‘You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your faiher in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:43-45, NIV
When I first learned those verses, as memory verses in Sunday School, I could only imagine that my enemy might be other kids in my class or school with whom I didn’t get along. There were a few kids in my class who were more or less everyone’s “enemy”, some more than others, and it was difficult to practice this principle with them in that situation.
There were two kids in my school, a boy named Ben who was one grade ahead of me, and a boy named Steve, one grade below, whom I considered to be my “worst” enemies. Ben was the kid who could instigate trouble and walk away, leaving others to catch the punishment. Steve was the guy who you saw two or three times a week making the trip down the hall to the principal’s office. I can’t really recall why we didn’t get along very well. I just remember that they were the only two kids with whom I ever got into a fight. It was really more of a pushing and shoving match, but the consequences that were handed out were the ones that went with fighting, and I remember that the humiliation and embarrassment of having to go to the principal was moderated considerably by the feelings of satisfaction that came about as a result of seeing both of them enduring the same punishment. Of course, later on I felt guilty about it, a little bit, but I remember thinking how hard it was to love my enemies, and at that particular time, I wasn’t interested in doing that.
So how does this particular part of Jesus’ teaching fit in with beheadings and immolation that are brought to us through modern electronic images from a part of the world that is as foreign to most of us as the dark side of the moon?
The same kind of cruelty existed in Jesus’ day. In fact, in Judea, during Jesus’ lifetime, it was probably a daily part of life. The Romans were, after all, the ones who instigated crucifixion, and they had little humanitarian concern for the people they subjugated. And it would not be long before many, if not most of the followers of Jesus through the first century of the church would be subjected to horrific torture and murder, for the purpose of deterring any more followers from joining them, and to eventually wipe them out. We’re talking literally tens of thousands of Christians, over 150 years, being burned at the stake, thrown to wild animals, crucified, tortured, and otherwise subjected to extremely cruel persecution. Against that backdrop, are the words of Jesus, exhorting his followers to “love their enemies.”
He set the example for doing this. While in agony on the cross, he prayed to God, asking him to forgive those who were crucifying him, because they did not know what they were doing. I believe his church is now facing a time during which this particular core teaching of Jesus will be challenged as much as it ever has been in modern times, at least since the Second World War. In the face of persecution which may not directly affect us, but which will become visible because of the instant transmission of video information and the ease of accessing it, the church will be required to respond in a way that is completely consistent with its claim, and with this particular teaching of Jesus. How well will it hold up?
Ken Whitaker is the author of a book entitled Murder by Family. It is the story about how his oldest son conspired to kill all the other members of his family, wound up hiring a guy who was willing to do it, and make it look like a burglary attempt that was foiled when the family members came home. All four family members were shot, the oldest son a superficial wound to make him look innocent. Ken, the father, was also not fatally wounded, though his wife and youngest son both died. Eventually, the oldest son was caught, convicted in court, and is now on Texas’ death row. During the punishment phase of the trial, Ken pleaded with the jury not to give him the death penalty, and testified that, in spite of the fact that his son had done this horrendous deed, he had forgiven him, because Jesus required it. Reading his account in the book, Ken writes in such a way that you can see how this has come about, not through his own strength, but through the Holy Spirit.
That’s a very hard concept to understand, but this particular book had a way of explaining it in a way that I could understand. That’s because I knew this family well. I had taught both boys in high school. In fact, both of them had accompanied me and our group from the school on a summer mission trip to Kentucky. When the youngest son and the mother were murdered, I had trouble feeling any kind of compassion for the murderer. When I found out who had done it, and why, it was even more difficult. But after reading what Ken wrote, the kind of forgiveness that was required was understandable.
I think that what’s coming down the road in the Middle East will be a major challenge to this core teaching of Jesus. But I think that, through these events, the world will have a huge, very visible means of viewing one of the core principles of the Christian faith, up close and personal, so to speak. It may be, perhaps, one of the greatest witnessing opportunities we’ve ever had. Imagine the impact of seeing Christians practice a life-enhancing, genuine principle of Jesus that is a demonstration of his absolute love for humanity.
Imagine the contrast that is to the destructiveness and inhumane faith of the enemy.