Why We Christians Don’t Love Our Enemies

Ted Grimsrud

[Here is another excerpt from a sermon from some time ago—October 2005]

If there is one passage in the entire Bible that points to both the glory and the shame of Christianity, it is this famous statement by Jesus: “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:44-45). Here we have a direct statement of a profound ideal, a call to break the cycle of violence that so bedevils our world. And here we have as stark a reminder as we could imagine of just how far Christianity tends to have strayed from the will of its founder.

The cost of hating enemies

 “Love your enemies,” such an obvious statement of what our world needs. We see so clearly in our present day how hatred of enemies fuels war with simply incredible costs. In the name of stamping out “terrorists” our country spent billions upon billions to pour violence upon the nation of Iraq, diverted resources in a way that made the Gulf Coast more vulnerable to devastation from recent hurricanes, alienated people throughout the world, and sent hundreds upon hundreds of our soldiers to their death along with thousands upon thousands of Iraqis. This hatred fuels a spinning cycle, eye for an eye for an eye leading to more and more blindness.

Hatred of enemies fuels our nation’s prison-industrial complex. We send millions behind bars where they are all too often brutalized, infected with devastating diseases such as hepatitis, and permanently disenfranchised as stakeholders in civil society. As someone said, no matter how long a convicted criminal’s official sentence might be, it is invariably a “life sentence” in terms of the impact going to prison has on one’s life. In the name of “security,” we only increase the spiral of destruction and alienation.

In many other ways as well, hatred of enemies leads to unhappiness, brokenness, pain being visited upon pain—and the cycle of creating only more hatred. So, Jesus’ words cut like a warm knife through butter. He gets to the heart of things. We need to find ways to love instead of hate and to forgive instead of simply punish and to heal when there is brokenness, not simply retaliate. We also need the vision of God these verses give us. The One who models love for enemies and who offers generosity and genuine wholeness, who gives us hope, who empowers us to find another way from the spiral of death.

Jesus’ words seem so obvious. What could be more straightforward and more needed than Jesus’ incisive words? We need them now more than ever; they come to us straight and clear. If it were only that simple. If only Jesus’ words would set the agenda for Christians in our needy world today. If only being a Christian would mean ending hatred of enemies. But, it doesn’t work this way, sad to say. We Christians actually aren’t that good at loving our enemies. I struggle to understand why.

Christianity’s resistance to Jesus’ teaching

I think back on my own experience. I grew up in a gentle, humanistic family with definite instincts toward being peaceable. I wasn’t taught pacifism. But during the latter years of the Vietnam War as I came of age and faced the possibility of the draft, I knew I had no urge to go to war. Then, at age 17, I became a Christian. The church I joined did teach me that war could be God’s will. Becoming a Christian made me more likely to embrace warfare.

A book I read a while ago tells the story of the struggle, ultimately successful, in Britain to abolish the death penalty. In the end, the only major opposition to abolition came from the Church of England. Only when Church leaders finally supported abolition did it happen. Official Christianity had to be dragged kicking and screaming into saying no to the death penalty. Recent surveys in the United States indicate that people who identify themselves as Christians are morelikely to support the death penalty than non-Christians. Same with the war in Iraq.

What’s going on here? How could Jesus have been more clear? Why don’t we Christians love our enemies? Why, in fact, are we Christians more likely to support violence against enemies? Just imagine what would happen if the large majority of Christians in the United States decided to have our ethics determined by Jesus’ clear teaching. There are many factors, surely, that come between Jesus’ words and Christian practices and attitudes. As a theologian, I am especially interested in the factors related to beliefs about God and about God’s will for our lives. What beliefs lead Christians to marginalize Jesus’ call to love enemies? I have some thoughts I would like to test with you.

Is there a fundamental “difference” between Christians and non-Christians?

This is what I suspect may be the main reason why we Christians don’t love our enemies: We Christians tend to believe in a fundamental, we could say “ontological,” difference between being a Christian and being a non-Christian. We tend to see these as two clearly separate categories. When we make a basic split between two distinct kinds of people, what we call believers and what we call non-believers, we may well set ourselves up to dismiss the centrality of Jesus’ teaching about loving enemies.

It seems to be very important for us to “other” people we hurt—to think of them as different, asother than we are. We have to think of an enemy as in some sense not fully a part of our identity group. Soldiers are trained to do this, because we have discovered a surprising and powerful reluctance on the part of most people to kill. Somehow this reluctance needs to be drilled out of soldiers. One way this is done is by chanting, “gook,” or “Jap,” or “Kraut,” or “towel-head,” or “terrorist.” These enemies aren’t fully human people; they are “other.”

I remember a powerful scene in the anti-Vietnam War movie “Hearts and Minds.” A US general tells the camera how these people in East Asian cultures simply don’t value life like we Westerners, so we needn’t worry too much about killing so many people. The next clip is of an inconsolably weeping mother next to the lifeless form of her child.

In the criminal justice system, prisoners must be dehumanized. Criminals are seen as different. They have forfeited their rights to be fully human. They are a different class, a different race, at least a different personality. So we aren’t as likely to limit the brutalizing; we’re even willing to execute such like.

In his book, American Colonies, historian Alan Taylor tells of how the European settlers in North America thought of Natives and Africans as less than fully human. Part of the “othering” came because these were non-Christians. So the “Christian” Europeans could be more comfortable enslaving, dispossessing, even massacring the Natives and Africans.

Now, certainly most people who make a clear distinction between Christians and non-Christians are not going to use this distinction as a basis for violence. But I suggest that such a distinction carries within it a dynamic that can lead to the “othering” that does lead to violence. The call to love enemies, I believe, is best seen not as a call to love the other while still seeing them as other. Rather, the call to love enemies is a call to abolish “othering.”

Jesus’ call to abolish “othering”

The best expression of this comes from Jesus’ famous story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus responds to the question of how one gains eternal life with the basic command: Love God and love neighbor. But who is my neighbor? Jesus tells this story that radicalizes the discussion. The Samaritan was the Jew’s enemy. So, when the Samaritan—at great risk to himself—stops to help the beaten and robbed traveler, who happens to be a Jew, he shows how he, as a Samaritan, makes his enemy his neighbor. And, Jesus holds him up as a model for Jesus’ fellow Jews. It’s a doubly reinforced point—the Samaritan himself is your neighbor and your model. So, “love your neighbor” means the same as “love your enemy.” There no longer is any basis for “othering” the enemy. Jesus is not saying, love someone who you still see as other. That can easily become paternalism, where we maintain a sense of superiority and difference—the pathogen causing hatred remains in the system, the enemy is still other. Maybe we can make ourselves love them for awhile—but the otherness may well surface in time.

Another image that is used later in the New Testament is of a wall that is torn down, the wall that separates Jew from Gentile. This wall was the basis of much violence. It is what stimulated the religious leaders to send Jesus to be executed. It is what stimulated the Pharisee Saul to persecute Christians, before he met Jesus and had the wall in his own heart torn down and became the Apostle Paul. In Ephesians we read that Jesus comes to make peace, to take away the “othering” that triggers such violence.

Jesus shows us that there is one humanity. There are no “others” who are a different kind of human being. Paul speaks from his own experience as one who used otherness as a basis for violence. He insists in the strongest terms that in Christ, there is no Jew over against Gentile, there is no male over against female, there is no slave over against free. When we look at the world through Christ’s eyes, “othering” ends. We are all one.

“Election” as a call to love enemies

Seeing the world in this way, we may understand Jesus’ message to us to be this: He says to us that your calling, vocation, “chosenness” as my people is to be found in one thing only. Your call, your vocation is to love all people as your neighbors, as your fellow human beings, as your siblings in the family of God’s children. This vocation goes all the way back to Abraham and Sarah. God gave them a promise, a calling, when God gave them children in the face of Sarah’s barrenness. God called them to bless all the families of the earth. God chose them for this task of being a witness to the love of God for all people.

Almost from the beginning, Abraham’s descendants have struggled with their chosenness. All too easily the calling has been understood to be a calling to be different in order that they alone might be blessed, in distinction from those outside the promise. It’s like an old professor of mine once said, what good is heaven if there are not people who are sent to hell? This is a huge tension throughout the Bible. Read in light of Jesus’ message, though, I think we are bound to see the message to Abraham making strictly a practical distinction. The sense of difference is for the purpose of being clear about God’s character and God’s love, not in order to be better than or other than or superior to those on the outside. We become clear about God’s love so that we may be indiscriminate in sharing it, welcoming everyone as our neighbor.

So, I propose an answer this question: why do we Christians not love our enemies? We do not love our enemies because we imagine that they are other than ourselves. In doing so, we forget God’s character. Just as all people are one in feeling sunshine, just as all people are one in receiving rain – so are all people one in God’s love.

I have taught over and over a wonderful book that never fails to inspire me, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed by Philip Hallie. This book tells of French villagers, Protestant Christians, profoundly risking their loved to provide sanctuary for Jews fleeing the Nazis during World War II. The key moment in the story happens early on. A Jewish refugee knocks on the parsonage door seeking a place of safety. The pastor’s wife, Magda, answers and without hesitation, says, yes, yes, of course, come in. Everything follows from that first act of welcome. To Magda, love meant, yes, yes, of course, we are all one. “Othering” is simply not imaginable. That’s what Jesus calls us to.

6 thoughts on “Why We Christians Don’t Love Our Enemies

  1. Ted,
    You mentioned that Christians are often more likely to not love their enemies than non-believers. Do you mean that non-believers are less likely to see to see people as ‘other’? Also, how to explain the many instances of Christians warring against Christians?

    1. Hi Mark. I was thinking more about what Christians do than what non-Christians don’t do. But I guess it would follow that if Christians are more likely to “other” others than non-Christians would be less likely. Maybe the way I would say it is that we all have the tendency to “other,” but when we add the kind of theology I critique that just heightens the tendency. But certainly, non-Christians can be plenty good at “othering.” My main concern is that Christians should be so much better (not worse) if we would be more attentive to Jesus and the Bible.

      The phenomenon of “Christians warring against Christians” basically tells me that the process of “othering” can apply to other Christians, too, if they fit into one of the other slots that the “othering” is based on (e.g., “Russian,” “Iraqi,” “Kraut,” et al). When we are in an “othering” mode we are not likely to be too attentive to whether one who is for some other reason an “other” happens to be a Christian.

      What do you think?

      1. Hi Ted,
        Yes, Chirstians should definitely be conscious of a higher standard. This brings up the question of Philip Bender: ” Why don’t Christians take Jesus seriously? “. Its interesting that many Christians in the US are willing to take a stand against the main stream current when it comes to abortion but not when it comes to warfare and capital punishment. Clearly, Christian leadership has emphasized and raised conciousness to a high level when it comes to abortion. But next to nothing is taught about the gospel teachings in relation to war and capital punishment. One wonders if Christians would be willing to follow those teachings as ardently as they follow the teachings against abortion if they were taught. Of course that would entail the undoing of 1700 years of Constantinian Christianty that has so plagued the Church. It would mean that the Church would be viewed by the State as an enemy and would therefore be persecuted as was the early Church. Christian leadership knows this instinctively, and like Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, wishes to ‘spare’ its flock. And so the Church enters the same dynamic as the State: self-preservation at all costs. And yet Jesus promises that in being faithful to him, the Church will not be destroyed, but will grow and strengthen, and be that leaven that lifts the whole world out of the pit of violence and misery in which it is trapped. It seems that the problem is rooted in a lack of faith in not only what Jesus taught, but in who he is. If we really belives that he is the Son of God, second person of the Trinity, why do we doubt the effiicacy of his teachings? Why do we feel the need to correct him or say that his teachings do not apply to the ‘real’ world of competitve nation states? Taking Jesus seriously would require Christians to accept the idea that martyrdom is a real possibility upon accepting baptism, as did the early Christians. Yet, even though they struggled with the fear that martyrdom entails, they did not abandon or attempt to change the gospel teachings to lessen the risk. There is no indication in the early Christian writings that retaliating or even defending against lethal enemies is justified. Certainly they did not always carry out the gospel perfectly, but there is no attempt to justify that failure, only confession of it and repentence. And in reading many of the accounts of the martyrdoms, one is struck by the instances of joy in which the martyrs faced their deaths. Although we can be sure that it was never easy, many accepted martyrdom as a privilege. So the question becomes, are we willing to deepen our faith to the point that we trust in Jesus enough to accept whatever comes of it? I ask not as someone who has accomplished this, but as someone who is wondering if this is what is necessary and , if so, how we can get there.

  2. Ted, an excellent sermon on a neglected but obviously important question.

    To go a bit deeper into “othering.” “Othering” can be there in Christian vs. non-Christian. But in past wars, Christians have often killed Christians. Something else seems to be at work in our creation of the “other.”

    I’m sure the roots of the “othering” process are complex, but here are two that I see. First is the human default tendency—for reasons of species self-preservation, original sin, whatever—to be tribal, to value my family, clan, tribe, race, nation, etc. over another, and to identify G(g)od with it (10 Commandments #1 and #2). If your first loyalty is to “your own kind,” and G(g)od is on the side of your own, then the “other” is by definition outside the pale, less worthy, an object of suspicion, often exclusion, perhaps violence.

    Then there’s the indirect contribution of the atonement theology that you’ve been challenging in many recent posts and your latest book. If Jesus’ work is basically reduced to dying for my sin so that God’s anger can be assuaged and a cosmic penalty paid—forgiveness–then I really don’t have to pay much attention to anything else Jesus did and taught. In fact, so doing may displace substitutionary atonement/forgiveness and become “another gospel,” maybe a “social gospel.” And the “social gospel” is threatening because it shares or shifts power and status away from my group to another. Perhaps it’s a bit of an overstatement, but substititutionary atonement does seem to help me keep my innate “othering” tendency intact.

    I note that much of your sermon’s argument is based on Jesus’ teaching and example, and how Jesus (in Ephesians) came to make peace between the two great “otherizers,” Jews and Gentiles. But so what, if substitutionary atonement/forgiveness is really what it’s all about? And then my interest in the “other” may not be so much to love as to seeing him/her as an object of conversion to my group. (I remember a non-American pastor/teacher with whom I once worked in a country that has a sizeable Muslim population saying, “We must convert them before they convert us.”)

    How about a sermon on “Why don’t Christians take Jesus seriously?”

  3. A heavy, heavy generalization. Those who endulge in sin, willingly and consciously, are not christian. They may say so, but as the Lord knew of this already, they pay lip service while their hearts are sold to rot.

    The amount of actual, true, christian people in this world is not more than 8%. Probably even less.

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