Nothing that Jesus taught was as difficult for human beings — then or now — as when He said, “…love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”
Much of what Jesus taught was exactly opposite of the way of this world. Much of what He taught was at odds with what the religious leaders of His day allowed. Roughly 2,000 years later, those things are still true. Despite billions of people claiming to follow Jesus, most of us don’t exhibit the love He taught. And the religious leaders of our day still find ways to justify hating — and even killing — those we consider enemies.
I saw a casual example tonight of hate for political enemies. The details don’t matter. You’ve seen plenty of examples, so you know what I’m talking about.
We justify such things so easily — even those of us who claim to follow Jesus. It’s almost as though we believe there’s an asterisk in His teaching during the Sermon on the Mount — as though we believe there’s an exception for us in the footnotes of the page that says, “Unless your enemies are really bad people, of course.”
During a remarkable series of teachings which we call the Sermon on the Mount, the book of Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’ But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”
We live in a more peaceful and humane time than the people of that era, so it’s hard for us to conceive just how radical this concept would have been for the people who heard it. The way of this world is to hate those who hate us, to hurt those who hurt us, to kill those who kill anyone we love.
Humans are really good at hatred. We are really good at destroying others. We are really good at killing. We are pretty incompetent at loving. We’re bad enough at genuinely loving those who love us, but we’re downright dreadful at loving our enemies.
If you’re a religious person or if you just want to feel as though you’re a better person, it’s easy to cherry pick the teachings of Jesus and come up with things we can do. Even better, it’s easy to ignore His actual teachings and substitute current human wisdom from the religious culture — to pretend that the things which the culture wants us to do somehow represent what Jesus taught.
But Jesus was painfully plain about a lot of things. One of those things which He made very plain was the requirement to love everyone — including our enemies.
About a year ago, I argued that we might have missed the entire point of Jesus’ teaching to love. What if He taught us to love others not because it would lead us to do good things for others and not because it might make others like us better — but because the experience of genuine love fundamentally changes who we are?
Earlier this week, I was thinking further about this idea and suggested that it will destroy us if we try to live halfway between the way of genuine love and the way of the world.
Tonight, I’m looking around at the people who casually hate and I’m seeing how hard and cold their hearts are — how angry and unforgiving they can be. But I’m trying not to judge them, because I know I’m not far removed from their shoes. I know what it feels like to blindly hate the idiots and fools who I see as a threat to myself and to those I love.
How could I possibly love those people?
I’m not certain, but I wonder whether it’s impossible for those people to love me until I change myself. I wonder whether hating others — even if I choose to call it something other than hate — ends up bringing self-destruction on my own heart.
Loving our enemies doesn’t necessarily mean being weak. It doesn’t necessarily mean letting them kill or destroy. It doesn’t necessarily mean associating with people who are hurtful to us. It doesn’t mean not opposing those who we believe are taking our rights or property.
But loving means we can’t hate them and it means we can’t be indifferent to the killing and suffering which are inflicted on them in our name.
Loving our enemies is a radical concept. It’s not something humans have ever been good at doing. It’s something I struggle with, because my ego and my pride get in the way. My fear and anger get in the way. Our culture and history get in the way.
But hate is a path to mutual self-destruction and it’s a path to the destruction of the human heart.
If you make no claim about following the teachings of Jesus, you can choose to obey His wisdom about this or not. But if you claim to follow Jesus, you don’t have a choice. I don’t have a choice.
Jesus taught that we are to love our enemies. What if He actually meant every single word of that in a literal way? Isn’t it time we started trying to live as though we take what He said seriously?