Rachel Srubas writes about her experience after being ordained and serving as an assistant pastor:
Once, a parishioner in the first church I served made a joke of my family name, Srubas, which is derived from sruba, the Lithuanian word for “soup.” The parishioner nicknamed me “Rev. Screwus,” then worked hard – and successfully – to unite diverse church members in attributing the congregation’s problems to my presence on the staff.
I imagine somewhere, sometime, each one of us has had some kind of an experience similar hers.
When you heard the word “enemy” read from the Gospel of Matthew just moments ago, who came to mind? Perhaps you thought of a radical extremist training in a Mideast desert camp. Maybe you thought of a coworker who is out to get you. You may have thought of a politician or an ideological perspective you believe is harmful to our country. Some of you might have thought of a neighbor. For a few, the word “enemy” just might conjure the image of a family member.
Walter Wink, the author and seminary professor states, “love of enemies has, for some time, become the litmus test of authentic Christian faith.” That loving your enemy may be the most important manifestation of discipleship is not good news because it is certainly one the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings to follow.
Jesus understood the diverse and personal nature of one’s enemy. He talks about the “evildoer who strikes you on the cheek.” In this relationship, you have the ability to strike back. You and your enemy are on equal ground. Jesus instructs you to give up your power by offering your other cheek for striking. Next, he describes a person bent on pressing litigation against you. While this enemy has the upper hand, it is within your ability to resist. Jesus counsels you to offer even more to your enemy than he is asking for. The third scenario involves the ability of a Roman soldier to force you to carry his pack for a mile. Here, you have no power and no option but to do as you are ordered. Jesus tells you to carry the pack a second mile. The final instruction considers a situation where you have all the power over your enemy who approaches you either as a beggar or with a desire to borrow from you. Jesus says you are to give; you are not to refuse.
I find these teachings terrifying. I want to tell Jesus not to meddle in my affairs. I will deal with my enemies on my own, thank you very much. A 20th century Russian Orthodox mystic by the name of Silouan the Anthonite said, “People are afraid to cast themselves into the flames of Christ’s love.” When it comes to loving my enemies, you can count me in as one who does not want to burn with Christ’s love. But, this seems to be really, really important to Jesus and I suspect Jesus will not let me or you off the hook without a struggle.
We have so many witnesses in our time to the power and importance of Jesus’ teaching. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said this:
To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”
His prophesy is still in the process of coming to fruition, and it has come at a cost. Still, it has initiated tremendous change.
Mahatma Gandhi recognized how hatred of one’s enemy creates a poison within. He insisted frequently, “My first fight is with the demons inside me, my second fight is with the demons in my people, and only my third fight is with the British.” He is not the first person to acknowledge the difficult truth that looking into the face of your enemy is in some ways like looking into a mirror.
Walter Wink writes:
The enemy, too, believes he or she is in the right, and fears us because we represent a threat against his or her values, lifestyle, and affluence. When we demonize our enemies, calling them names and identifying them with absolute evil, we deny that they have a part of God within them that still makes transformation possible.
He goes on to note something truly remarkable; observing that every South African black he met during the apartheid period had forgiven their torturers. This forgiveness paved the way for their enemies to begin to see their actions in a new light. Love and forgiveness inaugurated change.
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, a professor of literature and author, articulates the foundational truth upholding Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies: “I believe I must love you because you have been loved – lavishly, incomprehensibly – by the One who loved me, and who has put us into each other’s hands to care for one another.” Every parent of two or more children knows the experience of those children fighting with each other. Your mutual and unmatched love for each child creates within you a deep longing for them to love each other. The greater the enmity between the two the greater your heartache will be. This is how God experiences you and your enemy.
I find myself short-circuiting the possibility of loving my enemy by imagining the most difficult relationship possible and determining love will cost me too much. Perhaps the place to start is to set aside this situation and work first on a relationship more manageable. Here are some things to do:
· Learn your enemy’s story. If you envision your enemy to be radical extremists, read up of their history. No one is formed in a vacuum. We are shaped by a story. What is the story of your enemy?
· Imagine how the world looks through the eyes of your enemy. What is his/her greatest hope and deepest fear? How might gaining this perspective begin to transform your response from resistance to compassion?
· What might you offer to your enemy? Complement the good work of an adversarial co-worker. Let your sibling inherit the family china. Help your antagonizing neighbor rake up his fall leaves.
· And finally, my most important suggestion. It is one I thought up all by myself. Pray for your enemy! The Book of Common Prayer gives us a prayer to use:
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (page 816)
Perhaps the best thing about this prayer is how it casts our relationship with our enemy not as a “them” problem, but rather as an “us” problem.
“Truly I tell, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This certainly is one of Jesus’ most challenging teachings. When I have lived into it, difficult relationships were defused of their toxic energy. When I have not, well, those failures have been incredibly painful, damaging, difficult, and draining.
In our lifetime, Jesus’ counsel has influenced people like Gandhi, King, and the apartheid resistance movement in South Africa. Loving your enemies has changed the world. This reality gives witness to how it could change each of our lives if we start to live into it.