Pet Bible-Thumping Peeves: “Love your enemies” Does not Apply Here

I repeatedly hear people responding to Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies” by either by claiming I am taking them out of context or conjuring a scenario of my wife and children being raped by a stranger. Let’s unpack those two scenarios for a moment.
A. The context of Jesus' words:
1. What is the context of Jesus' words, "Love your enemies"?
There are three passages in the New Testament where we find Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies.” They are in what we call the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27, and Luke 6:35.
In the Matthew passage, Jesus has just finished speaking of exchanging revenge for graceful generosity. He addressed Mosaic limitations on revenge, turning them into non-resistance as a better response. He addressed being struck on a cheek, being sued for one’s outer garments, being forced into demeaning labor, and having people beg for money as either a gift or a loan. This is the springboard for Jesus’ comments about loving our enemies.
He says, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ I tell you, instead, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you in order that you may be like your Father in heaven.’” He then describes how God allows the rain to fall on the wicked, as well as the just. He describes how showing love and acceptance to our friends and family is no different from the way the people we would consider unrighteous live. Instead, he calls us to follow the example of God in providing for the needs of all, indiscriminately.
Jesus does not go into a lot of details here, but neither does he offer any exclusions for applying this theme of loving our enemies.
In Luke 6, it is just after the Beatitudes intro of this sermon that Jesus offers his command, “Love your enemies.” He states it first in contrast to the last of the Beatitudes. After referencing the persecution of the prophets and praising false prophets, we find that phrase, “But I say to you.”
Jesus then unpacks the phrase with doing good to those who hate us, blessing those who curse us, praying for those who abuse us. He then references being struck on the cheek, having one’s coat taken away, others begging from us, not seeking the return of goods taken from us, and doing to others as we would have them act toward us.
At that point, Jesus goes on with expanding the limitations of those we love. He extends this to doing good to those who do good to us. He notes that sinners operate by responding kindly only to those who do good to them. He goes on to speak of lending to those who likely cannot repay. Then he comes back to that phrase we have so much trouble with, “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”
Rather than interpreting the value and results of this kind of love in earthly contexts, he asks us to consider God’s reward for righteousness sufficient and complete. Then he affirms that we become children of God (like God), because God is merciful, compassionate, and kind.
2. How did Jesus apply the phrase, “Love your enemies” to his life and ministry?
On several occasions, Jesus walked away from mobs wanting to lynch him. At other times, he called them out in words, shining a light on the character of their actions. Never once did he use force against them. The closest thing Jesus ever did to wield the force of violence was at the cleansing of the Temple. He turned over the tables of the money changers and made a whip he used to drive out the animals being sold for sacrifice. This was not violence directed at people. He whipped no one. One does not need to hit an animal with a whip to drive them away.
When a woman caught in adultery was cast at his feet, Jesus released her using words. He gave her the protection he needed, but never lowered himself to become like those accusing her. He actually bent down to the ground in front of the woman cast at his feet, leaving the mob to work out their own hostility. He refused to engage in their violence and use of force. He simply shifted the conversation.
In the garden where he was arrested, Jesus used his words to protect his followers, then accepted the mistreatment of those who came to arrest him. He did not respond to their violence with violence. He did not accept them as his enemies. Rather, he treated them with respect, even when he called them out on the character of their actions. “Every day I was in the Temple preaching, yet you come at night to arrest me in secret?”
From the cross, Jesus addressed those who had orchestrated his death, decreeing their forgiveness. That is what loving one’s enemies looks like in the person of Jesus.
3. How did the early church understand Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies” to apply to their lives?
Peter and John entered the temple with a man they had been used to heal. They were thrown into prison and beaten. They were charged not to preach or teach anymore in the name of Jesus. They answered they could not fulfill that mandate, but accepted their mistreatment. They returned to the rest of the church encouraged that they had been found worthy of sharing in the sufferings of Jesus.
Stephen prayed forgiveness for those who were murdering him. Paul accepted imprisonment, beatings, whippings, and other abuse without turning on those who attacked him. He used his imprisonment as opportunity to witness to his jailers on more than one occasion. He baptized his jailer in Philippi. In Revelation, John proclaimed that the only faithful response of the believer to persecution was to die in confidence of victory through Christ beyond death.
4. Should we just re-write the gospels to delete those words of Jesus?
Really, that is the only way to get around Jesus’ words in a way that makes us comfortable with our penchant for hate, violence, and revenge. If we are going to cast others as enemies, we are simply not following Jesus’ words on the subject, nor are we accepting the validity of how Jesus lived in regard to those who opposed him.
B. The scenario of violence against family:
This scenario really makes little sense on several perspectives. First of all, the stranger-danger scenario is very rare among all crimes. Most gun deaths are suicide, followed closely by domestice violence deaths. Once you factor our homicides by law enforcement and of law enforcement, it is a very rare thing indeed for a stranger to enter one's home intent on rape and murder.
Secondly, the argument assumes that only violence can respond to violence. That is a false narrative. There were numerous times when Jesus diffused violence with words. There are various nations around the world in which law enforcement does not carry weapons, yet they still solve crimes and impede criminal activity. Gandhi successfully led a revolution against a militarized occupation through non-violent resistance. He did that relying on principles he had learned from reading about Jesus.
Thirdly, this argument is generally used by self-professed Christians. Accepting the argument that there are exceptions to taking Jesus' words to heart flies in the face of professing to believe Jesus and obey his teachings. It sets Jesus' words aside as irrelevant without addressing them at all.
To hold that we do not need to love our enemies when they want to actually act like our enemies, we need to either ignore or rewrite the gospels. Then again, if we are going to rewrite those words of the gospels, we would not really be following the Jesus they proclaim.
©Copyright 2018, Christopher B. Harbin 


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