Love Your Enemy

Christian MölkFriend of Strangers Leave a Comment

In the last chapter, we saw how a Jewish teacher of the law summarizes the entire Law of Moses with the core expression, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.[i] This is a very good summary of the whole Bible and the will of God for us humans. God wants us to love him with all our hearts through worship, prayer and reading the Bible. God wants us to love our fellow human beings by treating them as we want to be treated ourselves.[ii]

But Jesus takes the second part of this commandment a step further, and says that we should not only love our neighbor as ourselves, but also our enemies:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”

(Mt 5:43-44)

To really understand what Jesus means by loving your enemies, it might be worth reviewing the three examples Jesus gives in the previous verses. The first example Jesus brings up is if someone hits you:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

(Mt 5:38-39)

I have a penchant for detail and respond immediately to one of the words in this verse: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek to him also.

Since the vast majority of people are right-handed, they are normally struck on the left cheek, so why does Jesus specifically mention the right?

Well, in Jesus’ day it was not uncommon to show authority and superiority by hitting someone with the back of the hand. A Roman might strike a Jew in this way, a master his slave, a husband his wife.[iii] But if the person who is struck on the right cheek then responds by turning up the left cheek instead, it shows that he refuses to accept the oppression he is subjected to, and if he is to be struck, he wants to be struck as an equal.

The one who strikes is then faced with a dilemma; either punch a peer on the left cheek or stop punching and thus indirectly show that he no longer has any authority.

By turning the other cheek, the one who is beaten thus shows that violence cannot defeat the one who is no longer afraid of “those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul”.[iv] By not fighting back, the victim disarms his opponent and stops the spiral of violence and revenge that has been going on since time immemorial.

The only way to end violence is for someone to choose not to fight back and instead offer a path to reconciliation. This is exactly what Jesus did on the cross, thus winning a victory over the Devil. When we understand that death cannot separate us from Christ and are no longer afraid to die,[v] then the perpetrators of violence no longer have any power over us.[vi]

The second example Jesus gives is:

40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”

(Mt 5:40)

By giving your opponent all your clothes when he demands your tunic, a situation will arise where you are standing naked next to a person who has all your clothes in his hand, which in a Middle Eastern culture would mean great shame for the person who caused you this.[vii]

By stripping naked, you strip your opponent of his power over you. Anyone who sees this will regard your opponent as an unjust aggressor. So by not just being passive, you have exposed the unjust behavior of the person who tries to abuse you and offered him an opportunity to realize his stupidity and give you back your clothes.

The third example Jesus tells us about is:

41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”

(Mt 5:41)

A Roman soldier was allowed by Roman law to require a Jewish man to carry his equipment for one mile, but no more. Anyone could be forced to carry out tasks for the Romans, as we see, for example, when Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross.[viii]

By not only walking a mile, but walking a second mile, the Roman soldier’s unjust demands are exposed, and he is put in a situation where he must stop his aggression or commit a Roman crime with cruel punishment. The Roman soldier must now unexpectedly appeal to the Jewish man to carry his own equipment. Thus, through non-violence, the initiative has been won and the soldier has been offered a chance for reconciliation.

These three examples of loving your enemy are “pacifism” in the true sense of the word. Many people confuse “pacifist” with “passivist”, but in fact the word “pacifist” is composed of the two Latin words “pax” and “facere”, and literally means “peacemaker”. In the Latin translation of the Bible, the word appears in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers [pacifici], for they shall be called sons of God. “[ix]

(Mt 5:9)

To be a pacifist following Jesus is therefore more than just passively renouncing violence, it is also actively creating peace.

My proposed definition of Christian pacifism is something like this: “Following in the footsteps of Jesus[x] by refraining from revenge[xi] or paying back evil with evil[xii] and instead defeating evil with good[xiii] by loving your enemy[xiv] and making peace[xv] by offering reconciliation, bringing people together and working against unjust living conditions and power structures[xvi] .

Christian pacifism was the generally accepted Christian position for the first 300 years and has since been represented mainly among revivalist groups, such as Franciscans, Waldenses, Anabaptists, Quakers and Pentecostals.

As we saw in chapter 18, the English word “peace” is translated as “shalom” in Hebrew and “eirene” in Greek. If the English word for peace is mostly the opposite of the word “war,” the words shalom and eirene contain a broader meaning in that they signify both theabsence of hostility and a positive state of prosperity and well-being.

When God urges the Jews to seek shalom with the Babylonians, he wants the Jews not only to passively refrain from war against the Babylonians, but also to actively work for the peace and prosperity of their new society.

Jesus’ approach to peacemaking is also strikingly reminiscent of the culture of hospitality we read about in chapter 4, which was about transforming a potential enemy into a welcomed guest by offering hospitality.

Now we have seen in three chapters how Jesus shows us that the commandment to love our fellow man means that we should love not only our brother, but also our neighbor and even our enemy. We are not to discriminate between people but to show love to all people, regardless of ethnicity, social status or gender. In the next chapter we will look at how Jesus, through his death on the cross, breaks down the dividing wall between people.

You have read a free chapter of my book Friend of Strangers. If you like this book, please consider purchasing the ebook through Amazon. Since English is not my native language, there may be some linguistic inaccuracies. Please contact me if you find any.

Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Lk 10:27

[ii] Mt 7:12

[iii] A reverse echo of Paul’s vision: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Ga 3:28)

[iv] Mt 10:28

[v] Ro 8:35–39

[vi] Jn 14:30

[vii] Ge 9:20–27

[viii] Mk 15:21

[ix] “Beati pacifici quoniam filii Dei vocabuntur.” (Mt 5:9 – Latin Vulgate)

[x] 1Pe 2:21

[xi] Ro 12:18–19

[xii] Ro 12:17

[xiii] Ro 12:21

[xiv] Mt 5:44

[xv] Mt 5:9

[xvi] Ga 3:26–29

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