Love Your Enemies


MATTHEW 5:38-47

 christmas Truce

                October, 2006, Lancaster Pennsylvania. Charlie Roberts, A 32-year-old milk truck driver with two kids walked into an Amish School house armed to the teeth. He had the men and boys leave the school house. Then he shot five young girls to death, injured five more, and then killed himself. His wife at the time would later report that Charlie performed this despicable act as a way of “getting back at the Lord” for the death of their premature daughter. Seven years later, Terri Roberts, Charlie’s mother, tells her side of the story on that horrible day. To quote Terri,

“I heard the sirens and heard helicopters,” Roberts said. “My phone was ringing and it was my husband and he said, ‘You have to get to Charlie’s right away.’ And I looked at my husband with these sunken eyes, just saying, ‘It was Charlie.’”

As CBS news reports, Terri and her husband thought that they had to move after the shooting. But the Amish came to her house the night of the shooting and said that they wanted her to stay. Some of the victims’ families even attended her son’s funeral. To quote Roberts,

“There are not words to describe how that made us feel that day,” said Roberts. Roberts continues by saying, “For the mother and father who had lost not just one but two daughters at the hand of our son, to come up and be the first ones to greet us — wow. Is there anything in this life that we should not forgive?” Roberts now spends her Thursdays taking care of one of the children who was badly injured in the shooting who is now 13. When asked if she had anything to say to the families who lost children in the Newtown shooting, she replied, “There is always hope. To walk into the future knowing each day has something that we can be thankful for, and not to live in the sorrow 24-7.

“Ask God to provide new things in your lives, new things to focus on,” she said. “That doesn’t take the place of what is lost. But it can give us a hope and a future.”

“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?”

Here we find the Amish taking quite literally the words of Jesus. They forgave the unforgivable. And in doing so, they brought healing and transformation to tragedy. But we must admit that this story is the exception to the rule. Turning the other cheek, giving up your tunic, walking the extra mile, sounds like a recipe for getting walked all over, especially in the realm of government and politics. An eye for an eye, that is really the way things work in this world, we all know that. We might say to Jesus, “Nice teaching, Jesus, but that’s just not how the world works.”  How are we to apply Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies in our own lives, in our nation, and on the international stage? To answer this question, we must first understand:

  1. The context of this passage and how we apply it to different spheres of life
  2. How Jesus intends us to overcome Evil with good.

When people hear the phrase, “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth,” they often consider this Old Testament Command to be barbaric. Images of ISIS cutting off people’s hands and decapitating people in summary executions come to mind. But according to John Stott in his book Christian Counter Culture, the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was actually meant to restrain violence, not to promote it. It expressed the ancient principle of Lex Talionis. In Stott’s words, this was the principle “of an exact retribution, whose purpose was both to lay the foundation of justice, specifying the punishment which a wrong doer deserved, and to limit the compensation of his victim to an exact equivalent and no more. It thus had the double effect of defining justice and restraining revenge. It also prohibited the taking of the law into one’s own hands by the ghastly vengeance of the family feud” (Stott, 104).  So an eye for an eye is not a barbaric command but an improvement over what has come before. But Jesus says this is not enough. An eye for an eye may stop the evildoer but it will not stop the evil. Its not enough just to love our neighbor we must love our enemy. And its wrong to think that our obligation to love only extends to those we are close to, as some interpreters at the time thought, which is how they argued we could hate our enemies. Hating ones enemies is not a command ever found in scripture.

Jesus provides us with three examples of how to love our enemies. In each case, the idea is to go above and beyond what can be reasonably expected of us.  The first appears to be an example of an interpersonal conflict that has gotten out of hand.  Here Jesus gives the example of a person who has been slapped and turns the other cheek to offer his other cheek to be slapped as well. Assuming that the person doing the slapping is right handed, this would imply that the person is willing to be slapped with the back of the right hand, an even greater sign of disrespect in Middle Eastern culture. Thus, Jesus is calling his disciples to endure injury and shame while also revealing the character of the assailant, that is one who is shameful to hit someone with the back of their hand.

The second case Jesus illustrates seems to be a legal setting where a court is demanding your tunic. The Greek here describes a long garment worn under one’s cloak next to the skin. Indeed, the Pillar New Testament Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew tells us that the standard Middle Eastern dress at the time included a loincloth, tunic, cloak (outer garment), girdle, head covering, and sandals. The outer garment, our cloak, tended to be the most expensive part of one’s wardrobe, and most people only had one. So Jesus is basically saying, if someone sues you, don’t just give them what they want, give them your most valuable position.

Jesus’ last example has to do with military conscription. At the time of Jesus, Judah was under the occupation of Rome, the global military power of the ancient world. Roman soldiers were permitted by law to compel people to carry their equipment for one mile. So what Jesus is saying is to walk twice the distance that Roman law requires. The goal is to exhibit a behavior that is not of this world, to love one’s enemies, and thus show oneself to be a child of the Heavenly Father who provides for the righteous and the unrighteous.

Christians have long debated if Jesus’ teachings are to be taken literally. What if one comes across a man who is abusing a helpless victim? Should one help with the use of force? Christians also disagree whether Jesus meant this teaching to apply to government’s use of force to enforce laws and wage war.  Indeed, in Romans 13:4, Paul says that God has ordained the State to punish wrongdoers. How are we to reconcile what Paul says with what Jesus says? John Stott has this to say about Jesus commands against retaliation:

“Christ’s illustrations are not to be taken as the charter for any unscrupulous tyrant, ruffian, beggar or thug. His purpose was to forbid revenge, not to encourage injustice, dishonesty or vice. How can those who seek as their first priority the extension of God’s righteousness rule at the same time contribute to the spread of unrighteousness? True love, caring for both the individual and society, takes action to deter evil and to promote good. And Christ’s command was a ‘precept of love, not folly.’ He teaches not the irresponsibility which encourages evil but the forbearance which renounces revenge. Authentic Christian non-resistance is non-retaliation” (Stott, 108).

Stott admires leaders who practiced nonviolence such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. But he notes that often the success of these strategies is partially due to the context they are implemented in. To quote Stott, “Put Ghandi into the Russia of 1925 or the Germany of 1933. The solution would be simple: after a few days he would be arrested and nothing more would be heard of him” (Stott, 110). Indeed, we have seen such repression of peaceful protests in Syria. And one could argue that a lack of military intervention has led to the current refuge crisis in Europe. Stott acknowledges that the State can indeed persecute good men, but he argues that this doesn’t negate God’s intention of having the State punish evil. Thus, Stott sees Jesus’ teachings primarily as governing our interpersonal interactions rather than the actions of States.

And it seems that social science and science tend to agree with Stott. There is some evidence that “eye for an eye,” else wise known as “tit for tat,” does more to sustain peace in the world than just turning the other cheek all the time. On the Radio Lab show, One Good Deed Deserves Another, a political science professor named Robert Axelrod developed a computer tournament with programs that simulated armed conflict to see which one did the best. One program was called “massive retaliatory strike.” This program would cooperate till attacked and then it would devastate the opponent if attacked. Another program called “tester” would act peaceful but then would attack the opponent and see how the other program would respond.  Another program called “Satan” simply could not be trusted. And then there was the “Jesus” program, which would turn the other cheek if attacked. And then, there was “tit for tat” or an eye for an eye. The programmers found that the one program that worked the best was an eye for an eye or “tit for tat.”  Tit for tat allows for cooperation but doesn’t allow you to get stepped on. And in international politics, this seems to work best. But the problem with tit for tat is that an “echo” of violence can be left behind in conflict that creates a cycle of violence. We see this dynamic particularly in the Middle East with the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

This cycle of violence could also be seen in the First World War, a conflict that quickly got out of hand even though both sides abided by tit for tat or an eye for an eye.  But on Christmas Eve 1914, what is known as the “Christmas Truce” broke out. The Germans were lighting Christmas Trees in the trenches. The British approached and the Germans welcomed them to celebrate Christmas. That morning, thousands of soldiers climbed out of the trenches into no man’s lands and had a big party. This period of good will lasted a whole week. But then the generals found out and they were not very happy. They commanded their troops to go on raids and bring back the enemy’s head. In one case, a British band played the German national anthem. The Germans rose out of their trenches to listen and the British launched mortar rounds killing many of them. The conflict quickly escalated and 50,000 were killed in a week.

As Axelrod argues, tit for tat quickly got out of control in this case. In running their models, the programmers found that the only way to end such a cycle of violence was to act like Jesus, to turn the other cheek, not all the time, but 10% of the time. Perhaps Jesus did not mean turn the other cheek to be a hard and fast rule to be applied all the time. But he meant it as a strategy to break intractable conflict that arises when an eye for an eye gets out of hand. To quote Gerald Mann in his book Why Does Jesus Make Me Nervous?, Jesus “is asking us a question regarding how we relate to our enemies. It goes something like this: ‘When someone does evil to you, what do you want? Do you want to do away with the evil or with the evildoer? If it is the evildoer you want to destroy, the Law of Moses is sufficient. But if you wish to destroy the evil itself and to salvage the evildoer in the process, you must take another approach with your enemy.’ It is the approach of the one who wants to be light to his world, a pointer to the kingdom of God. And, I might add, this approach made Jesus’ listeners very nervous, just as it does today” (Mann, pg 89).

Jesus’ teachings are not to be applied literally in a one size fits all mentality nor are they to be disregarded simply because we think they are unrealistic to apply in a certain context. The Gospel should determine our reality, reality should not determine the Gospel. Jesus is calling us not to resist the evildoer, he is not saying never to resist Evil. The Devil is often called the Evil One, and we are called to resist the Devil. Paul resisted and reprimanded Peter when he felt he was treating Gentile Christians differently than Jewish Christians. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author of many books including The Cost of Discipleship, was known for resisting the NAZI regime and even being involved in a plot to kill Hitler, a plot that would cost him his own life.

Our response in the face of evil is to take Jesus’ words seriously in our hearts and to act accordingly. Maybe this means resisting a tyrant through physical forces, maybe this means trying to trust an opponent who you are not sure is trustworthy. It means being vulnerable, being willing to be wounded, to present to people an echo of Eden to save them from echoes of violence. I still remember my trip to the Middle East I took in seminary. We visited Jericho, a Palestinian town. We passed through an Israeli security wall. The Israeli side of the wall was spotless, just gray concrete. But on the Palestinian side, one could see graffiti filled with pain, hate, and sorrow. I knew then such a wall could not protect either side from the Evil that corrupts our nature. A cycle of violence and hate needs to be broken over there. Perhaps there are cycles that need to be broken in your lives, as well. You can claim an eye for an eye. That is biblical. You may defeat the evildoer, but you will not defeat the evil. To defeat Evil, we must do what the Apostle Paul recommends in Romans 12:17-21, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink, for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit Amen.


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