When Jesus declared “You have heard it said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, He was not quoting any of the Jewish prophets or from any of the writings found in the Old Testament. Rather, He was quoting something from outside of the Jewish religion. The command to hate your enemy is found nowhere in the Bible. That bears repeating: The command to hate your enemy is found nowhere in the Bible.
Ancient legal systems had formulas that were applied to specific crimes, laws that prescribed punishments equal to the offenses. A common expression was: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” We find another one of those formulas expressed in the Book of Genesis where in Chapter 9 we read: If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed…(Genesis 9:6).
Jesus instructs His disciples to go beyond, to follow a higher law, a law not based on retaliation and retribution but based rather on a more powerful force to govern our human relationships – the Law of Love. We must be careful, however, to note that Jesus is not instructing His followers to let evildoers do whatever they please. To do nothing to confront evil is not the response Jesus wants from us. In justice Christians must resist evil when it is encountered. The resistance is to nonviolently break the cycle of violence, a cycle which the ancient laws of retribution only reinforced. In those systems, violence was to be countered by violence of equal proportion. Jesus confronts evil with a power that transcends violence. Let me give you an example from an account I once heard when I was a young man.
Two brothers, one of whom told me this true story, were having a terrible fight, a violent fight during which they were slamming each other bloody with their fists. During their fight one of them simply dropped his fists and looking into his brother’s eyes declared: “You can’t hurt me because I love you!” Well, needless to say, at that point the fight was over; the astonished other brother had been stripped of his weapons. Not only would further bashing be useless, he was covered with shame.
In Jesus’ teaching He went on to give His disciples the example of the debtor who, while standing before the judge, stripped off his cloak and his tunic and stood naked before this creditor who had dragged him into court demanding full repayment. In his shock the creditor was covered with shame.
Generosity is also a powerful force that destabilizes the ways of this world and confounds the worldly. The norms of this world are norms demanding retribution and violent repression through the strict application of raw power, power that in many cases is falsely justified under the force of unjust laws. One cannot help but be reminded of the strategy and tactics of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and his non-violent civil rights marchers.
St. Paul suffered under the power of Imperial Rome. He knew persecution. At one point, while he was away from Rome, he wrote these words to the Christians suffering persecution under the Roman Emperors:
Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:12-21)
There are times, of course, when the use of deadly force is necessary in self-defense but that is rarely the case in our own individual lives. The question of justifiable war is separate and distinct from what I am speaking about here. Self-defense is certainly justifiable in limited situations. Similarly, the Just War arguments have elements linked to self-defense- but both of these considerations are for another topic.
God’s love has no bounds. His love extends to all of His creation, particularly to human beings. He has made every human being in His image and likeness. God hates evil and He hates sinful human deeds. Jesus’ formula for overcoming evil does not include using evil to overcome evil. After all, using evil to overcome evil only multiplies evil by two, it does not divide it in half or reduce it to zero. Echoing God’s boundless love Jesus, dying on His Cross cries out: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” With His dying breath Jesus extends His loving forgiveness to those who have inflicted terrible evil upon Him.
Non-violent love undermines hatred; it breaks the cycle of violence and tears down boundaries that wall us up in hatreds. If there is to be retribution let God mete it out on His terms. We are to be agents of God’s love, not God’s wrath. We are to be agents of God’s boundless love, a love that brings light out of darkness, order out of chaos, meaning out of absurdity, and life out of death. God is the only One who can overcome evil and His ways are not our ways unless, of course, we walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
Which reminds me of a prayer attributed to our own Native North Americans: O Great Spirit Grant that I not judge my brother until I have walked a mile in his moccasins. I am also reminded of a popular bumper sticker of a few years ago: Perform random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty. What better senseless acts of beauty than overcoming your enemies with your love in turning your other cheek?
Therefore, in family feuds and in conflicted relationships, take the initiative and be the first to offer reconciliation. Your offer may be rejected but how many of God’s offers have we rejected? Yet He keeps on loving us enough to continue to offer His love in spite of our hateful sins.
St. Paul was no namby-pamby. He was nobody’s fool and anyone would be crazy to claim he was weak. Allow me, then, to leave you while repeating his words to his fellow Christians suffering persecution in Rome:
Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:12-21)