by Alexei Laushkin
It’s common place for Christians to reflect on the question of how we are supposed to love our neighbor, after all, who is my neighbor is a question asked of Jesus.
The story of the Good Samaritan is launched with this question which we find in the Gospel of Luke:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
But who is my enemy is a question a bit closer to home.
We all have enemies, maybe not personal enemies, but enemies and those opposed to us and our point of view. After all to live life is to navigate conflict, and by merely stating your opinion on social media, you will no doubt have conflict with those who are different than you.
We thus have opponents or enemies or at least people who are not like us. What do we do with these differences, what do we do with our perceived enemies?
As Christians should we have opponents, should we have enemies?
After all aren’t we promised that our way life will encounter resistance. Consider the gospel of Matthew:
“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
‘Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
-Matthew 10: 16-22
The passage seems to indicate that our expectation should be to expect resistance, but that if we double down until the end than we too will be saved. It seems to be an encouragement to intransigence.
With many such thoughts in mind, you will find Christians the world over digging in their heals for their way of life, their beliefs, and their stated values.
This is a motivation even in close family contexts. Where a parent will stubbornly double down on their beliefs in family disagreements. After all to be on the side of God seems to be a helpful card to play when we’re sure WE are right.
So What About Our Enemies?
So what are Christians to do with enemies, with resistance, with hatreds, and misunderstandings?
Aren’t we to simply hold out and wait?
Navigating conflict can be tricky, but Christians aren’t supposed to have enemies of the heart.
Consider the words of the epistle to the Romans:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good
St. Paul reconciles the warning of Jesus to be aware of opposition, by saying yes it is normal and ties in the plain teachings of Jesus on our love for enemies. The love we are to have in conflict informs the opposition that we encounter in this life. The two can’t be separated.
He highlights a few important guideposts for us, especially in close relationships.
Love must be sincere. That is the standard we are to apply when dealing with conflict and it is hard work.
We are to guard our hearts and to cultivate, prod, and make peace with our judgements so that we can get back to a place of love within the contexts of conflict. The level of that love is in proportion to the type of closeness of the relationship, but it is safe to say that we must not harbor hatred for even our most entrenched enemies.
This ability to work through anger to arrive at a place of peace is actually a blessing, because it frees us to interact with conflict in ways that are far less personal and therefore more loving and peaceable.
This can only be done when what is driving the conflict is openly acknowledged and worked through. This is not the faith of unrealistic expectations or perfection, but the actual hard work of acknowledging pains and difference and working through honest disagreement and misunderstanding so that love might be able to prevail again.
Because what we owe our neighbor is love, and to love in the midst of conflict means working through the conflict in a way that can actually bring healing and a measure of inner peace even if the outward conflict remains.
To love our enemies and those who we have severe conflict with, we must remember that the love we share with others must be sincere for it to be of any importance at all.
All of which means that the only really enemy we have is of the kind that draws us away from God and seeks to imprison us to our former way of life, to a time before we knew Jesus and recognized him as our Lord.
Alexei Laushkin is the Executive Director of Kingdom Mission Society based in Herndon, VA.