Why We Christians Don’t Love Our Enemies

Ted Grimsrud—September 24, 2011

If there is one passage in the entire Bible that points to both the glory and the shame of Christianity, it is this famous statement by Jesus: “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:44-45).  Here we have a direct statement of a profound ideal, a call to break the cycle of violence that so bedevils our world.  And here we have as stark a reminder as we could imagine of just how far Christianity tends to have strayed from the will of its founder.

“Love Your Enemies”: An Obvious Need in Our World

“Love your enemies,” such an obvious statement of what our world needs.  We see so clearly in our present day how hatred of enemies fuels war with simply incredible costs – in the name of stamping out “terrorists” our country spends billions upon billions to pour violence upon the nation of Iraq, diverts resources in a way that made the Gulf Coast more vulnerable to devastation from recent hurricanes, alienates people throughout the world, sends hundreds upon hundreds of our soldiers to their death along with thousands upon thousands of Iraqis.  This hatred fuels a spinning cycle, eye for an eye for an eye leading to more and more blindness.

Hatred of enemies fuels our nation’s prison-industrial complex, sending millions behind bars where they are all too often brutalized, infected with devastating diseases such as hepatitis, permanently disenfranchised as stakeholders in civil society (as someone said, no matter how long a convicted criminal’s official sentence might be, it is invariably a “life sentence” in terms of the impact going to prison has on one’s life).  In the name of “security,” we only increase the spiral of destruction and alienation.

In many other ways as well, hatred of enemies leads to unhappiness, brokenness, pain being visited upon pain – and the cycle of creating only more hatred.  So, Jesus’ words cut like a warm knife through butter.  He gets to the heart of things – we need to find ways to love instead of hate.  We need to find ways to forgive instead of simply punish.  We need to find ways to heal when there is brokenness, not simply retaliate.

We also need the vision of God these verses give us.  The One who models love for enemies.  The One who offers generosity and genuine wholeness, who gives us hope, who empowers us to find another way from the spiral of death.

Jesus’ words seem so obvious.  What could be more straightforward and more needed than Jesus’ incisive words?  We need them now more than ever; they come to us straight and clear.

If it were only that simple.

If only Jesus’ words would set the agenda for Christians in our needy world today.  If only being a Christian would mean ending hatred of enemies.  But, it doesn’t work this way, sad to say.  We Christians actually aren’t that good at loving our enemies.  And I struggle to understand why.

Conversion to Christianity—And War Support

I think back on my own experience.  I grew up in a gentle, humanistic family with definite instincts toward being peaceable.  I wasn’t taught pacifism – nor Christianity, at least not very directly.  But during the latter years of the Vietnam War as I was coming of age and facing the possibility of the draft, I knew I had no urge to go to war.  But then, at age 17, I became a Christian.  The church I joined did teach me that war could be God’s will.

Some of you may remember the state of Oregon’s Republican (believe it or not) Senator Mark Hatfield.  Hatfield openly opposed the Vietnam War – everyone knew this about him.  When I learned that he was a Christian, a Baptist like me, I was shocked.  When I talked with my pastor, he said, I don’t believe it either.  How could Hatfield possibly be a true Christian while also opposing the war….Becoming a Christian made me more likely to embrace warfare.

A book I read a while ago (Harry Potter, Standing in Judgment) tells the story of the struggle, ultimately successful, in Britain to abolish the death penalty.  In the end, the only major opposition to abolition came from the Church of England. Only when Church leaders finally supported abolition did it happen.  Official Christianity had to be dragged kicking and screaming into saying no to the death penalty.

Recent surveys in the United States indicate that people who identify themselves as Christians are more likely to support the death penalty than non-Christians.  People who identify themselves as Christians are more likely to support war in Iraq than non-Christians.

Why Don’t We Christians Love Our Enemies? A Suggestion

What’s going on here?  How could Jesus have been more clear?  Why don’t we Christians love our enemies?  Why, in fact, are we Christians more likely to support violence against enemies?  Just imagine what would happen if the large majority of Christians in the United States decided to have our ethics determined by Jesus’ clear teaching.

There are many factors, surely, that come between Jesus’ words and Christian practices and attitudes.  As a theologian, I am especially interested in the factors related to beliefs about God and about God’s will for our lives.  What beliefs lead Christians to marginalize Jesus’ call to love enemies?  I have some thoughts I would like to test with you.

This is what I suspect may be the main reason why we Christians don’t love our enemies.  We Christians tend to believe in a difference, a fundamental, we could say “ontological,” difference between being a Christian and being a non-Christian.  We tend to see these as two clearly separate categories.  When we make a basic split between two distinct kinds of people, what we call believers and what we call non-believers, we may well set ourselves up to dismiss the centrality of Jesus’ teaching about loving enemies.

It seems to be very important for us to “other” people we hurt – to think of them as different, as other than we are.  We have to think of an enemy as in some sense not fully a part of our identity group.  Soldiers are trained to do this, because we have discovered a surprising and powerful reluctance on the part of most people to kill.  Somehow this reluctance needs to be drilled out of soldiers.  One way this is done is by chanting, “gook,” or “Jap,” or “Kraut,” or “towel-head,” or “terrorist.”  These aren’t fully human people; they are “other.”

I remember a powerful scene in the anti-Vietnam War movie “Hearts and Minds.”  A U.S. General tells the camera how these people in East Asian cultures simply don’t value life like we Westerners, so we needn’t worry too much about killing so many people.  The next clip is of an inconsolably weeping mother next to the lifeless form of her child.

In the criminal justice system, prisoners must be dehumanized.  Criminals are seen as different.  They have forfeited their rights to be fully human.  They are a different class, a different race, at least a different personality.  So we aren’t as likely to limit the brutalizing; we’re even willing to execute such like.

In his book, American Colonies, historian Alan Taylor tells of how the European settlers in North America thought of Natives and Africans as less than fully human.  Part of the “othering” came because these were non-Christians.  So the “Christian” Europeans could be more comfortable enslaving, dispossessing, even massacring the Natives and Africans.

Loving Enemies = Abolishing “Othering”

Now, certainly most people who make a clear distinction between Christians and non-Christians are not going to use this distinction as a basis for violence.  But I am suggesting that such a distinction carries within it a dynamic that can lead to the “othering” that does lead to violence.  The call to love enemies, I believe, is best seen not as a call to love the other while still seeing them as other.  Rather, the call to love enemies is a call to abolish “othering.”

The best expression of this comes from Jesus’ famous story of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus responds to the question of how one gains eternal life with the basic command: Love God and love neighbor.  But who is my neighbor?  Jesus tells this story that radicalizes the discussion.  The Samaritan was the Jew’s enemy.  So, when the Samaritan – at great risk to himself – stops to help the beaten and robbed traveler, who happens to be a Jew, he shows how he, as a Samaritan, makes his enemy his neighbor.  And, he is being used by Jesus as a model for Jesus’ fellow Jews.  It’s a doubly reinforced point – the Samaritan himself is your neighbor, and your model.

So, “love your neighbor” means the same as “love your enemy.”  This is to say, there no longer is any basis for “othering” the enemy.  Jesus is not saying, love someone who you still see as other.  That can easily become paternalism, where we maintain a sense of superiority and difference – the pathogen causing hatred remains in the system, the enemy is still other.  Maybe we can make ourselves love them for awhile – but the otherness will surface in time.

Another image that is used later in the New Testament is of a wall that is torn down, the wall that separates Jew from Gentile.  This wall was the basis of much violence – it is what stimulated the religious leaders to send Jesus to be executed.  It is what stimulated the Pharisee Saul to persecute Christians, before he met Jesus and had the wall in his own heart torn down and became the Apostle Paul.  In Ephesians we read that Jesus comes to make peace, to take away the “othering” that triggers such violence.

Jesus shows us that there is one humanity.  There are no “others” who are a different kind of human being.  Paul speaks from his own experience as one who used otherness as a basis for violence.  He insists in the strongest terms that in Christ, there is no Jew over against Gentile, there is no male over against female, there is no slave over against free.  When we look at the world through Christ’s eyes, “othering” ends – we are all one.

The Vocation of God’s People: Love All People

Seeing the world in this way, we may understand Jesus’ message to us to be this: He says to us: your calling, your vocation, your “chosenness” as my people is to be found in one thing only.  Your call, your vocation is to love all people as your neighbors, as your fellow human beings, as your siblings in the family of God’s children.

This vocation goes all the way back to Abraham and Sarah.  God gave them a promise, a calling, when God gave them children in the face of Sarah’s barrenness.  God called them to bless all the families of the earth.  God chose them for this task of being a witness to the love of God for all people.

And almost from the beginning, Abraham’s descendants have struggled with their chosenness.  All too easily the calling has been understood to be a calling to be different in order that they alone might be blessed, in distinction from those outside the promise.  It’s like an old professor of mine once said, what good is heaven if there are not people who are sent to hell?

This is a huge tension throughout the Bible.  Read in light of Jesus’ message, though, I think we are bound to see the message to Abraham making strictly a practical distinction – the sense of difference is for the purpose of being clear about God’s character and God’s love, not in order to be better than or other than or superior to those on the outside.  We become clear about God’s love so that we may be indiscriminate in sharing it, welcoming everyone as our neighbor.

So, I am proposing one way to answer this question: why do we Christians not love our enemies?  We do not love our enemies because we imagine that they are other than ourselves.

In doing so, we forget God’s character.  Just as all people are one in feeling sunshine, just as all people are one in receiving rain – so are all people one in God’s love.

Every semester in my ethics class, we read a wonderful book that never fails to inspire me (even after 16 readings!) – Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed by Philip Hallie.  This book tells of French villagers, Protestant Christians, profoundly risking their loved to provide sanctuary for Jews fleeing the Nazis during World War II.

The key moment in the story happens early one.  A Jewish refugee knocks on the parsonage door seeking a place of safety.  The pastor’s wife, Magda, answers – and without hesitation, says, yes, yes, of course, come in.  Everything follows from that first act of welcome.

To Magda, love meant, yes, yes, of course, we are all one – “othering” is simply not imaginable.  That’s what Jesus calls us to.


[This sermon was presented at Seattle Mennonite Church, October 5, 2005 and Shalom Mennonite Congregation, February 26, 2006.]

2 thoughts on “Why We Christians Don’t Love Our Enemies

  1. apocalypseicons

    Dear Ted,
    Thank you for this I will share it with fellow Franciscans and more. I have been pondering this issue for, perhaps, most of my life as an Anglican. Wondering why I and many others have found more Christians to be unpleasant than non-Christians. I think the issue of ‘otherness’ is right at the heart of it.
    My own meditations led me to the Garden of Eden and thoughts on why was it so forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Wouldn’t it be useful to understand and have wisdom about this? But to what end? If we know ‘good’ then we begin to set ourselves apart as being somehow better and superior from what is ‘evil’. And who defines what is good or evil in the first place? A group who set themselves up as morally superior? Then I felt very uncomfortable and realised how disastrous this Knowledge has been. I wondered what must it be like in the Garden? And immediately I was given an answer that there is neither good nor evil, simply God’s Will. For a few seconds I felt complete and utter freedom and a sense of immensity. It was great while it lasted and I can recall a little of it but while we are here on earth I guess we just have to nibble away as best we can at ingrained attitudes. Be open enough to want to understand the ‘other’ is often a good start, just at Nelson Mandela learned to understand his Afrikaans captors whilst in Robben Island, then later peace has more chance to flourish. As you say, the spiral of hatred is immense yet small acts of peace and truly sincere openess can be even more powerful.

  2. Pingback: Republicans secretly hate Jesus. | imbrocata

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