Can an Enemy Be a Neighbor?”
Topic: Loving Your Neighbor Scripture: Matthew 5:38–5:48, Romans 12:14–12:21
On this Presidents’ Day weekend, we’re reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s approach to this subject. “Do I not destroy my enemies,” he asked, “when I make them my friends?” For those of us who are not Abraham Lincoln, this can be one of the most challenging of Christ’s commands. In our series called “Who Is My Neighbor?” our enemies might not even come to mind when we contemplate who our neighbors are. The command to love our enemy flies in the face of human nature. Is it an afterthought—a nice extra for those who can manage it? Or, is it a central focus of Christian discipleship?
Jesus was often surrounded by enemies. He knew of the real harm they can do. Yet with nearly his last breath he said from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In the Christian narrative, all of us are God’s enemies until Christ redeems us. By grace, he makes enemies into friends. Paul the Apostle is said to have converted fellow prisoners and jailers by the love and faith he shared toward enemies. The earliest Christians followed the command to love enemies in a remarkable way, sometimes unto death. Justin Martyr wrote in the 2nd century, “We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.” It was an amazing time, when followers tried to return good for evil.
We are reminded of the Charleston massacre, when people who lost their dearest responded with love. The killer was not converted, but millions around the world watched in awe as the people of Emanuel church showed forgiveness.
Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “Tolerate your enemy.” He didn’t merely say, “Refrain from taking vengeance.” He said, “Actively do good. Show kindness. The one whose very name makes you sick, and the sight of whom fills you with nausea? Pray for that person. Don’t pray for an appliance to fall on that person. Pray for God’s blessing.”
In theory, it sounds grand. If in real life you have someone who truly bothers you, this might be where you get off the train. Yet there it is: love.
There is a need to define who exactly our enemy is. If we can’t think of an enemy that we have personally, that’s okay. But, if we think we know who our enemies are, how can we really be sure? Some create enemies where none exist. When we paint with the same broad brush, whole categories of people—immigrants, Muslims, people of color, the media—and treat them as enemies, that’s not love. That’s instilling fear in people as a crude ploy.
This very day—February 17, 2017, is the 75th anniversary of Roosevelt’s signing of Executive order 9066. It placed more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans in forced evacuation from the West Coast. They were sent to internment camps around the country. Sixty-two percent were US citizens. In an instant, the nation turned from its most cherished principles. Nearly all American Christians remained silent. Rev. Dan Ogata, a fine Christian gentleman, worshiped with us for many years. Not long before he died, Dan spoke about his family’s traumatic experience of relocation, from many years ago. The psychological scars of that time were still with him.
There are real enemies: a vengeful ex-spouse, an abusive parent or other family member, a bully at school, someone at work with power over us. We must be careful about telling victims to love their attackers. That too has been used to keep down minorities, women, slaves, children, and assault victims. It can be a method of control. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for an enemy is find a way to stop him or her from doing further harm. If the victim can’t make the call, maybe we need to step in and help in this way. Abuse survivors need lots of understanding, and often find relief and strength through counseling.
With all these qualifiers, is it even possible for anyone to love an enemy? It might not be accompanied by feelings of love, but the important thing is loving actions. If someone has harmed us intentionally or not, some small deed such as getting the person a cup of coffee can be an opening. A persistent response of friendliness, accompanied by silent prayer for the person, can bring change over time. Jesus didn’t say “tolerate your enemies,” he said love them. It won’t always result in an end to hostilities, but it holds the possibility of a new chapter in a relationship.
The Presbyterian Church of Kalispell, MT, was dismayed to be picketed by members of another church on Sunday mornings. Week after week, the picketers carried large graphic posters and blocked the entrance to the church so that worshipers had difficulty entering. The Presbyterians wondered how they should respond. They decided the best way to answer this challenge was to go outside and offer donuts and beverages to the picketers. It was an act of love. The picketers never picketed the church again.
Another time, that same congregation hosted a forum on AIDS. Back in the early 90’s, there were still misconceptions about how the disease was transmitted. The speaker was an AIDS sufferer. From the look of his terribly thin frame it seemed he was dying of it. He, or his disease, might have been regarded fearfully, as a contagious enemy. He spoke eloquently, and when he was done, there was an awkward pause. Then, a couple who were esteemed leaders in the congregation rose from their seats, went up to the speaker, shook his hand, embraced him, and thanked him for being there. Then the others came forward too. It was a moment of grace.
Martin Luther King knew a lot about loving enemies. He knew of faces twisted in hate toward him. He preached a sermon on this text. In it, he called for an examination of self. Look in the mirror, he said. Be sure you’re not acting like an enemy toward someone else. Be sure your own inner likes and dislikes, your own prejudices, aren’t creating an enemy where none exists. Then you can move forward to the hard stuff.
Some time after the Charleston massacre, the Confederate flag was removed from the State House grounds in Columbia. Eight days later, there was a protest march by the KKK. Leroy Smith, a capitol police officer, was there keeping order. One of the protesters, a white supremacist, was overcome by the heat. Leroy Smith was quickly at his side to guide him to a couch. The photo of the two together—African-American officer and white supremacist—quickly went global. It was the image of what it means to love your enemy.
“He looked fatigued, lethargic—weak,” said Smith. “I knew something was very wrong.” The two didn’t talk much, other than Smith’s quiet words of encouragement as they climbed the State House steps. An aide to Gov. Nicki Haley snapped the picture, sensing a moment of grace as South Carolina struggled to cope with a racist tragedy. “In that moment,” said the governor’s aide, “Leroy Smith was the embodiment of all that we’d been through, and all that we hoped for.”
Many have done the hard work of loving. When we think of what some people have transcended in order to embody love, our own challenges are put in perspective. Consider Eva Kor, a holocaust survivor attended the trial of a Nazi prison guard. Her act of mercy toward him seemed almost beyond human ability. These photos tell the story:
The extraordinary moment when an Auschwitz survivor embraced death camp Nazi on trial for assisting in 300,000 murders. Images taken from DailyMail.com, April 25, 2015
Embrace: Seventy years after Auschwitz was liberated, Eva Kor embraces former Nazi guard Oskar Groening.
Redemption: Holocaust survivor Kor takes the hand of Groening as he stands in the dock accused of complicity to murder 300,000 people. Auschwitz survivor Eva Kor has spoken of how infamous Josef Mengele stood over her bed and laughed after she was injected with a 'deadly germ.'
Groening was so overwhelmed by Eva’s unexpected gesture that he fainted. He wiped away tears after she embraced and kissed him.
I close with these words from Dr. King’s sermon, delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on November 17, 1957:
“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, "Love your enemies." It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”