What does it mean to love your enemies?

May 12, 2011


I missed writing for the series from my friend Rachel Held Evans that sought to restore unity, but followed it closely and saw some wonderful things. Perhaps in continuation, the other day she reflected on the idea that love is not weak, which is a worthy read that raises good questions.

Perhaps because of these questions, and perhaps just because I randomly think about things like this, today I was reading Common Prayer before work, and the New Testament passage was Luke 6:27-38, one of the places in which Jesus tells us to love our enemies.

In some ways, those words don’t need any commentary, as they stand on their own, demanding that we be different.

But today, as I was reading it I was reminded of Rachel’s stories of running into folks who ask whether it is loving to let people walk around with “bad theology” – in that context, I guess it’s theology they think is heretical – a couple of questions came into my mind. One was more of a rhetorical question of why people we think have heretical theology have to be our enemies (though it is partly answered by Richard Beck’s post on whether it is possible to hate a heresy but love a heretic), but the pressing one was, “What does it mean to love an enemy?”

I feel pretty confident in the bumper sticker theology of “When Jesus said love your enemies, I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean kill them,” but it’s just that: bumper sticker theology. Just because I agree with it doesn’t make it any more profound, or convincing, than the ones I disagree with. So what then?

It then occurred to me that we have an answer to that: 1 Corinthians 13. I wanted to make sure this was in fact the case, so I looked up a little bit of Greek. Now, I failed Greek in college, so I have to rely on others to tell me this, but it’s a fact that Jesus tells us to love our enemies in Luke 6 with the same Greek word, agape (about which there is a great deal of scholarly work), that Paul uses to tell us what love is in 1 Corinthians 13.

It hit me that that’s what it means to love our enemies, whatever they’ve done, because that’s what it means to love. If they’ve disagreed with us on Twitter, or have bad theology that makes us think they’re heretics, or think we have bad theology and are heretics, or disagree with us about our some of our core beliefs. Whatever. While this is not exegesis and you shouldn’t use it in a scholarly work, I think the following is an exercise that does hold up to the texts because it helps us understand the word love, and has the power to shake us:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not love my enemies, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not love my enemies, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not love my enemies, I gain nothing.

Loving my enemies is patient, loving my enemies is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Loving my enemies does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Loving my enemies never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Again, not scholarly. But can you imagine if we saw it that way, rather than thinking we’ve got to kill our enemies, or boycott them, or hate them, or gossip about them, or…

It’s important to remember what this doesn’t say – it doesn’t say love requires us to agree with, or even like, each other. That’s fine. But what it does require, if we apply it to our enemies (whatever, if we apply it to ourselves!) will change us.