And there is a second commandment, which seems to me even more incomprehensible and arouses even stronger opposition in me. It is: “Love thine enemies.”
“…while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son…” Romans 5:10b, NIV
James Martin tells the story of a priest who asked his congregation to consider the number of their enemies. When the priest asked those in the congregation to indicate if they had many enemies, a vast majority of number of people in the congregation raised their hands. When the priest asked how many had a few enemies, about half as many people responded. When the priest asked those with only one or two enemies to raise their hand, even fewer people followed suit. Finally, the priest asked, “Now raise your hands if you have no enemies at all.” In the rear of the church only one person, an elderly gentleman lifted his hand. He got to his feet and declared, “I’m 98 years old, and I have no enemies.” The priest responded, “What a wonderful Christian life you lead! And tell us how it is that you have no enemies.” The old many replied, “All the bastards have died!”2
Like the priest, when I was in high school, I mistakenly thought that good Christians did not have many enemies. From where I got this idea, I have no idea. There is nothing biblical about this belief. In fact, you would think from my years of reading the Bible as a youth, I would have realized, followers of God always make enemies.
So, one afternoon in the football locker room, I was surprised to hear an older student talking loudly about how he hated me. My shock was magnified by my naive belief that “since I am nice, I won’t make enemies.” In fact, I had never had any interactions of significance with this guy. Yet, he seemed to loathe me for reasons I never really understood. I realized that I had an enemy.
Being someone’s enemy, like being a son or daughter, is not usually an identity you voluntarily choose. As Martin Luther King, Jr., who knew what it meant to make enemies, shared:
Some people aren’t going to like the way you walk; some people aren’t going to like the way you talk. Some people aren’t going to like you because you can do your job better than they can do theirs. Some people aren’t going to like you because other people like you, and because you’re popular, and because you’re well-liked, they aren’t going to like you. Some people aren’t going to like you because your hair is a little shorter than theirs or your hair is a little longer than theirs. Some people aren’t going to like you because your skin is a little brighter than theirs; and others aren’t going to like you because your skin is a little darker than theirs….They’re going to dislike you, not because of something that you’ve done to them, but because of various jealous reactions and other reactions that are so prevalent in human nature3
People find numerous reasons to be an enemy of someone.
Seeking to be a disciple of Christ means that you will make some enemies. Christ had plenty of enemies. David, who is described as a man after God’s own heart, had numerous enemies, just look at the Psalms (the book of the Bible with the most references to enemies). He explains, “Many have become my enemies without cause; those who hate me without reason are numerous” (Psalm 38:19). He also describes how his enemies altered his relationship with his neighbors and friends, “Because of all my enemies, I am the utter contempt of my neighbors and an object of dread to my closest friends— those who see me on the street flee from me” (Psalm 31:11). Jesus even promised us, “You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death” (Luke 21:16). What sets Christians apart is not their lack of enemies, but instead, how they respond to their enemies.
Our Enemies in the Christian Story
What we learn from the book of Psalms is that God does not expect us to start to say some pious prayer to ignore the feelings that enemies produce in us. Instead, the authors of the Psalms recognize and model the truth for us that we have God’s permission to express our raw emotions to God. After all, the Psalmist declares:
- Arise, Lord! Deliver me, my God! Strike all my enemieson the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked. (Psalm 3:7)
- Let death take my enemiesby surprise; let them go down alive to the realm of the dead, for evil finds lodging among them. (Psalm 55:5)
- In your unfailing love, silence my enemies; destroy all my foes, for I am your servant. (Psalm 143:9)
Have you ever heard a preacher pray this prayer in church or this verse used for a worship song? “Oh Lord, you are so loving, so silence my enemies, strike them on the jaw, kill them” would sound great to an electric guitar. Or probably not. Yet, the Psalmist expresses real, authentic emotions we feel about our enemies. It is important to realize that God does not ask us to ignore the emotions that enemies produce in us. We do not need to stuff our anger about our enemies inside. We can pray/yell at God about them. God can take it.
Of course, in calmer moments, the Psalmist declares the moral yearning behind these prayers. It is our God-designed longing for God to rescue us from our enemies as well as to bring about justice. This deeper longing is why we are satisfied by stories and movies where good triumphs over evil. They, in a small way, assuage our heart’s deeper desire. The good characters are rescued, and justice is dealt to the evil ones. As the Psalmist declares in his prayers:
- Do not let those gloat over me who are my enemieswithout cause; do not let those who hate me without reason maliciously wink the eye. (Psalm 35:19)
- Arise, Lord, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies. Awake, my God; decree justice. (Psalm 7:6)
While the Psalms teach us to express ourselves fully to God about our anger with our enemies, they also provide a model for us of how to ask God to provide deliverance from and justice for our enemies. That is the start of learning how to be a good enemy. We must start there because that prayer helpfully redirects our rage and fear rather than trying to ignore it. After that, we can move to understand our enemies in light of the larger Christian story.
Looking Inward and Back to Creation
Truly living in God’s story will influence everything about how we respond to our enemies. Thus, it helps to start at the beginning of that story. Martin Luther King, Jr. provides a helpful example for us. If anyone had enemies, it was MLK, Jr. He constantly received hate mail for his work on behalf of civil rights for African-Americans. He lived his life under constant death threats. His story concludes with his murder. In a sermon shortly before his death about how to deal with enemies, King advised, “And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls ‘the image of God,’ you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never sluff off.”4 Enemies make it hard for us to look at that deeper image, since we are so affected by their fallen attitudes and actions. Thus, our gaze must look beneath the outward appearance and actions of our enemies so that we can see the image of God in them.
Be assured: this process is not easy. One day a couple decades ago I woke up to a front-page newspaper story describing how two young men had kidnapped a college student, taken her out into a park, raped her repeatedly, and then killed her. My first reaction to this story was not prayer. The story haunted me for days and I became bitterly angry. I actually had raging fantasies of beating the two men to a pulp with a baseball bat, so I could rescue the young college girl. As Providence would have it, within weeks of this event, I taught a course about Christian ethics. In the midst of the course, one of the students shared that his brother was one of the rapists. He claimed his brother was the weaker of the two directed by the stronger personality and he explained that his brother was now in his own prison cell, for fear of what the other prisoners would do to him because of his crime (even in jail a hierarchy of crimes exists). From that cell he could still hear the other prisoners taunting him and telling him that they would rape, torture, and kill him for his crimes. Suddenly, the rapist’s humanity broke through to me. I saw him as a deeply wounded child of God. I could now pray for him and his brother in both my personal life as well as my class even as I grieved the horrible effect of their action. It was the first step to seeing the imago dei of my enemy.
This blog is adopted from Perry Glanzer’s new book, Identity in Action (ACU Press, 2021). Used by permission.
- Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents Trans. and Ed. James Strachey (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1961), 57.
- As recounted in James Martin, S.J., “How to Love Your Enemies,” Huffington Post , last modified May 29, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-james-martin-sj/how-to-love-your-enemies_b_841538.html
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies: Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church,” accessed at https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/loving-your-enemies-sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church, April 13, 2018.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies.”