By Dr. Keith Wagner
At this particular time in his ministry, Jesus, was giving a pep talk to his disciples. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.” (Luke 6:22-23)
Their life as disciples would not be easy. They would be rejected and despised. So Jesus follows with these words with a message about “loving their enemies.” Their response to persecution was to be different than society’s norm. At the time retribution was the common response when someone hurt you, abused you, or did anything to you that was unjust. It was “an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” mentality that prevailed in the lives of people.
Jesus presented a new standard, a non-violent, positive approach to any form of hostility. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.”
Who among us is able to live up to such an impossible standard? I know of no one, including myself. The order of our day is no different than Jesus’ day. Payback is still the norm.
We find ourselves in a nation where half of the population did not get the man they wanted in the Whitehouse. Will all of America rally behind President Bush or will we remain polarized as we were in recent times? Will Republicans and Democrats pull together to unite the nation?
We have a real challenge ahead of us. Making amends with people of opposing views will take patience and compromise. Yet, this is precisely what Jesus wanted his followers to do. In fact, he even took it a step further. “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Forgiving our friends who voted for the opposition or embracing people with different points of view is one thing, but loving our enemies is a much more daunting task. Using a phrase from president Bush; “This is hard work.” Nevertheless, make no mistake, loving your enemies is hard work also.
Jesus was advocating a behavior that is totally opposite from revenge. “I say to you, turn the other cheek,” and “give them your shirt as well as your coat.” If we acted like Jesus taught we would most likely be admitted to a mental hospital.
To love our enemies prevents us from acting out of our own self-interest. It means that forgiveness is at the very core of our faith. It means that to do harm to others in any way is totally out of the question. It means that we live by a higher standard, one that leads us to a new and different world which transcends the one in which we live.
To follow this principle is humanly impossible. On the other hand, look what happens in the Mideast when a Palestinian terrorist blows himself up in a market area of Israel. Israel responds by launching a few missiles in a neighborhood in the West Bank. Or perhaps it begins in reverse. Unfortunately there is a never-ending tragic cycle of violence that does nothing but escalate and cause further bloodshed. The same kind of reciprocal violence happens in Iraq. Rather than see it as revenge we see it as a “war on terrorism.”
Jesus calls us to break the cycle by taking a road that does not seek revenge. Someone has to take the first step and model a behavior that sets the stage for peace and harmony. That my friends is us. Genuine people of faith use restraint and love their enemies.
But you and I are not fighting terrorists. We are not driving Humvees through the streets of Baghdad. We are not soldiers fighting for freedom. We are just ordinary citizens trying to make a living. Surely Jesus is not talking about us when he says to “love our enemies.” How can we bring this closer to home?
The following story is from a sermon by Martin Luther King. “My brother and I were driving one evening to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didn’t dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: ‘I know what I’m going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I’m going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power.’ And I looked at him right quick and said: ‘Oh no, don’t do that. There’d be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway.’
Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights, and that is the trouble, isn’t it? That as all of the civilizations of the world move up the highway of history, so many civilizations, having looked at other civilizations that refused to dim the lights, and they decided to refuse to dim theirs. And Toynbee tells that out of the twenty-two civilizations that have risen up, all but about seven have found themselves in the junkheap of destruction. It is because civilizations fail to have sense enough to dim the lights. And if somebody doesn’t have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world, the whole of our civilization will be plunged into the abyss of destruction. And we will all end up destroyed because nobody had any sense on the highway of history.
Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.” (A Knock at Midnight – Martin Luther King)
As Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great and you will be children of the most high.” To be children of the most high is to be people who live by a higher standard. They are people who ascribe to a non-violent life style. They are people who are willing to turn the other cheek. They are people who break the cycle of violence by dimming their lights.
Copyright 2004 Keith Wagner. Used by permission.