into the hands of God: the soldiers; the religious and political authorities that decided that he had to be eliminated; the crowds who went along with it, and who hollered for Pilate to release Jesus Barabbas, not Jesus of Nazareth; and the disciples who abandoned him—Jesus placed them all in God’s hands.
People do have a choice. We can choose the way of Jesus Barabbas and regard the enemy with whatever contemptuous adjective we choose. We can choose the way of physical or emotional violence. We can choose the way of hate, the wide way of destruction, the way of the world.
Or we can choose the way of Jesus Christ, and regard the enemy as a human being, created and loved by God. We can choose the way of prayer. We can choose to struggle with the call to love, a struggle that will likely change us. We can choose the way of love, the narrow, hard way of the cross. We must choose. Are we the people of the cross or not?