Ted was my one of my grade school enemies. I was shy, awkward, and serious. I didn’t know how to stick up for myself. Ted, along with several other boys, enjoyed tormenting me. One day, our teacher was distracted, fiddling with a faulty projector. Ted saw his opportunity. “Who farted?” he blurted out in a moment of quiet. “McBride, was that you?” Sensing there was no gracious way out of this situation, and paralyzed by fear, I ignored him. “Propane Jane! Propane Jane!” He started chanting. From that day forward, he delighted in calling me that at every opportunity.
Ted was one of my grade school enemies. Jesus says: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I can laugh now about the story I just told you. Still, even all these years later, it’s painful to remember my experiences of being bullied. It takes me right back there, to the shame and loneliness I felt in those days. It was, and is, a true challenge to try to love those who treated me that way, day in and day out for years. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This is probably Jesus’ hardest, most demanding, and most outrageous teaching. I also suspect it is one of his most misunderstood statements. There are two words to delve into here: “enemies” and “love.”
Let’s start with enemies.
The enemy, according to Matthew’s Jesus, is the one who exploits, the one who gains emotionally or economically from the suffering of others. In Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Walter Wink unpacks the three concrete examples of enemy behavior that Jesus gives. “If someone strikes you on your right cheek…” A blow to the right cheek was a likely a blow with the left hand. The left hand was not used to hit an equal, but to strike a servant, someone of lesser status. This violence was not solely done to cause physical hurt; its purpose was to humiliate and subjugate. “If someone wants to sue you to take your coat…” A person with only a coat to give as payment in a lawsuit was poor indeed. That coat was probably his or her only possession of value, and doubled as a blanket for sleeping at night. And finally, “If anyone forces you to go one mile,” is a reference to a Roman law that allowed soldiers of the empire to conscript people in occupied lands. Soldiers could compel civilians to carry their heavy gear up to a distance of one mile.
An enemy (according to Jesus) is one who exploits you, one denies your full humanity, one who, through their actions or inactions, refuses to honor the image of God within you. And an enemy is also one you are tempted to dehumanize, to demonize, because of their treatment of you. Most of us know what it feels like to be victims of an enemy such as Jesus describes. Many of us have suffered abuse or assault, have been cheated or bullied. On the other hand, in all honesty, most have also been the enemy, the perpetrator, at one time or another. Sometimes we are our own enemies, overwhelmed with self-hatred and self-doubt, engaging in self-destructive behavior. We often are an enemy even though we don’t want to be, as we benefit from white privilege or male privilege or the privilege of having the title “citizen”.
Let’s turn to the other key word in Jesus’ teaching: “love.” Love, as Jesus speaks of it here is not primarily an emotional matter. Love is a practice of making space for the full humanity of another. It is a moral orientation that seeks the good of the neighbor. Loving our enemies, says Frederick Buechner, is about seeing them clearly. He writes:
You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they’re tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see where they’re vulnerable. You see where they’re scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves.
Loving our enemies is a way of making space for healing. It is also strategic and practical response that changes real power dynamics. Loving our enemies is, in fact, the only effective way of resisting their harmful behavior. Today’s passage from Matthew begins with Jesus reflecting on the law of retaliation: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…’” This concept was meant to create a climate of fairness by putting limits on revenge: you can only cause the same pain another has caused you, no more than that. But, “I say to you,” Jesus continues, “do not resist an evildoer.” Unfortunately, this phrase has been mistranslated, likely in order to uphold the interests of empire over the centuries. The word Jesus uses here specifically refers to violent resistance. So the phrase should read, “do not violently resist and evildoer.” As Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
The love that Jesus preaches resists evil rigorously, yet non-violently. It doesn’t let anyone off the hook, not the enemy, and not the disciple. This kind of love forces the one bent on exploitation to see the humanity of their victim. It says: hit me again, because your first blow failed to humiliate me. It says: if you take my cloak, you might as well take my undergarments too, and I’ll make a show of your cruelty by prancing around naked. It says, if you pile your gear on my back, you’ll get more help than you bargained for. I’ll carry it two miles, and get you in trouble for breaking your own empire’s laws.
The love of Jesus, transforms the world because it refuses to hate, or to act with violence. Our text from Leviticus offers a model for what a society built on love looks like. Some say love cannot be legislated. But in Leviticus, love is the law. In a loving society, by matter of policy, farmers avoid harvesting all of the crop. They leave the leftovers in the field so that the hungry can eat—the landless poor, and the foreigner. A loving society treats the laborer with fairness, making sure that wages are paid promptly; accommodates the needs of the blind and deaf; provides justice through a system not swayed by bribes; prioritizes the lives of people over profit, every time.
Just a year or so after 9/11, theologian L Gregory Jones commented on our nation’s rush to war with Iraq. He wrote:
Our willingness to inflict violence may be a way of avoiding suffering…. Part of the alluring character of a preemptive strike is that presumably “we” will not have to suffer. We’ll strike before they can hurt us. But that logic will lead us to retreat further and further into our secure bunkers, and make us more and more unwilling to engage in the risk and vulnerability that are necessary components of love. Within American society, we have tried hard to conquer our fears through security measures, increasingly sophisticated monitoring devices, gated communities and the promise of an overpowering use of force. But have these cast out our fears? Or have they only diminished our capacity for love?
These days, it seems that, we, as a nation, are seeking to conquer our fears through deportations, and walls. Sanctuary, on the other hand, is a call to make space for love—love for immigrants and others under threat, yes, but equally, love for those who support our current immigration system. Jesus urges us to resist systems of exploitation because they dehumanize everyone. They make us all less than safe. They rob us all of our capacity to show true love. Love is risky; it requires vulnerability. But cooperating with injustice, allowing violence to thrive in our name, is an even more dangerous choice. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” By the grace of God, this is our work. Let us grow into the people God has created us to be.