Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what Jesus really meant when preached the words, “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44).
I have read and heard the phrase “love your enemies” so often over the years that it has become a kind of cliché to me – just another platitude that sounds nice but has no true effect on the way I live my day-to-day life.
For starters, the term “enemy” is difficult to grapple with. I am generally a nice person. I smile at strangers, hold open doors, pick up my dog’s poop, refrain from honking in traffic (mostly). I don’t see myself as a person with enemies.
So, does Jesus’ command really even apply to me?
A few months ago, my husband and I drove up to Ohio State University to watch my sister-in-law graduate from her PhD program. The morning of commencement was cool and cloudy; the OSU stadium (a.k.a. “The Horseshoe”) hummed with the excited voices of a record-breaking 12,213 graduates and their families and friends.
The commencement speaker was Fareed Zakaria, an author and journalist for CNN and the Washington Post. In his speech, Zakaria challenged the graduates – and all of us watching – to consider an important question:
“What can we [as a nation] do to come together?”
He described an alarming truth about America today: We are a country that has become increasingly tribal. Without always consciously realizing it, we tend to surround ourselves with people who look like us, live like us, think like us, believe what we believe, vote like we vote.
There is a reason we humans stick to our tribes: They are comfortable. When we surround ourselves with people who are like us, we don’t have to question our views or ideas (which is nearly always an uncomfortable experience). Our tribes are safe and stable places to live. The problem with tribalism, of course, is that over time we lose the ability to listen and to empathize with those who do not “belong.” Instead, we judge and condemn and dehumanize people who we consider to be “other.”
I am so guilty of this.
I may not have enemies who I interact with in my day-to-day life, but I have certainly harbored hatred for people whose political and ideological beliefs differ from my own. In fact, I fume almost every time I listen to the news or scroll through the comments sections on politically-charged Facebook posts.
Anybody else? I know I’m not alone in this. None of us are immune.
This same kind of dehumanizing tribalism was happening in Jesus’ time when he preached his famous Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’”(Matt. 5:43). Yes – this is still what our culture tells us today: love your tribe and hate those with whom you disagree.
“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
The Greek form of “love” used in this verse is philea love – the kind of affectionate “brotherly love” typically reserved for family members and best friends. Philea love requires familiarity, a sense of equality, and genuine friendship.
In other words, Jesus’ command in this verse is not an empty platitude that vaguely means we ought to be kind or polite, but a deeply radical, countercultural, and counterintuitive charge to be in relationship with people who look, think, live, vote, and believe differently than we do. He is calling us to love those who, to us, seem most unlovable.
Jesus’ words are the answer to Zakaria’s question. What can I, Johanna Lange, do to help heal our divided nation? Well, I can start by seeking out ways to be in loving relationship with people whose beliefs differ from my own.
Doing this will never feel comfortable, but Jesus’ commands rarely are.