Why we Christians don’t love our enemies

[Ted Grimsrud]

I continue to reflect on the issue of violence and religious faith. In the class I am teaching on nonviolence, we have had some good discussions lately about the link between Christianity and violence. In our discussions, many of us express some mixed feelings about our religious convictions and traditions.

On the one hand, some of us strongly believe that our own Christian values push us in the direction of nonviolence—and even have the sense that religious faith seems essential for sustained commitments to nonviolence (we discuss Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., as obvious examples in both thought and deed). But others of us note that religion seems to exacerbate, even originate, many violent dynamics.

This discussion made me go back to some thinking I did some time ago about why Christians, in particular, seem to find it especially difficult to embody the teaching of Jesus, the one we profess to seek to follow.

Our need for Jesus’ love command

If there is one passage in the Bible that points to both the glory and shame of Christianity, it is this 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 a stark reminder of just how far Christianity has strayed from the will of its founder.

“Love your enemies,” an obvious statement of what our world needs. We see so clearly in our present day how hatred of enemies fuels war with huge costs. In the name of stamping out “terrorists” our country has spent billions upon billions to pour violence upon nations such as Afghanistan and Iraq. The US has sent hundreds upon hundreds of our soldiers to their death along with thousands upon thousands of Afghanis and Iraqis. This practical expression of hatred fuels a spinning cycle, eye for an eye for an eye leading to more and more blindness.

Hatred of enemies also fuels our nation’s prison-industrial complex. We send millions behind bars where they are all too often brutalized, infected with devastating diseases, and disenfranchised as stakeholders in civil society. 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 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. The one who models love for enemies and offers generosity and genuine wholeness gives us hope and 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. However, we Christians actually aren’t that good at loving our enemies.

Christian resistance to love of enemies

I think back on my own experience. I grew up in a gentle family with 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 taught that war could be God’s will. Becoming a Christian actually made me less reluctant to embrace warfare. Fortunately, the Vietnam conflict wound down and the American military shrank in size just as I came of age. My willingness to take up the sword was not exploited.

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 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 more likely to support the death penalty than non-Christians. Same with the wars in Afghanistan and 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.

Are our differences fundamental? 

This is what I suspect may be the main reason why we Christians don’t love our enemies: We 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 set ourselves up to marginalize Jesus’ teaching about loving enemies.

It seems to be very important for us to “other” people before we are able hurt them—to think of them as different 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 Vietnamese 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.”

The 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 both 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.

Jesus shows us that there is one humanity. There are no “others” who are a different kind of human being. Seeing the world thus, we may understand Jesus’ message to us to be this: Your calling, vocation, “chosenness” as my people is to be found in one thing only. Your call 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 vocation 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 our chosenness. All too easily the calling has been understood to be a calling to be different in order that we 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 and since.

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: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There 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.

9 thoughts on “Why we Christians don’t love our enemies

  1. Thank you Ted for this post. I am reading Reinhold Niebuhr for thesis research his eloquence and rationale are very persuasive and yet! Your post was a welcome check to my spirit and an inspiration to pursue the abolition of ‘otherness’ in my own heart, mind and life.

  2. I appreciate your post Ted. I’d add that another reason why Christians have such a problem following Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies is that we have not extended our nonviolence to our relationships with the rest of creation. When we “other” our enemies we commonly depict them as “savage” beasts. War propaganda has commonly depicted the enemy in this way. And we know what has to be done to such “critters.”

  3. I would agree, Ted, that “otherizing” and forgetting God’s character are issues in our failure to love our enemies.

    And why do we otherize and forget? Perhaps because of the perennial human tendency to cast God in our own image (or the image of our tribe or group).

    I also think there are two other factors at work in our reticence to love enemies and, more generally, to take seriously Jesus’ life and teachings.

    First is a pernicious effect of the substitutionary atonement theology that you discussed in this forum some time ago. If the main reason Jesus came was to die for my sins, and if the most important thing for me to do is to “believe” that’s what Jesus came to do, then Jesus’ larger life and teachings, including enemy love, are at best secondary. (I once taught in a Mennonite Bible school with a colleague from a mainline evangelical tradition who told me that pacifism was not even secondary, but “tertiary.”)

    Second is a common way of reading of Romans 13. I might agree that Jesus calls on me to love my “personal” enemies. But when my government commands me to go to war against its enemies, the logic goes, then I am constrained to do so by Paul’s call to “be subject to the governing authorities,” who “do not bear the sword in vain.” I clearly remember as a teenager reading a story about a Christian soldier in the magazine of a prominent evangelical parachurch youth ministry. In the heat of battle, the soldier prayed, “God, they’re yours,” and then “pumped in the ammo.” He pumped in that ammo because of what he understood his scripture-ordained duty as a Christian citizen to be.

    1. I can’t speak to Ted’s intention, but I do think that Gandhi has some relationship to Christian values, and is particularly relevant to this blog entry. Gandhi said he loved our Christ, but he didn’t like Christians (because in general we don’t embody Christ’s values, which is why it is so intimately related to this particular blog post). Gandhi read the Gospels every day.

      I do believe Gandhi exemplified Christian values. That he didn’t identify as Christian does not negate that. I am recalling our senior pastor once noting in a message that it was the 3rd week in a row that he had quoted Gandhi!

  4. I happened upon your blog looking for a scripture passage to use in a blog writing of my own. The title of my blog is “Thoughts on Peace”. I enjoyed your piece very much. I especially appreciated your comment about the call to abolishing “otherness”.Thank you.

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