The problems with loving our enemies

April 25th, 2017

In Bath, England, ancient Romans inscribed prayers to the gods on lead tablets, then threw them into the hot springs. It was a bit like a wishing well or a votive offering.

What stands out about the prayers though, is that they were curses. “Imprecatory prayers,” we might call them. They wished all kinds of ill on people who had wronged them: blindness, impotence and intestinal parasites, just to name a few. If someone stole your favorite cloak, for example, you might pray for the gods to afflict the thief with boils.

I can’t stop thinking about these imprecatory prayers as I’ve read through the Sermon on the Mount the last several weeks (Matthew 5, 6  and 7). I’m struck by Jesus’ opposite response to enemies. If someone wants to take your cloak, he says, give them your coat as well (5:40). Instead of praying for your enemies to be afflicted with boils, pray for their well-being (5:44).

Some people who try to be more holy than Jesus assert that we should have no enemies. But Jesus’ words acknowledge what you can expect from enemies: persecution, unjust application of the law, violence, humiliation and defensiveness. Jesus even says that if you are following his way, you will probably make some enemies (5:11).

Another way of saying it is this: You will create enemies simply by loving your enemies. Love always has enemies.

Jesus also says that God will forgive us — and judge us — using the same standards we apply to other people. “You’ll receive the same judgment you give; whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you” (7:2), and “if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins” (6:14-15).

I don’t think it’s quite as transactional as that, but I do think Jesus is trying to get a point across. “What would it be like,” Jesus seems to be asking us, “if God treated us the way we treat other people?”

“What would it be like,” goes the corollary, “if we treated other people as if they actually bore the image of God?”

So, when I read these pagan curse tablets from 2,000 years ago and compare them to Jesus’ words on the Sermon on the Mount, I laugh and I cringe, because I recognize my own anger and revenge fantasies in them. In my heart, I am still fairly pagan myself. Like the Psalmist, I wish that God would “break my enemies’ teeth” (58:6). (Ancient dentistry was pretty nonexistent, so broken teeth were a permanent disability).

Jesus’ admonition to forgive and love your enemies has its own problems, though. Saying “love your enemies” is particularly fraught because people who are oppressed are often told they should simply love their oppressors more. They should forgive their oppressors, remain silent, never curse or entertain thoughts of revenge, and let the Lord sort it out. Christian smarm admonishes them to turn the other cheek when they are legislated against, publicly shamed, over-policed and crucified. “Your reward is great in heaven,” we tell those activists who work for justice in the face of persecution, as if that is the consolation prize for injustice here on earth.

And for those who are abused, Jesus’ words are often twisted to suggest that they should stay in relationship with their abusers, or that forgiveness also means reconciliation and a return to the status quo instead of repentance. I believe instead that forgiveness sometimes means releasing all parties to go on their way without being hindered by a return to old toxic relationships — freeing up possibility for a totally different future.

There is still another sticky point about love and forgiveness. As a healthy white-straight-cisgender-Christian-American guy, born in a time and place where the only power I lack is being richer than 99% of the planet (I’m only in the top tenth percentile) it’s pretty easy to pity the rest of the population and mistake that for love. From a position of power, “loving your enemies” is pretty easy when they can’t really do much to hurt you. Jesus’ command only has teeth if the one doing the forgiving feels like they have something to lose. I think that’s why Jesus tells us to “come to terms with [our] accuser while we’re on the way to court” (5:25). It is not just about our anger, but about the anger we have incurred by hurting others unconsciously or through systemic injustice.

I think we can overcome many of these forgiveness problems by placing Jesus’ words in context. Considering Jesus’ audience, who were not powerful — and Jesus’ death at the hands of the powerful — I think it’s a mistake to interpret his words about forgiveness as passivity in the face of oppression and persecution. Jesus said, “Take up your cross.” Since the cross was reserved for enemies of the state, his instruction implies that following him means doing the kinds of things that could get you killed as a revolutionary. If we follow Jesus’ example, “loving your enemies” clearly does not mean avoiding confrontation with them. Forgiveness does not mean allowing oppressors to go unchallenged by the approaching reign of God.

Forgiveness is not all about sweetness and light. JC acknowledges some harsh realities in the Sermon on the Mount: Enemies exist. There are wolves in sheep’s clothing; swine who will not only reject your pearls, but will physically attack you; religious folks who preach well and even work miracles, but wouldn’t know Jesus from a hole in the ground; hypocrites and pagans. “Do not be like them,” Jesus says again and again in the Sermon on the Mount, violating the holier-than-Jesus trope that there is no us and them.

Rejecting these words of Jesus, I think, returns us to a cynical theology of power, where the only option remaining for those of us who have been wronged is to pray to the gods for revenge upon our enemies: give them pizza burn, cancer, hemorrhoids, Alzheimer’s; let them lose property, children, spouses, friends; smite them with natural disasters, wars, and famine — and there are plenty of Christians who hold to this theology.

What a waste of time.

What I hear Jesus saying in the Sermon on the Mount is that instead of simply taking comfort from the promise of an afterlife, let your confidence in God’s forgiveness, provision and redemption give you the courage to face what is wrong with the world and overcome it. Even if enemies curse and kill us, they can’t stop what God has set in motion. Love will win, as surely as the sun rises and the rain falls. Forgiveness bears witness to the possibility of a new future for everyone — both for us who do wrong and for those who have done us wrong.

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