This is one of those passages we’re supposed to read metaphorically, right? Jesus didn’t really mean to turn the other cheek when someone strikes us, did he? He didn’t mean that when someone takes our coat we should actually hand over our shirt, too, did he? And surely, surely, he didn’t mean to love our enemies, like, our real enemies, like, out-and-out, dyed-in-the-wool bad people…did he?
Over the centuries commentators have tried to make this text easier to digest…like, saying that “turning the other cheek” would make the person hit you in a way that would be demeaning for him; or giving someone who wants your coat your shirt, too, as a way to embarrass her. I get where people are going with all those exegetical gymnastics…they want to downplay what they see as weak responses to bullying and violence. No one wants to be a doormat. Everyone wants to feel strong.
But what if Jesus meant exactly what he said? What if he really is calling us to a life of intentional non-violence?
In his comic book memoir March, the late US Congressman John Lewis described the training he’d received in non-violence, training based directly on today’s Gospel Lesson. “The hardest part to learn,” Lewis writes, “the hardest part to truly understand, deep in your heart, was how to find love for your attacker.” “Do not let them shake your faith in nonviolence,” they were told. “Love them!” (March, 29) Love your enemies.
Love. Your enemies. Act your enemies into wellbeing. So what if you love your friends and family, those people who love you back? Jesus says. What more have you added to the world by doing that? In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says it this way: “We can love our kith and kin, our fellow citizens and our friends, whether we are Christians or not; there is no need for Jesus to teach us that. He takes that kind of love for granted.” (152)
Bonhoeffer goes on to remind us that, by its very nature, discipleship calls us to go beyond what is expected. If we only do what is expected, nothing changes. The world remains exactly the same. If the world is to change, if we are to build God’s kindom on earth, if we are to make God’s dreams for the world come true, we have to go beyond what the world expects…
What does that mean in terms of loving? For Jesus, a love that goes beyond what’s expected is a love that extends to the person who doesn’t love you back—your enemy. Loving those who love you back, that’s nice, its’s important, but it isn’t the kind of love that characterizes discipleship. True discipleship calls us to an even more profound love, a love that reaches out to the one mired in hatred.
But why? Why love those mired in hatred, especially when that hatred is directed at us?
When six year old Ruby Bridges integrated William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960, parents of all the other children kept their children home. Every day, federal marshals escorted little Ruby to her classroom, protecting her from the large, angry mob assembled each day at the school’s entrance.
One morning, Ruby stopped and faced the screeching crowd. Watching from the window, Ruby’s teacher thought she saw her speak to the crowd. When asked later what she said to them, Ruby said, “I was praying for them.” When asked why she was praying for people who were saying such mean things, Ruby said, “Well, don’t you think they need praying for?”
Even at the tender age of six, Ruby Bridges got what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples about loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. We love our enemies because they need our love. Folks who are mired in hatred don’t have access to their full humanity. Part of what it means to be human is to recognize the humanity in others. If we are unable to recognize the humanity in others, our own humanity is diminished.
So, when Jesus calls us to love our enemies, he’s calling us to act them into wellbeing and thus to affirm their humanity. And what happens when we affirm the humanity of our enemy? Our own humanity is strengthened.
I do need to offer a caveat. Loving our enemy doesn’t mean to put our lives at risk. The call to “turn the other cheek” has been used way too often to encourage people—especially women—to stay in abusive relationships. Sometimes the best way to love our enemy, the best way to act them—and ourselves—into wellbeing, is to remove ourselves from the situation. Following the way of non-violence only comes after making a conscious choice to engage it, not because we don’t feel like we have a choice.
So, Jesus said a lot of annoying things during his three short years of ministry…This might be the most annoying of all. Love our enemies? But if, as Bonhoeffer suggests, Jesus’ sermon can be summed up in the single word of love, then perhaps the kind of love Jesus is talking about, the kind of love that comes from God, the kind of love that’s unique to God, is the love that is capable of extending to enemies.
Which begs the question: Can we truly know the love about which Jesus speaks without loving our enemies? When that question first came to me, it jarred me to my core. I’d always assumed that loving my enemies was a nice thing to do on occasion, an add-on to the very good discipleship work I was already doing . But if the love God offers, the love Jesus showed us is characterized by loving our enemies, then it follows that I can’t know fully God’s love until I love my enemies.
But what if I can’t? What if it’s just too hard to love my enemies? Clarence Jordan offered a great way of understanding this. He saw loving our enemies as the final stage of the process of spiritual growth. The first stage is unlimited retaliation (“You hurt me, I’ll crush you…just because I can.”). The second is limited retaliation (“an eye for an eye”). The third is limited love (“Love your neighbor [that is, people like us] and hate your enemy.”). The last stage is unlimited love (“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”)
Our affinity for any given stage in the development of retaliation/love identifies our level of spiritual maturity. Jordan explains: “To talk about unlimited retaliation is babyish; to speak of limited retaliation is childish; to advocate limited love is adolescent; to practice unlimited love is evidence of maturity.” (Sermon on the Mount)
If loving our enemies is something we’re growing toward, then—Whew!—it’s not a deal-breaker if we can’t love all our enemies right this very minute. Jesus isn’t going to kick us out of the disciples club if we’re still working on it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was still working on it his first trip to the United States in 1930-31. Among his close friends at Union Seminary in New York was a student from France named Jean Lasserre.
In 1931, the two friends went to see the movie, All Quiet on the Western Front. Bonhoeffer biographer, Eric Metaxas, calls the film a “searing indictment” of World War I, the war in which the friends’ home countries, Germany and France, were bitter enemies.
In one scene, a young German soldier, left alone in a trench, brutally stabs a French soldier who crawls into the trench with him. Overcome by the horror of what he’s done, the young German “caresses the dying man’s face, trying to comfort him, offering him water for his parched lips.” ‘I want to help,’ he says. ‘I want to help.’ “After the Frenchman dies, the German lies at the corpse’s feet and begs his forgiveness. He vows to write to the man’s family, and then he finds and opens the man’s wallet. He sees the man’s name and a picture of his wife and daughter.”
“The sadness of the violence and suffering on the screen brought Bonhoeffer and Lasserre to tears, but even worse to them was the reaction in the theater. Lasserre remembered American children in the audience laughing and cheering when the Germans, from whose point of view the story was told, were killing the French. For Bonhoeffer, it was unbearable. Lasserre later said he could barely console Bonhoeffer afterward.”
“Lasserre spoke often about Jesus’ sermon and how it informed his theology. From that point forward it became a central part of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology, too, which eventually led him to write The Cost of Discipleship.” (2302)
Love your enemies. Love. Your enemies. Act your enemies into wellbeing. Annoying? Yes. Difficult? Oh, yes. Mind-boggling and gut-wrenching? Yes. And Yes. Necessary for fully grasping what it means to be a follower of Jesus? (Sigh.) Yes. Yes.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2017