I’m not watching as much news as I used to, but it’s been a life-long interest (okay, addiction). Prompted by news I am watching, combined with our recent journey through the Sermon on the Mount on Sundays, I’ve been thinking of an image from decades ago, when Jimmy Carter brought Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin together on the White House lawn to broker a peace deal.
It was a brief season when the phrase “Blessed are the peacemakers” seemed like it could be true. Here’s what I remember: the pained expression on Mr. Rabin’s face as he reluctantly shook hands with Mr. Arafat. Rabin went on to say that you don’t make peace with your friends. You make peace with your enemies. It is work.
So we come to the persistent biblical injunction to love your enemies. Okay, it’s not everywhere in the Bible (there’s a gracious plenty of revenge), but it comes up enough to make us pay attention. Hear the first verses of Psalm 109: Hold not your tongue, O God of my praise; for the mouth of the wicked, the mouth of the deceitful, is opened against me. They speak to me with a lying tongue; they encompass me with hateful words and fight against me without a cause. Despite my love, they accuse me; but as for me, I pray for them.
Did you catch that? The psalmist says this about enemies: As for me, I pray for them.
How annoying is that? To be asked to pray for one’s enemies. Jesus said we should do it, and he modeled it when they were torturing him to death, praying that God would forgive those who hurt him. The first martyr of the church, Stephen, prayed the same thing, a tip off that that is what disciples are meant to do. I’ve tried praying for enemies. I confess that my evil twin sometimes would like to pray they’ll get hit by a truck. I don’t think that’s Jesus’ point.
There is something transformative about prayers for enemies. I don’t know how it works, but I know it does. It changes the relationship, softens the heart, drains the poison. It has power to affect relations of nations, the political system, our workplaces, schools, our households. Maybe even our churches.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not good at it. I can hang on to resentments with the best of them. So don’t listen to me. But do listen to great spiritual heroes have shown that this matters:
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.
– Martin Luther King Jr.
It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.
Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. ‘The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared’ (Luther).
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.
-The Dalai Lama
This Monday morning, is there someone you can pray for in the spirit of these spiritual leaders, in the spirit of Jesus?
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