I’ve often wanted to argue with Jesus, especially about his teaching that we are to love our enemies. After all, isn’t that a complete contradiction? An enemy is, by definition, someone that we wish to oppose or harm. Enemy-love seems like speaking of a square circle, a contradiction in terms. Or is Jesus simply saying that his followers are not to have enemies at all?
Have you ever had an enemy before? I’m not talking about a distant group of people that you vaguely dislike because they are enemies of your nation like Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Have you ever become enemies with someone that you once knew closely and once loved deeply? Perhaps a former spouse, close friend, or sibling? Distant strangers don’t usually elicit strong emotions within us, but those we know well who have been a major part of our life story are able to hurt us in ways that strangers never could. This is why family quarrels can often be far more intense and hurtful than disagreements with strangers. I hope that you have never known what it is like to have a real-life enemy form out of an intimate, close relationship for few experiences are worse. I was thirty-seven years old before I experienced this, but my unwanted divorce sadly — no, tragically — created an enemy in my life for the very first time. Perhaps some of you can relate.
Yet Jesus’ teaching to love our enemy is not only for the benefit of the other person, but also for us. If we can manage to get better rather than to get bitter, it will save us from a world of pain and misery. As the great South African reformer Nelson Mandela has said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” When we allow our spite for another person to live inside of our hearts, it grows in us like a cancer, stealing our joy and turning us into bitter, angry, and even vengeful people.
The great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it eloquently when addressing fellow civil rights activists in 1967: “I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love.” It would have been so very easy for Dr. King to turn to hate, but he knew that if he responded to hate with more hate, it would only further open up the doors of hell upon this world of ours. And so he stuck with love.
Perhaps all of this talk sounds to you like mere sanctimonious hot air. “Easy for you to say,” you may be thinking, “You don’t know my story.” And it is true; I don’t know your full story just as you do not know mine. But, as a Jesus follower, I do believe that if we are able to overcome our contempt and scorn for those who have done us wrong — for those who have hurt us the most — and instead to actually pray for those who hurt us and learn to love even our enemies, our hearts can be rid of the inner poison that threatens to damage us, and we can instead become vigilante agents of love in a world that desperately needs it. May it be so.