One of the most central teachings of Jesus is that we ought to love our enemies. How are we doing?
If one were to do some online research using “examples of loving your enemy” as the search phrase, you wouldn’t find many to choose from. Loving one’s enemy isn’t something we’re good at right now. Some examples can be found in the distant past, such as World War II or the Civil War — there’s lots of data from wars. But apparently, in 21st century America, most “what’s in it for me?” Americans are not into loving their enemies.
Go back to WWII and you can find the story about Luftwaffe pilot Franz Stigler. While piloting a German fighter, he refused to shoot down a crippled American bomber flying over Germany and trying to get back to England. The 21-year-old American pilot, Charlie Brown, was on his first mission. His crew were wounded or dead. His plane was riddled with bullet holes.
Stigler saw that they were in trouble and felt that bringing the plane down would be murder. Instead, he escorted them to safety and peeled off, after saluting Brown. Decades later, the two pilots met in a well-publicized friendly encounter.
Or you might run across the account of the Japanese soldier who gave back a graduation ring belonging to American prisoner of war Mario “Motts” Tonelli, a former professional football player. The Japanese officer had studied in America and seen Mott’s play. According to one report, he said, “You were a hell of a player,” as he handed the ring back to his prisoner. “Good luck.”
But to find common, mundane examples of people loving their enemies today can be difficult, although not impossible.
Occasionally, you read about unlikely friendships, such as the one between Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. You might also pause to consider the friendship between the Obamas and the Bushes, and especially President Bush and Michelle Obama joshing around. And you might remember the banter between President Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill.
But many would also agree that sometimes the United States can be described as a nation of enemies, a nation at war with itself or a house divided, as Abraham Lincoln put it. There isn’t a person alive who doesn’t have an enemy and probably more than one. Here is a short list of some battle lines:
This list doesn’t even account for issues such as race and climate change, and when you have this many battalions positioned against enemies, things can get ugly. It is legitimate to ask: “With everything that divides us, what in the world is holding us together?”
This brings us to a section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as recorded by Luke: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Note that Jesus says, “Pray for those who abuse you,” not “Stay with those who abuse you.”)
When Jesus says that we should love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us, we might agree and nod our heads, and concede that this would be a good thing. It’s part of our creed. The idea of loving the unlovable is a thread that has been woven into the fabric of our religious attire since we were old enough to recite “God is love” (1 John 4:7).
But the harsh truth is that we have a hard time believing it. And further, it is fair to say that most Christians don’t practice loving their enemies.
This might be true for the following reasons:
At the heart of all of these excuses are two huge misconceptions about what Jesus is asking us to do. The first is about idealism and realism, and the second is about love.
It isn’t hard to argue that Jesus was a stargazing, impractical idealist who did not have his feet on the ground of real life or the quid pro quo of politics. The Creed tells us that Jesus was both human and divine, so this already puts him in the category of someone unusual. And then there’s the fact that he was sinless, and we are not.
His ideals are simply that — something to strive for, but never actually achieve. Because the moment we achieve an ideal, it ceases to be an ideal. It’s now in the realm of the possible. What Jesus is proposing is certainly ideal, but it’s not real, that is, it’s not in the realm of the possible. And, by the way, his radical idea(l)s got him crucified.
This is how the argument goes.
But — as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr might say — perhaps we need the idealists of the world to prod the rest of us underachievers to accomplish something that would otherwise be beyond our grasp. Without idealists pushing us to be better versions of ourselves, we’d settle for far less than is possible.
The inconvenient truth is that we can actually love people we perceive as going-to-hell narcissists. This is possible because Jesus is only asking us to take one action at a time. Everything he suggests (as examples) involves a concrete, positive action. Simple. We can love our enemies, one act of kindness at a time.
This is why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in a sermon in Montgomery, Ala., that “far from being an impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist. The words of this text glitter in our eyes with a new urgency. Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.”
Another kind of love that will save our civilization is the kind of love that a husband and wife share through the ups and downs of 50 years of marriage.
Back in February of 1972, a man named Henry out in California had two friends whom he believed would be a good match. So Henry and his girlfriend set them up on a blind date to double date with them to go to downtown Hollywood to eat together at the “Yellow Submarine” restaurant. The young man was completely mesmerized by this beautiful young woman. On that first date, he believed he had found his soulmate.
The very next day, he went back to her house where she lived with her mother and stepfather. Before he could see her, her mother asked him point blank, “What are your intentions for my daughter?” He bravely responded, “I intend to marry her.”
On the third day, he returned to her home where she and her parents were watching him approach the house. He tripped over a brick in the yard and fell down. They had a good laugh and invited him into the house. He proceeded to propose marriage to her and she said “yes”.
On the seventh day, Saturday, February 19, 1972, the four of them drove from L.A. to Las Vegas where Bruce and Terry Willingham were joined together in the covenant of marriage in the Cupid Chapel. They will be renewing their vows after the sermon. (They renewed their vows last night after the sermon in the Divinity chapel.)
Bruce told me that through the ups and downs of marriage, Terry has always been his soulmate.
Love looks somewhat different when seen through the eyes of Jesus. Loving our enemy looks unreasonable, especially when the Lord proposes a four-fold approach to demonstrate what he means:
Now, Jesus has crossed the line.
One might be able to make an argument for doing good. Most people can muster up the effort to create positive actions that promote even an enemy’s wellbeing.
But bless the enemy? Pray for the enemy? This is totally unreasonable. This requires an attitude adjustment of the heart. This is much more difficult than providing a cloak when a soldier has lost his.
But this is the central demand of Jesus’ moral universe: Love unreasonably.
This is what God wants to do for us, Jesus says, but only if we do likewise for our enemies.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Yes, Jesus calls us to love unreasonably, not to hate reasonably.