Love Your Enemies
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48
Jesus’ command to love our enemies has profound political implications. Unfortunately, these have not often been considered. The common Post-Enlightenment prejudice that this is a “religious” statement and thus not “political” has kept most Christians from thinking through its implications. This privatization of scripture tends to transform profound social statements into narrow principles of personal ethics. Following this line of thinking, the famous passage above is robbed of most of its power. As a high-minded ethical principle, the passage sounds ideal but impossible in practice. The concluding injunction to be perfect seems to reinforce this idealistic reading. (The Greek word here means complete rendering the passage something like: love completely as your heavenly father loves completely both neighbor and enemy) While many in the Perfectionist movements of the 19th and early 20th Century took this passage seriously, their enthusiasm to achieve their goal is long gone. Today, those who insist on reading this passage individualistically, are all to aware of their imperfection. They glance at this passage with guilt and move on with their lives ignoring Jesus’ injunction and trusting that he will forgive them in the end. This of course was not the result Jesus had in mind. When Jesus spoke these words he intended them to reshape how we live both privately and publicly.
Jesus’ command to love our enemies is at the heart of his sermon on the mount. Many commentators, noting the allusions to Exodus in Matthew, see the Sermon on the Mount as parallel to Moses’ receiving the Law on Mount Sinai. Thus, Jesus’ commands here can be understood as the completion of the Law or its fulfillment. Jesus is giving us a fuller understanding of the Law: the Law of Love. This is the Law of the Kingdom of God which Jesus is inaugurating by his death and resurrection. Understood in this way, the command to love our enemies is not optional. It is not a high level goal intended only for the highly committed Christian who is endangered of running out of ethical challenges. Just like any law in any kingdom, the command to love our enemies is a law for all of us within the Kingdom of God.
Just as right-wing Christians have warped this passage by making it a private religious/ethic statement, left-wing Christians have distorted it by making it a public secular motto. This empties the passage of it original Christian meaning and refills it with contemporary Multicultural relativism. Both these readings rely more on Post-Enlightenment beliefs than they do in Christian faith. The public/private distinction is sacred. Religion and everything people might hold as important get privatized. Politics is supposed to be neutral with respect to everyone’s private interests. The secular public square is there to protect our freedom of religion. Sound good? We have all been properly indoctrinated so that this sounds both noble and proper in theory. In practice this has meant that Christians are second-class citizens. We have been deceived into thinking that we are being self-interested and they being disinterested. This is of course a lie. Enlightenment thinking and our present day Post-Enlightenment thinking is now and has always been an anti-Christian movement. They have always had an agenda: remove Christianity from public life. Starting from the American and French Revolution, Christianity has been removed from politics. The Communist movement epitomized by the Russian Revolution was about removing Christianity from economic life. The Sexual Revolution is about removing Christian influence from our family life.