“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may prove yourselves to be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors, do they not do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Even the Gentiles, do they not do the same? Therefore you shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43–48 NASB)
When two things are together that seem to contradict one another, they are called oxymorons, like “giant shrimp” or “reality television,” “clearly confused” or “act naturally.” In Christ’s most famous sermon, Jesus commands a concept that is oxymoronic for us: enemy love.
Enemy love is what Keshia Thomas displayed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1996. The Ku Klux Klan were holding a rally in her hometown, and she was with a group of anti-KKK demonstrators. The atmosphere was noted to be “tense, but controlled.” Then, someone heard a woman shout, “There’s a Klansman in the crowd!” A white, middle-aged man wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt was seen trying to walk away from the protestors. He had an SS tattoo on his arm, and his clothes represented what the protestors had come to resist. An article about the event notes, “There were shouts of ‘Kill the Nazi’ and the man began to run – but he was knocked to the ground. A group surrounded him, kicking him and hitting him with the wooden sticks of their placards.”
Enemy love kicked in for Keshia, an African American woman, and she “threw herself on top of a man she did not know and shielded him from the blows.” She said, “When they dropped him to the ground, it felt like two angels had lifted my body up and laid me down.”
An observer stated, “She put herself at physical risk to protect someone who, in my opinion, would not have done the same for her. Who does that in this world?”
Jesus would respond to the observer, “Those who obey my command to love their enemies.” So much of Christianity is counter-cultural, but none so much as the command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. What could be more unnatural? What could be more nonsensical? What could be harder to actually do?
Like so many commands ushered forth from the lips of the Savior, we are helpless to put them into practice apart from being transformed by a love greater than the hatred of our enemies. We must be transformed. As it says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, in Christ we are not who we once were; in him we have become new creations. New entities. People indwelt with the Spirit of God and endowed by that same Spirit to do the unimaginable, like loving our enemies.
This is a matter of character, not of principle. Too often we excuse a lack of godly character in favor of what we call the principle of the matter.
We are cheated, and instead of forgiving we go after the cheater “on principle.”
We are violently opposed. We strike back hard or harder, “on principle.”
We allow ourselves to have animosity toward that person “on principle;” after all, they disagree with us. They are “them!”
But that’s not what Christ commands, not how Christians do things according to Christ himself. If each of us is to be a little Christ, the literal translation of the word “Christian,” then we are to be imitators of our Lord in loving those who oppose us.
Someone once said that they have no enemies. This does not mean there are no people who oppose them, but rather there are no people against whom they have enmity. Keshia behaved that way.
Perhaps it comes from empathy, given by a God who empathized with us. It is an oxymoron to be the King of the universe taking the form of a bond-servant and humbling himself by dying on a cross, but that’s what Jesus did.
Looking back on her response, Keshia Thomas said, “I knew what it was like to be hurt. The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me.”
How are we at obeying these words from Christ’s most famous sermon? Who is your enemy? Can you love them?
—Written by Wayne Stapleton, VP of Cross-Cultural Engagement and Emerging Leader Engagement