In Part 1 of “Loving Our Enemies,” I addressed how 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.
When the work of justice or truth-telling is seen as standing in opposition to the call to love one’s enemies (Again, please see Part 1), 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. What we learn from their voices is that 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
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” will:
- respect the burning anger of the oppressed
- recognize the humanity of all people, including one’s enemy
- necessitate confrontation and truth-telling
- hold hope for the transformation of the enemy and movement toward reconciliation
- direct us toward honest prayer for our enemies
- free both us and our enemies through the work of forgiveness
Let’s look at each of these aspects of loving our enemies:
Liberation-Oriented Enemy-Love Respects Anger
What is the place of anger when it comes to loving enemies? In White American circles, a common assumption is that loving one’s enemies looks like being filled with gentle affection toward them. In this picture of enemy-love, there is no room for anger.
In the New Testament, it is true that Jesus speaks with great caution about anger (Matthew 5:22–25), yet it is also true that Jesus expresses and acts with anger himself! Drew G.I. Hart argues that the Scriptures describe God as one who experiences anger when humans perpetrate violence and evil on one another. To participate in the character of God, then, must involve anger as we encounter the injustice and destruction that grieves God’s heart.1 Likewise, Willie Jennings, a Black theologian, ordained Baptist minister, and associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School, posits that when he speaks of the infestation of White supremacist ideology and structures in the United States of America, it necessitates his anger, and that “this anger, my anger, is connected to the righteous indignation of God.”2
A liberation-oriented ethic of enemy-love not only makes room for anger, it respects it as a gift from God. Like any gift, anger can become an idol used for evil. When it burns like a wildfire without direction, it can create vast damage. Yet when anger is offered to Christ’s purposes and to a community in the context of love, anger has the potential to illuminate “the forms of destruction that are active within our own lives and communities.” In other words, the anger of the oppressed in our communities can shine a light on the things that need to change in order for God’s Kingdom to come amidst unjust structures and situations.3 Rather than silencing or condemning the anger of the disinherited, a liberation-oriented ethic of enemy-love respects the gift of this anger for the work of God’s deliverance.
Liberation-Oriented Enemy-Love Affirms and Protects the Humanity in All People
While anger can be respected and welcomed for its illuminating and destructive potential, a liberation-oriented enemy-love also works against anger that calcifies into hatred and dehumanization of the enemy. Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr., cautioned that this kind of dehumanization and hatred does not lead to liberation, but to harm—not only to the hated, but to the hater as well. “Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity.”4 A liberation-oriented enemy-love affirms and protects the full humanity of all people, even one’s enemies. A liberation-oriented enemy-love affirms and protects the full humanity of all people, even one’s enemies. Click To Tweet
It seems important to include that in situations of enmity where the enemy of a group is actively working to harm and dehumanize that group, an affirmation of “shared humanity” must begin with an affirmation of the full humanity of the oppressed. James H. Cone, when speaking of his childhood church, remembers of them:
They affirmed their dignity as human beings against great odds as they held on to faith in Jesus’ cross—the belief that his suffering and death was for their salvation. For them, salvation meant that they were not defined by what whites said about them or did to them, but rather by what Jesus said about the poor in his teachings and did for them on the cross.5
Into contexts of enmity where people have been dealt dehumanizing injustice, the good news of our shared humanity, profound worth, and creation in God’s image is first for them and extends out for the oppressors or enemies as well.
Liberation-Oriented Enemy-Love Requires Truth-Speaking and Confrontation
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” How do we hear these words like “do good to” and “bless” with imaginations shaped by liberation? In her book I Bring the Voices of My People, Chanequa Walker Barnes, who is a Black theologian and clinical psychologist, contends that doing good to and blessing one’s enemies and the work of building beloved community between the oppressed and their enemy begins “with confrontational truth-telling that lays bare the complex horrors of oppression.”6 Confrontational truth-telling is not typically what we have in mind when we think of doing good to and blessing others!
Truth-telling may not necessarily look like the “civil dialogues” that can be promoted in White Christian spaces as a method of resolving disagreement and even enmity. In a conversation with Kelly Brown Douglas, Jeremy V. Cruz says, “Those sorts of dialogues . . . don’t often lead to the kind of bottom-up social transformation that we are looking for.”7 Stanley Hauerwas, an influential White theologian in the Neo-Anabaptist movement, endorses this necessary work of confrontation with one’s enemy:
Normally we think of peacemaking as a resolution of conflict rather than the encouragement of conflict. . . . But Jesus does not suggest that if you have a grievance against someone in the community, it might be a good idea for you to try to, “quote,” work it out. Rather, he says that you must go and speak to the one who you believe has sinned against you. Such a speaking, of course, may well involve nothing less than confrontation. . . . The peace that Jesus brings is not a peace of rest, but a peace of truth. Just as love without trust cannot help but be accursed, so peace without truthfulness cannot help but be deadly.”8
In some cultural contexts, conflict and confrontation are to be avoided at all costs, and the imperative to love one’s enemies often gets interpreted through this cultural lens. Yet liberation-oriented enemy-love embraces that confrontation in situations of enmity is part of the necessary work to move toward a space that is mutually liberating.
Liberation-Oriented Enemy-Love Opens Space for Reconciliation Through Shared Participation in the Purposes of God
In the work of loving one’s enemies, as anger is welcomed and honest truth-telling emerges, reconciliation occurs not as grievances are swept under the rug but as the invitation is extended and accepted to share the work of creating new and improved conditions.
In other words, true reconciliation cannot happen apart from a shared understanding of the wrongs that have been done and a commitment toward creating a better future together. The emphasis here is not on a shared sense of affection but on the acknowledgment of the wrongs which have been done, a commitment to uphold one another’s full humanity as divine image-bearers, and participation in dismantling the old order so that a new one can be built up. Cone wrote, “Human beings are made for each other, and no people can realize their full humanity except as they participate in its realization for others.”9 It is this very participation by one’s enemy that moves forward the process of reconciliation.
Reconciliation occurs not as grievances are swept under the rug. True reconciliation cannot happen apart from a shared understanding of the wrongs that have been done and a commitment toward creating a better future together. Click To Tweet
The invitation into reconciliation is a humanity-affirming act toward one’s enemy. Douglas says, “Part of loving your enemy is not letting them stay in this place of injustice and resisting the kind of injustice that is perpetuated systemically, structurally, or otherwise, and even by persons, individually so. Love and justice for me have to go together.” Cruz adds, “I want to live my life in such a way that makes room for the possibility that God is working in them too, and at some point, they’re going to be in a space where they can make a positive contribution to the reign of God in the world rather than being an obstacle or disruption to it.”10
Reconciliation with one’s enemy cannot be driven by one side. Mutual participation is required. As such, there will be situations in which enemies do not choose to enter into that work. This does not mean that the Christian has not extended Jesus-like love for their enemy.
Liberation-Oriented Enemy-Love Directs Us Toward Honest and Forthcoming Prayer for Our Enemies
Let ruin come on them unawares,
and let the net that they hid ensnare them;
Let them fall in it—to their ruin.
(Psalm 35:8, NRSVUE)
How ought a Christian pray for her enemies? What we see in the psalms of lament and the imprecatory psalms of the Bible is that it is possible for the work of anger and confrontational truth-telling to inform one’s prayers. As these songs of prayer reveal to us, forthright prayers for the restriction or destruction of one’s enemies are not new to God’s ears.
The psalmists are not shy about having enemies: they name them forthrightly, recount their wrongdoings with rage, dream visions of revenge, pour out grief and tears, and plead with God to visit violence upon their enemies. It is only after the storm of these tumultuous and even cringe-worthy words that we sometimes see a turn in the psalmist’s posture—a glimmer of a surrender to God and hope in God’s ways of accomplishing justice. Walker-Barnes invites us into this kind of honest prayer “that holds holy rage and holy hope together. Many Black women can connect to that prayer, especially those of us who labor for justice within and beyond the church. Loving people who are committed to hating us—to disenfranchising us, incarcerating us, and abusing us in myriad other ways—is hard. And still, we persist.”11
Florer-Bixler suggests what we learn from these psalmists is “the freedom to give voice to everything before a God who is capable of handling what we throw God in prayer, and who cannot be fooled about what is in our hearts anyway.”12 Even when what is in our hearts runs counter to the aforementioned commitment to affirm in even our enemies their full-fledged humanity as image-bearers of the Divine, it is in laying these clearly before the Lord that we can deal plainly with what is there, in the presence of God’s grace for us.
Liberation-Oriented Enemy-Love Postures Us Rightly for Forgiveness
The spiritual practice of forgiveness has long been utilized as a tool by abusers, oppressors, and guardians of unjust systems. But liberation-oriented forgiveness of one’s enemies “releases us from a contractual form of forgiveness that only serves to recapitulate systems of destruction for those who have been harmed.”13 When the preceding elements of liberation-oriented enemy-love are in place, such as the welcoming of anger, confrontational truth-telling, and a framework for reconciliation that requires the wrongdoer or enemy to align him or herself with God’s purposes, forgiveness no longer operates as a tool of oppression, but one of liberation for both the wronged and the wrongdoer.
Just as God stands in opposition to coercion, abuse, oppression, and injustice, so does God also stand in opposition to the old order of punishment and retribution. When forgiveness is practiced alongside the other liberation-oriented work of enemy-love, it opens a door so that we might step with God into God’s new world.
Because forgiveness has so often been used as a way to condone or ignore the wrong that has been committed, it may be difficult to imagine how forgiveness can be liberating for even the disinherited. Douglas offers a helpful picture of what she calls “Black forgiveness.” Black forgiveness involves instances when members of the Black faith community extended forgiveness after the most grievous acts of violence have been committed against them, such as how the murder of members of Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church by a White supremacist gunman was followed by a very public display of forgiveness by members of the Emanuel community. How is Black forgiveness extended in the face of such horrific violence liberating? Douglas writes:
Black forgiveness is, first, a sign of faith that God’s justice will ultimately prevail. The act of forgiveness serves as a liberating act as it frees those, such as the families of Emanuel, from the anguish of waiting for the proper justice to be enacted. At the same time, Black forgiveness recognizes that the love of God is more powerful than white racist hatred. And so, second, forgiveness frees Black people from being trapped in the cycle of white racist hate, thereby allowing them to appreciate the love of God for them. This is a love that affirms that Black lives do matter.14
A person or group that has been terrorized and oppressed by their enemy may choose—not be pressured or coerced by their enemy—to engage in the liberating practice of forgiveness. This choice does not negate the hatred and violence that has been enacted on them but instead affirms for them that God’s justice will come, God’s love is more powerful, and God’s compassion for their situation is unswerving. Liberation-oriented forgiveness does not negate the pain but acknowledges its reality in the presence of a great God.
The liberating God’s work in the world is moving us toward a new order where wrongdoings and injustice are accounted for, violent retaliation and punishment no longer reign, and a beloved community may emerge as people who were formerly enemies work together for God’s liberating and loving purposes. Understood within the context of this good news, the command to love one’s enemies does not come down as another hammer of oppression on those who have been wronged but instead as a way toward freedom. The church in North America sorely needs to learn from “theologies from below” and the voices of the marginalized. Without them, we risk Christ’s commands being utilized as tools of oppression in a world that hungers for God’s Kingdom.
Brown Douglas, Kelly. “Courageous and Just Episode 4: Kelly Brown Douglas with Jeremy V. Cruz.” Trinity Church Wall Street, uploaded by Youtube, April 25, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8CrU7sAoak.
Brown Douglas, Kelly. Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2021.
Cone, James H. God of the Oppressed (Revised Edition). Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997.
Florer-Bixler, Melissa. How to Have an Enemy: Righteous Anger and the Work for Peace. Harrisonburg: Herald Press, 2021.
Hart, Drew G. I. Who Will Be a Witness: Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance. Harrisonburg: Herald Press, 2020.
Hauerwas, Stanley. “Learning to Love the Enemy.” Biola University Center for Christian Thought, March 23, 2016, Biola University, La Mirada, California. Lecture.
Kim Sun, Hyung Jin. Who Are Our Enemies and How Do We Love Them? Harrisonburg: Herald Press, 2020.
King Jr., Martin Luther. Strength to Love. Boston: Beacon Press, 2019.
Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston: Beacon Press, 2022.
Walker-Barnes, Chanequa. I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2019.
Walker-Barnes, Chanequa, “Prayer of a Weary Black Woman,” Dr. Chanequa’s Musings, Apr. 9, 2021, https://drchanequa.wordpress.com/2021/04/08/prayer-of-a-weary-black-woman/
1 Drew G. I. Hart, Who Will Be a Witness (Harrisonburg: Herald Press, 2020), 357–358.
2 Melissa Florer-Bixler, How to Have an Enemy (Harrisonburg: Herald Press, 2021), 64.
3 Melissa Florer-Bixler, 63–64.
4 Drew G. I. Hart, 354–355.
5 James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, Revised Edition (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), preface to the 1997 edition.
6 Chanequa Walker-Barnes, I Bring the Voices of My People (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Kindle Edition), 193.
7 Kelly Brown Douglas, Courageous and Just Episode 4 with Jeremy V. Cruz.
8 Stanley Hauerwas, Learning to Love the Enemy, lecture for Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought, March 23, 2016.
9 James H. Cone, preface to the 1997 Edition.
10 Kelly Brown Douglas, Courageous and Just Episode 4 with Jeremy V. Cruz.
11 Chanequa Walker-Barnes, “Prayer of a Weary Black Woman” from Dr. Chanequa’s Musings, April 8, 2021.
12 As quoted by Melissa Florer-Bixler, 59.
13 Melissa Florer-Bixler, 73.
14 Kelly Brown Douglas, Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter, 122