Thought experiment: at what points in the Gospels does Jesus kneel on the ground? Fall on the ground? In the presence of friends, or in the presence of the enemies? In the turning the other cheek and walking an additional mile stuff, is Jesus still standing?
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
There’s the stuff in the Sermon on the Mount that I get. The greed and money stuff, the lust and women stuff. Even the trumpets and almsgiving stuff, which is remarkable because after all these years I am not really sure what almsgiving actually is or why anyone would blow a trumpet in the process. But I still get it, in the sense I find it all rather convicting.
And then there is this bit. The “love your enemies” paradox that we are somehow supposed to live out. It doesn’t do anything for me.
The problem is not one of difficulty. Rather, the problem is that I don’t seem to have any enemies.
I seem to be able to manage my scuffles pretty well. There were a few candidates along the way that could almost qualify as an “enemy”: when I was in the 1st grade, one of my soccer teammates would persistently throw me into the bushes during practice. In the 7th grade, some 9th grader stole the heart of the girl I was crushing on…
That’s pretty much where the list ends. Really.
It has always felt like having enemies is a dirty thing.
Does that make sense? Does anyone else feel that way? Like, instead of fretting over how you acted towards someone who is genuinely an enemy (which is what Jesus is talking about), you are stuck on the fact that you have an enemy in the first place (which Jesus implies is a normal part of the human experience)?
(It certainly was a part of his human experience.)
I was a conflict transformation major in college, and part of the Intro to Conflict Transformation course was taking the “Kraybill Conflict Style Inventory” – a short personality test of sorts that would give a sense of just how exactly I tend to respond to conflict in my life.
In most situations, I came out a “Harmonizer.” Looking at that answer key, where my conflict style type was represented by panda bear clip art, was like looking at a mirror. Low focus on own agenda and high focus on relationship. “You win and I lose.” Benefits: Creates pleasant atmosphere. Costs: Stunted growth of personal gifts. Also, denies others the benefit of healthy confrontation. Possible acceptance of patterns or behaviors that ought to be changed.
To be clear, I have no sense of guilt about being a Harmonizer. I am who I am.
But over the past couple years since taking this test, I have begun to understand the “love your enemies” paradox with a more self-aware perspective. And, like the parts about greed and lust and trumpets, that part of the Sermon on the Mount has begun to convict me like it should.
Which I suppose could happen — hypothetically. (“Fake it till you make it.”) But there was a problem with this interpretation. Here, love was the means, not the end. The problem was not that there was not enough love, but that there was one too many enemies.
According to this interpretation: since loving one’s enemies was supposed to turn enemies into friends, and I did not have any enemies, I had mastered the “love your enemies” command before I even heard it. An A+ on my Sermon on the Mount progress report.
As I have come to realize, for a Harmonizer like myself, there is a quiet-yet-radical call in the “love your enemy” paradox. Where many people might struggle with the love part, I am one of those struggling with the enemy part.
That there are people who I consider an enemy.
It has been easier to hurt than to work, to pretend that the conflict does not really exist. Therefore my tendency has been, for the sake of giving my enemies a place to stand, to let myself be trampled on instead of finding the common ground.
Maybe I need to read the texts more closely, but, as far as I know, not once did Jesus lay down on the ground for his enemies. He would turn his cheek for enemies, but he would not let his knees touch the ground unless it was to wash the feet of the disciples.
This is not a call to go around with an “ENEMY” rubber stamp and labeling it on the foreheads of everyone who has done me wrong. Rather, it is finding that middle way between retaliation and retreat, the path to reconciliation. And knowing that even if I find the middle way, I might journey in vain.
To a Harmonizer like myself, the crucified Jesus says, “Hey, listen. It’s quite alright to have enemies. Look at me. Even I did, and I was the Son of God. And if you are going to stick up for what you believe is right, if you are truly going to put yourself out there, then there are going to be people you will piss off. You cannot control that. You do not get to decide your enemies…”
“…but you do get to decide whether or not you love them.”
This blog post is the second installment of a three part series where I’m reflecting on Matthew 5:43-48 from different parts of my life. The first post, “Thou shalt love thy frenemy“, written from the perspective of youth ministry, was published on NorthSideYouthCollision.com. This one comes from a more personal angle; next week will be from the perspective of being a climate change activist.