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'Love your enemies' is a command, not a suggestion

grace forgiveness loving enemy
Unsplash/ Brett Jordan

Let’s say that you believe that the future of your society is imminently threatened by the beliefs and activities of a significantly large group of people, i.e., your cultural and political opponents. You’d like to do something to counteract their influence and keep society from going completely off the tracks.

Let’s also say that you are a Christian seeking to obey Christ’s unequivocal command to lovethose very same people. Profound disagreement does not naturally mesh very well with love, but that is what the Christian is called to navigate. What does this look like in practical terms?

Part of what it means to love a person with terrible ideas is to hope that they eventually come to discard those ideas and to believe the truth, both for their own good and for the good of others — and, when possible, to help influence them in the right direction. In other words, sincere attempts at persuasionare an important aspect of loving your enemies, whenever you interact with them on the internet or, with increasing rarity, in the real world.

Of necessity, persuasion requires foregoing the very real pleasures of sarcasm, one-upping, finger-wagging, name-calling, etc. Even if you can think up theological justifications for being a jerk, they just aren’t going to help you get defections from the other side. In other words, persuasion demands emotional discipline, a willingness to play the long game instead of indulging in quick, meaningless rhetorical “victories.”

The task of persuasion also involves finding a point of mutual agreement and then working outwards from there. If, for instance, you’re trying to convincea pro-choice advocate that abortion is wrong (as opposed to just shouting them down), you could start with a concept you both find obviously true: that unplanned pregnancies leave a lot of women in truly awful situations. From there, you can try to show that abortion is a bad long-term solution to this social crisis. Even if you fail to persuade your opponent on the spot, (which you probably will) you will have at least proven that some pro-lifers, at least, try to take all aspects of the abortion problem seriously. This could go a surprisingly long way.

Of course, finding consensus with one’s opponents has never been exactly easy. Our contemporary cultural climate makes it feel next to impossible. We live, apparently, in parallel universes that share only a handful of basic facts in common, and even these are given vastly different interpretations.

But even and especially if your opponents prove intractable, Christ’s command to love them is still in full force. He elaborates: “Pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). Some Christians have suggested that this command can be fulfilled by prayers in the style of the imprecatory psalms: praying for God’s wrath and judgment upon the wicked.

This interpretation clearly violates the spirit of what Jesus was saying here (see also Lk 9:54-55). He is telling his followers to pray that their enemies would find the truth, that good things would happen to them, and that they would be ultimately saved. It’s not terribly difficult to pray all of this for faceless “enemies” in the abstract. It’s very hard indeed to pray all of this when you start thinking of particular individuals. But here, as always, it’s best to make your prayers as concrete as possible.

Is there ever a place for speaking sternly or even harshly to your opponents? Jesus did (“You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil?” (Mt 12:34)), so the answer must be, “Yes.” But it’s very risky to take episodes of Jesus’ anger in the Gospels as blanket approvals for the vehement airing of our grievances. We are just not as adept as the Lord at acting from a pure desire for justice and truth, unmixed with various personal vendettas and petty hatreds. In other words, calling someone a snake canbewithin the bounds of Christlike behavior — but not very often at all.

This brings us to a final question: in trying to love their enemies, is it inevitable that Christians will be crushed by their more pragmatic cultural opponents? I honestly don’t know, but I do know that if believers behave like just another faction in the ongoing culture wars, then any “victory” they achieve will be hollow indeed. “We had to destroy the village to save it,” an American commander in Vietnam once allegedly remarked. Destroying our Christian witness in order to “save” our culture creates an even worse paradox.

To be sure, praying for the good of those who do and say reprehensible things; refusing to engage in slander; trying to speak reasonably and gently with people who are not necessarily treating you with the same respect — none of these things seem to make much sense in a world such as ours that generously rewards the put-down, the well-crafted insult, the whipping up of violent emotions. Love for enemies is just another aspect of the “foolishness” of the Gospel. But the foolishness of God is stronger than man.

David Clay lives in Saint Louis, MO, with his wife and two daughters. He is currently earning his stockbroker license and is an active volunteer at his church.

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