Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.
Matthew 5.44 (KJV)
A Rogue’s Gallery
While early manuscripts of Matthew 5.44 simply read, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” later transcriptions present a rogue’s gallery of cursers, haters, and users. The King James Version opted for the amplified script, possibly since it spoke to the dynamics of its day. Nearly a century after Henry VIII broke with Rome, England continued reeling with change. Volatile controversies about the morality of divorce and remarriage, the monarch’s religious supremacy, the priest’s role in society, and so on assumed major significance in English lives, pitting brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor. Each side recklessly condemned the other to Hell, stoked angry fires of animosity, and conspired to strip its enemies of civil rights and social dignity. The expanded version no doubt resonated with King James readers, who by now had grown weary of the conflict (as had their opponents) and sorely needed guidance about responding to curses, hatred, and abuse.
And so it is today. We’re nearly a century into ceaseless tension between Christian conservatives and liberals, with one side fighting ferociously to preserve traditional values while the other fights with equal ferocity for reform in keeping with rapid social shifts. In just under 90 years, our culture has been obliged to absorb staggering changes. The list runs too long to enumerate here. But noting a handful of the issues dramatizes the rest: Darwinism, anti-discrimination, abortion, family structure, privacy, sexuality, and moral accountability. Those at both extremes of the divide stand guilty of curses, hatred, and mutually spiteful use to advance their agendas. As with Tudor England, it’s inevitably crept into private life. It’s personal. It matters. It’s exhausting. And it hurts.
The Easy Way Out
Injuries we inflict on one another invite us to take the easy way out—to play victim when the posture serves our purpose. Yet before displaying our wounds, let’s ask why Jesus corrects our responses to adversaries rather than their error. It’s not about them. It’s about us, and like so much of Christ’s teaching, its wisdom deftly emerges in what’s unsaid as well as spoken. Loving our enemies not only exemplifies His principles; it keeps us out of the rogue’s gallery. And let’s face it: whether aggressively confronting those who curse, hate, and use us, or trying to shame them with suffering they cause, we’re taking a roguish stance. It’s unbecoming to us and inconsistent with our Christian claim. Furthermore, Romans 3.1-8 debunks the fallacy that the ends justify the means, which most often is how we rationalize engaging hostility with hostility.
It’s déjà vu all over again. The argument boils down to the same accessibility issues we grapple with today. In the Church’s infancy, Jewish traditionalists dominate its ranks with many leaders preaching reconciliation through Christ as an exclusively Hebrew right. Paul, the champion of Gentile inclusion, vigorously discourages this doctrine. His letter to the Romans mainly assures them they’re equally welcome to God’s forgiveness and grace. Yet he sets up his teaching with a striking question: “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?” (v1) His answer is firm: “[There’s] much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.” (v2) For the sake of argument, he says, suppose their actions contradict their faith. Does that permit us to condemn them in like manner? “Certainly not!” Paul says in verse 6. “If that were so, how could God judge the world?” Condemning others for wrongfully condemning us ends in the same sin. Those believing it’s justifiable to “do evil that good may result” deserve condemnation, Paul concludes. (v8) What did Jesus say—minutes after teaching love for enemies, in fact? Oh, yes: “Judge not, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged.” (Matthew 7.1-2)
We who embrace Christ’s gospel of inclusion have either felt the vicious stings of cursers, haters, and users or grieved the agony they inflict. We’ve experienced and witnessed their lethal effects. Outraged compulsion to fight back is merited. It’s also misguided, bowing to a subordinate mindset of victimization and empowering evil with undue influence. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law,” we hear in 1 Corinthians 15.56. Merciless gestures and judgments intend to kill and destroy. “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” verse 57 proclaims.
Christ transforms victims into victors. Approaching enemies from victory’s vantage enables us to return blessings for curses, goodness for hatred, and prayer for ill use. Similar to Paul’s charity for his opponents, we respect traditions and beliefs that lead many astray. Our charity goes as far as extending to souls whose inner rage and despair drive them to violence and cruelty. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus says. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10.10) Fighting evil with evil, even for a good cause, is a losing proposition, a victim’s ploy. It’s inexcusable. Especially since victory through Christ privileges us to answer deadly attacks with fullness of life.
Loving our enemies is a privilege that benefits us.
(Tomorrow: Enter Laughing)