Love your enemies.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 May
Luke 6.27-31 KWL
27 “But I tell you listeners: Love your enemies. Do good to your haters.
28 Bless your cursers. Pray for your mistreaters.
29 To one who hits you on the jaw, submit all the more.
To one who takes your robe and tunic from you, don’t stop them.
30 Give to everyone who asks you. Don’t demand payback from those who take what’s yours.
31 Just as you want people doing for you, do likewise for them.”

Whenever preachers and ministers talk about how Jesus taught us followers to love our enemies, most of the time you can count on ’em to tell us Jesus wasn’t kidding. He really does expect us to love our enemies. It’ll be hard; sometimes darn near impossible. But Jesus said to do it, so we gotta.

Most of the time. Some of these preachers aren’t all that fruity. Hence when they preach about love, they don’t use the proper definition as spelled out in 1 Corinthians 13. They substitute conditional love and tough love.

“When Jesus told us to love enemies, he didn’t mean we should love-love them. The sort of love he meant is ‘to want what’s best for somebody.’ So that’s how he meant for us to love them: We should want the very best for them.”

And sometimes they really do want the best for those enemies: They want ’em to repent, and if not do a full 180° and befriend us, at least stop being so awful. They want ’em to be good. Love doesn’t delight in doing wrong, 1Co 13.6 so this wish sorta falls under the proper definition of love.

And sometimes they don’t. “The very best for them” means their comeuppance. Bad fortune. Getting arrested, beaten, evicted, fired, humiliated, injured, insulted, rejected, ruined. Best thing for ’em… and mighty entertaining for us. Revenge fantasies just can’t help but seep into many people’s discussions about enemies.

Revenge fantasies even seep into when we do strive to love our enemies, and behave towards ’em in Jesus-approved ways. We like to imagine being good to them, in spite of their dickishness, really burns ’em up inside: They want us to feel bad but it’s not working. They want to provoke us—an old bully’s technique, ’cause when we fight back, it makes ’em feel justified in doing even worse things to us—and dangit, it’s not working! So even grace gets reimagined as a form of revenge. Like in the old T-shirt quote, “Love your enemies. It really pisses them off.”

Heck, we even find this sentiment in the bible.

Proverbs 25.21-22 KWL
21 If your hater is hungry, give him bread. If thirsty, give him water to drink.
22 You pile embers on his head this way; it’s how the LORD repaid you.

(There’s this novel interpretation going round which claims the ancients used to help neighbors start cooking fires by bringing embers from their own fires—carrying them in a pot, which they put on their heads. Supposedly this verse is really about blessing your enemies, not sticking it to ’em by being good. But there’s no historical nor archaeological evidence for any such thing in ancient Hebrew culture; if they brought fire to neighbors it was with tongs or in a lamp. Ancient commentators knew of no such practice, and uniformly interpreted this saying as a curse, not a blessing. And this new interpretation doesn’t grammatically work either: If I carry embers to neighbors on my head, I’d pile embers on my own head, not theirs. Unless I’m giving them their donated embers back… and how does that bless them?)

Anyway. For those of us who recognize our revenge fantasies are unhealthy and wrong, but don’t really wanna love our enemies, often we’ll reinterpret love to mean passive acceptance. In other words tolerate our enemies. Leave ’em be. Distance ourselves from them. Stay away lest we’re tempted to take revenge, or lest they’re tempted to do more awful things to us. I’ve heard many a preacher say, “Love and forgive your enemies… but this doesn’t mean you need to have anything more to do with them. Don’t take revenge; don’t do anything. Just leave them to themselves. You’re not their doormat.” Love is apathy.

Of course all this redefinition means people are dodging the clear and obvious meaning of “Love your enemies.” ’Cause we don’t wanna love our enemies. ’Cause they’re our freaking enemies: Somebody needs to smite them! Either God needs to do it, or God needs to deputize us: They need smiting!

Loving your abuser.

I was abused as a child. If you’ve never been abused—or you have been abused but never really loved your abuser—this is gonna be hard to understand.

Obviously an abuser is an enemy. By the very fact they abuse you, they’re your enemy. They don’t want what’s best for you; they might claim to love you, but you’re a possession and little more. Love doesn’t abuse. Our culture correctly recognizes this, and many Christians wholly agree with the idea abusers are enemies. (Even when these very same Christians get abusive.)

Now imagine a woman whose boyfriend beat her senseless. Yet after she left the hospital, she went right back to him. Even defended him when he was arrested and put on trial for beating her. The rest of the world recoils in horror: “How could she possibly? What’s wrong with her? Where’s her sense? He beats her! Doesn’t she realize he’s an enemy?”

Well no, she doesn’t. Because she loves him. She fell in love with him despite the beatings. She finds it easy to forgive what most of us would consider unforgivable. We’d toss him in prison, and joke about how the convicts will probably beat him even worse, and maybe rape him a little. Whereas she’d turn the other cheek.

That’s what loving one’s enemy looks like. Even though she may not realize she’s loving her enemy; when you love ’em they’re not so easy to recognize as enemies.

Other abuse victims don’t love their abusers, and never did. They’re fully aware their abusers are enemies; it’s why they plot revenge, or seek a form of “justice” which hurts the abuser. They can’t possibly imagine forgiving their abusers, or establishing any real relationship with ’em. If you suggest they forgive their enemies, they’d tell you to go f--- yourself; how dare you suggest any form of grace towards their enemy.

When Jesus spoke about loving one’s enemies, he was teaching Galileans who’d lived under Roman oppression for the last half century. The Romans didn’t follow any kind of due process: If you got in their way they’d smack you, if you talked back they’d stab you, and if they thought you were a criminal they’d flog or crucify you. If a soldier decided to bully you for fun, or just to show off his might, he easily could; your life was in his hands. Romans were some of the worst kind of abusers. But you gotta love them.

Loving one’s enemies looks exactly like the abused woman who goes back to her boyfriend. And if this offends you… well that’s normal. It’s probably how Jesus’s listeners took it when he first started talking about turning the other cheek.

Y’see, grace isn’t fair. True forgiveness feels utterly contrary to human nature. Treating our foes better than they deserve—much like forgiving an abusive boyfriend—feels kinda foolish, stupid, and outrageous.

Human nature feels more like Lemékh described it in Genesis:

Genesis 4.23-24 KWL
23 Lemékh says to his women, Adá and Zillá, “Listen to my voice, Lemékh’s women; give your ears to my saying.
I killed a man for injuring me, and a boy for bruising me.
24 If seven people die in revenge for Cain,
seventy-seven die for Lemékh.”

We often say human nature seeks eye-for-eye reciprocity, but that’s not even close: Human nature seeks satisfaction. We take revenge till we feel satisfied… and some people are never satisfied. We don’t trade bruise for bruise, insult for insult: We kill people who insult us, or kill their whole family in revenge. Simeon and Levi ben Jacob murdered an entire city because its prince raped their sister; Haman wanted to wipe out every Jew in the Persian Empire because a single Jew wouldn’t bow to him. Human nature is to overkill.

The LORD had to legislate the whole eye-for-eye thing, Ex 21.24 which is a significant improvement on what we humans usually do in response. And still Jesus expects better of us.

That’s why “Love your enemies” irritates even the most devout Christians: When people forgive like a woman going back to her abusive boyfriend, our culture immediately figures there’s gotta be something wrong with this woman. She has really low self-esteem, or figures she can’t do any better, or figures she doesn’t deserve better. She must be a masochist who enjoys abuse. Our culture never factors love and forgiveness into the equation. It’s so foreign to the way humans think. Sadly, foreign to the way most Christians think too.

’Cause that’s how the world works. That’s how human nature works. We don’t love enemies. The near-universal response to such an idea is to rescue that woman, whether she wants it or not; and kill (or at least take vengeance upon) that boyfriend.

Love—actual love—doesn’t want revenge. When my dad beat me, either with a belt, a stick, or his fists, I admit there were times I wished I could beat him back. But those revenge fantasies wore off. Love puts thoughts of revenge away. It’s why police, whenever they try to arrest wife-beaters, often find themselves attacked by the beaten wife herself: She doesn’t want vengeance upon her abuser. She loves him.

Do bear in mind I’m in no way excusing abusers. Spouse-beaters, child-beaters, child-molesters, any abusers, need to go to prison for the sake of society. When I find out about such behavior, I never keep it to myself, no matter how much people beg me: I call the police. As one should. There are, and should be, legal consequences for abuse. I have no problem when abusers suffer them. I never want people to go back to their abusers for more. Christians are meant to remove suffering from the world, not look the other way.

But at the same time, forgiveness of one’s enemy is entirely right and Christlike. That’s loving your enemies. Don’t let them hurt you. Do love them.

No, it’s not easy.