“You have heard that it was said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” – Matthew 5:43-44
The question as to who Jesus truly commands us to love is borne from a sense of confusion and uncertainty as to who is truly deserving of being loved. Despite love being the Greatest Commandment, we find ourselves conflicted between loving our neighbor (and enemy) or lashing out against them. This is in part due to the fact that we live in a society where the first reaction to disagreement is disfellowship and the response to one’s evil is extinction. Our militaristic and bigoted tendencies, as informed by our society and culture, teach that people who are different from us, or those who are threats to us, are undeserving of humanity or respect. Thus, we are discouraged from embracing such people.
How do these teachings align with those of Jesus? In looking at Jesus’ teaching on loving enemies, we find that he would likely be deemed a radical in our society because his reactions to terrorists, social outcasts, and typical adversaries would be politically incorrect and unpatriotic. He would not resort to the demonizing or hate speech that is prevalent in our political discourse on both the right and the left. He would not resort to hate, because as the great theologian Howard Thurman said, “Jesus rejected hate because it meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, and death to communion with God.”
The question remains: how are we to truly love our enemy? Below are five important thoughts and ideas on how to love our enemies, which include those who seem completely unlovable because of their behaviors, actions or identity. Here is how we are to love in response.
Some have responded to the scriptural call of loving enemies by suggesting that they are without enemies. While I understand that perspective, it is essential to realize that the call to love enemies includes everyone, friend and foe. While some may be without direct enemies, we all possess irritants or annoyances in our circles, who provide a substantial amount of discomfort or fear to our safety, comfort, and/or well-being. These irritants include people of different social classes, those differently abled, and even terrorists, all of whom may not be direct enemies, yet pose a real societal threat. Jesus commands us to love these people without exception. Since we all have such people in our lives, this teaching is relevant to all of humanity.
Love is much deeper and wider than outward displays of affection and embracement. To love is to be both internally and externally free from bitterness and hatred of another being. To illustrate this, when Jesus spoke of murder in the Sermon on the Mount, he spoke beyond external acts. He explained how murderous thoughts arising from uncontrollable anger are the root problem. Similarly, if we are to truly love our enemies, we must attend to our internal bitterness stemming from hatred and transform ourselves.
Too often, our social structures and institutions define subgroups of people by their conditions, thus stimagatizing and stripping people of their humanity. One who has committed a crime, for example, is solely defined by his/her wrongdoing and, as a result, is granted less dignity than an animal. How can we say we truly love someone if we are using their status to define them? So many people are deemed enemies and irritants of the state and to ourselves, and we cannot say that we love them as such if we do nothing to reform how we label them.
When Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, he added a teaching on praying for those who persecute us, or in many cases, are mere threats to us. Our prayers for others demonstrate our commitment and desire to seeing people grow and/or be changed. Even if and when we believe that some are unworthy of prayer or redemption, we must remain constant in prayer, for that is how our love will be strengthened.
Perhaps there are enemies who seem to be easier to love than others. I suspect that many of us Americans find members of ISIS, or other extremist groups as being among the most unlovable and despicable. Yet the radical and difficult part of Jesus’ commandment is that it is most necessary and essential when it seems unthinkable. Even when our religious institutions preach messages of bitterness toward such people and forsake this commandment to love our enemies, we must not compromise our principles and morals that come from Christ.
So how are we to love our enemy? We must love our enemy without exception and reject the temptation to stain a loving heart with hatred, bitterness, or stigmatism. Love cannot be partial or conditional, or withheld because of one’s egregious activities. By being counter-cultural in our love for enemies, we will be wise people, building our lives on solid foundations.
Jonathan Holmes is a contributor for Faithfully Magazine. He researches narratives about race and African Americans in Chicago and has advocated for racial and criminal justice in Illinois. Follow Jonathan on LinkedIn.