But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’
Jesus assumes we have enemies. Do I have real, bona fide enemies? Who qualifies as an enemy? In a wartime situation, it is clear. Then, someone identifies me as an enemy and is out to kill me. Personally I have never been in that situation. Chances are, I never will be. I remember reading St. Augustine years ago (can’t find the exact quote this morning) where he was grappling with these words from Jesus. I think it was in a piece on advice to soldiers. He wrote something to the effect: “It’s permissible to kill your enemy as long as you love him while you were doing it.” Not ever being faced with that situation, I’ll never know if that is even possible. It was also Augustine, when writing of loving our enemies, who wrote, “it is possible in the case of one and the same person, both to hate him for his sin, to love him for his nature.” A little more practice-able…but no less problematic.
If we take Jesus’ teaching at face value, even if we cannot identify “enemies” in the extreme sense, it calls upon us to “love and pray for” all those in our lives who populate that spectrum between friend (those we love without thinking about it) and enemy (those we do not love unless we make a deliberate, persistent choice to do so). The truth is, enmity comes in many shades. In that no man’s land between “friend” and “enemy” there is a lot of room for us to put into practice what it means to “love an enemy” even if we never come face to face with someone out to kill us. That being said, let me tell you a story that forever changed my view of categorical enemies.
My grandfather, on my father’s side, served in World War II. He signed up to serve with the Australian army as a non-combatant—a chaplain of sorts. He was a pacifist because of his Christian convictions. Between the Old Testament, “Thou shalt not kill” and the New Testament, “Love your enemies,” he felt there was no option for him to take up arms. But he did feel he had a Christian duty to serve his country. We have only one picture of him from his war days. There he is, in his fatigues, serving coffee to soldiers on a beach somewhere in the South Pacific. And there is only one story he ever told.
At a low point in the offensive against the Japanese, my grandfather was forced to take a pistol in hand and follow behind the advancing troops. His assignment was to put one bullet in every fallen enemy soldier he came across to insure that no one was feigning death . Then he was to search every body to retrieve any supplies or important papers. Among the belongings of one young soldier he confirmed dead, he found a Japanese New Testament—with underlined verses and a picture of his wife and children tucked inside. It was the one possession he kept from his war days. It spoke of a grief he never resolved.
When I first heard that story, something fundamental shifted in my world. The category of “enemy” never seemed so definitive after that…and loving an enemy never so out of the question.
Prayer: Gracious God, help me to risk exposing to love the enmities that I harbor in my heart. Amen.