But I say to you who are listening:
Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you;
bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you.
(Luke 6:27-28, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition).
The ethic of enemy-love is one of the most distinctive calls for followers of Jesus, yet sadly, it has been used time after time to silence victims, minimize abuse, and hurry people along in their process of healing from church-related trauma. Does “love your enemy” bear any good news for our world today? I argue it does—but only if we can learn from the voices of the marginalized and “theologies from below.” Their voices can rescue the ethic of enemy-love so it can be a gift to this world again, rather than another tool of the oppressor.
According to the Gospel writers in Matthew 5 and Luke 6, to love one’s enemies is to participate in and reveal the character of God, who is “kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:35, NRSVUE) and makes the “sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). History-makers such as the Martin Luther King, Jr., have argued for its potential for societal transformation in a world overcome with evil, violence, and injustice:
Man has never risen above the injunction of the lex talionis: “Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” In spite of the fact that the law of revenge solves no social problems . . . history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path. Jesus eloquently affirmed from the cross a higher law. . . . Although crucified by hate, he responded with aggressive love. What a magnificent lesson! Generations will rise and fall; men will continue to worship the god of revenge and bow before the altar of retaliation; but ever and again this noble lesson of Calvary will be a nagging reminder that only goodness can drive out evil and only love can conquer hate.1
Yet despite its revolutionary potential, “for many, the command to love one’s enemy is not a source of freedom but another form of oppression” that encourages systems of inequity and silences the poor and powerless.2 In current Christian discourse, the ethic of enemy-love has been used to justify inaction in the face of deadly police violence against Black people.3 Kelly Brown Douglas, who has led gatherings of White faith leaders as they begin to explore the connection between their faith, ministry, and neighborhood justice, shares in her book Resurrection Hope that while these White ministers often express a desire to join the work of justice in their communities, they simultaneously fear they are transgressing Christ’s call to “love thy enemies” as they do so. In other words, loving one’s enemies is often misconstrued to stand in opposition to the work justice requires such as disruption, anger, and truth-telling!4
It is clear we have misunderstood what it means to love one’s enemies. How can we recover this life-giving and world-transforming way of Jesus? I contend that Anabaptist theologians and Black theologians rescue the call to love our enemies by providing a needed liberation-oriented and power-conscious approach to understanding what it means to “love, do good to, bless, and pray for” our enemies.
Who Is My Enemy?
This must begin with an acknowledgement that enemies exist. For some Christians, it is the division of the world into “friends” and “enemies” itself that is the problem. According to this line of reasoning, if Christians would simply refuse to label anyone as “enemy” and instead practice open-mindedness, empathy, good listening, and dialogue, we would discover that there truly are no enemies in this world.
It is wise to recognize when we may be applying the label of “enemy” too quickly to a person or persons. What makes someone an enemy versus someone I am in disagreement with? What is the difference? Melissa Florer-Bixler, an Anabaptist Mennonite pastor at Raleigh Mennonite Church, writes in How to Have an Enemy:
The assumption that all our struggles boil down to misunderstanding negates that parties in conflict do not come with equal access to power over their lives. The attempt to resolve conflict with interpersonal strategies like empathy often disregards how coercion and force shape the lives of enemies.5
What Florer-Bixler names is that understanding the nature of enmity requires moving beyond an individual or interpersonal framework that assumes a situation where two people who stand on equal ground are in disagreement or conflict with one another, and into an examination of how power may be at play through coercion and force.
Understanding the nature of enmity requires moving beyond a framework that assumes two people who stand on equal ground are in disagreement or conflict and into an examination of how power may be at play through coercion and force. Click To Tweet
Along similar lines, Drew G.I. Hart, a Black Anabaptist theologian and activist, posits that when Jesus speaks of enemy-love, he does not just have in mind the people we struggle to feel affection for because they are irritating or because we hold disagreement with them:
No, Jesus is pronouncing the Father-like love that is turned toward even political enemies that seek to do you harm, that exploit you, that would leave you to suffer and die without any aid. In fact, these enemies are the ones who will drag you into court and instigate the processes that will bring about your destruction.6
True enemies are distinct from those with whom we share disagreement because enemies have access to power that allows them to exploit, harm, and cause real destruction. “It seems strange to say that Christians by default have no enemies. This logic makes sense only if you are the ones in power. But if you are part of an oppressed community, you know that you can have enemies . . . not of your making. As Jesus taught his followers, the challenge wasn’t to not have enemies, but rather to love them.”7
Practices of open-mindedness, empathy, listening, and dialogue are significant, necessary, and commendable in places of disagreement. Yet Anabaptist and Black theologians contend that enemies are more than simply “individuals with whom I disagree,” and for them, we will need more practices than these to truly love them.
Loving One’s Enemy as an Act of Liberation
So if enemies exist, then what does it mean to love them? And how do we do so in a way that does not turn this way of life into a tool for evil? James H. Cone, a founder and central figure in the study of Black liberation theology, queried, “What has the gospel to do with the oppressed of the land and their struggle for liberation? Any theologian who fails to place that question at the center of his or her work has ignored the essence of the gospel.”8 If we apply Cone’s assertion to the ethic of enemy-love, any work of understanding Christ’s invitation to love one’s enemies must assume God’s liberating purposes for those who have been harmed and God’s liberating purposes for the enemy oppressor.
Any work of understanding Christ’s invitation to love one’s enemies must assume God’s liberating purposes for those who have been harmed and God’s liberating purposes for the enemy oppressor. Click To Tweet
So what does a liberation-oriented reading of “love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you” look like? In part 2 of this article, I will explain why I believe it must contain these six qualities:
- It respects the burning anger of the oppressed
- It recognizes the humanity of all people, including one’s enemy
- It necessitates confrontation and truth-telling
- It holds hope for the transformation of the enemy and movement toward reconciliation
- It directs us toward God in honest prayer regarding our enemy
- It offers freedom for us and for our enemies through forgiveness
Part 2 of “Loving Our Enemies,” which fleshes out the six qualities above, and a bibliography for additional reading will release on Thursday, December 8, at 9 am ET.
1 Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019 Edition), 34–35.
2 Melissa Florer-Bixler, How to Have an Enemy (Harrisonburg: Herald Press, 2021), 92, 97–98.
3 Melissa Florer-Bixler, 92.
4 Kelly Brown Douglas, Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2021), 120.
5 Melissa Florer-Bixler, 26–27.
6 Drew G. I. Hart, Who Will Be a Witness (Harrisonburg: Herald Press, 2020), 351.
7 Drew G. I. Hart, 356–357.
8 James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, Revised Edition (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 9.