How Should We Treat Our Enemies?
In recent weeks, our news feeds have filled afresh with hatred, conflict, and deadly violence. The horrific terror attacks in Christchurch, which killed 50 Muslims, captured global attention. But sadly this wasn’t the only heartbreaking headline.
In southern Ethiopia, a humanitarian disaster exploded in the wake of conflict between Christians from rival tribes. A senior Christian leader from the region told me in an email that many churches were burned to the ground and a million people driven from their homes. Much of this violence has been fueled by Christians who probably go to church on Sundays and declare, “Jesus is Lord.” The Guardian warns that a “shadow” is falling over Ethiopia.
These stories confront us with an urgent question: What should we do when others hate us and/or we hate them? How should we treat our enemies?
Jesus taught an unprecedented, counter-cultural answer to this life-and-death question. But his teaching is even more powerful when we see it in its larger historical context.
Enemies in the Ancient World
Earthly Revenge: In the ancient world, King David represents the dominant response to enemies: take revenge and bring them “down to the grave in blood” (see 1 Kings 2:5-9).
But there were also a few options in wider culture for practicing kindness or at least nonviolence toward enemies.
Ultimate Revenge: The Essenes, an apocalyptic Jewish sect contemporary with Jesus, taught non-retaliation toward enemies. They believed that this response would motivate God to punish their enemies even more severely in “the Day of Vengeance” (Community Rule 10:17-20). Here nonviolence is a spiritual stab in the back: “We won’t touch you now; but God will crush you later.”
Moral Superiority/Revenge: The Roman philosopher Seneca (4BC–65AD), who was also a contemporary with Jesus, advocated ignoring enemies. This response proves your moral superiority and apathy toward them, like an elephant disregards a barking dog. Seneca asserted, “The most contemptuous form of revenge is not to deem one’s adversary worth taking vengeance upon” (On Anger 2:32).
Evangelism and Advantage: Aristeas, a Jew living in Egypt a few generations before Jesus, thought that showing “generosity” toward opponents might “win them over to what is right and to what is advantageous to us” (Aristeas 227). His idea is that benevolence toward enemies has an evangelistic and strategic purpose: it helps you earn God’s favor and gain access to power. This idea is reflected in other Jewish writings at the time, which makes sense in light of Jews’ minority status in hostile societies.
What is striking about each of these responses is that none of them has any real concern for the enemy or their wellbeing. The first option openly hates the enemy and eagerly looks forward to their destruction but delays it to the future. The second option belittles the enemy and is driven by prideful moral superiority. The third option is about expanding your religion and protecting access to power.
These were the prominent options on the wider cultural menu for responding to your enemies, aside from the main course of naked revenge and brutal violence.
Jesus’s Unprecedented Teaching
Now, try encountering Jesus’s words for the first time in light of his historical context:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:43-45
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you… Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:27-28, 35-36
Notice three things.
First, Jesus was the first person in history to put these three words in the same sentence: “Love your enemies.” It’s hard for us today to appreciate just how strange these words would have sounded together. Jesus was boldly calling people to imagine and embrace an idea that they had never heard before: the right response to enemies is to love them.
Second, Jesus’s reasoning for this love wasn’t a deferred revenge or moral superiority or even conversion and cultural power. Jesus’s reasoning was entirely theological: God is generous to “the evil” and “the unrighteous” and “kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” God is an Enemy-Lover. So if God is like that, we must embrace God’s heart and actively desire the wellbeing of our enemies. End of story.
Third, Jesus doesn’t leave his command to love enemies ambiguous or aspirational. He names five practical pathways for loving our enemies: praying for them, doing good to them, blessing them, giving to them, and showing mercy or forgiving them. Look at each briefly.
Jesus’s Practices of Loving the Enemy
Pray: When we pray for – not against! – someone, we ask God to be with them, to help them, to heal them. This prayer shifts our consciousness away from bitterness and revenge to compassion and care. Rather than seeing the other as hopelessly cut off from God, which leads to demonizing them, we should bring them to God and intercede for their welfare. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a dissident theologian who was executed by the Nazis in 1945, described this kind of prayer as a “cleansing bath” that washes away the stain of hatred. Prayer is the premeditation of peace.
Do Good: But Jesus doesn’t leave us with “thoughts and prayers.” He tells us to move our bodies and actively “do good” for those who hate us. Doing good requires creative action that helps others. When we do good, we recognize the other’s enduring dignity and go out of our way to make sure that people have what they need to be well. Jesus says that we should do that for our enemies.
Bless: In the Bible, “blessing” is the word for divine happiness and favor. The ultimate prayer in ancient Israel was a prayer for God to “bless” Israel (Numbers 6:24). Blessing is often associated with joy, fruitfulness, abundance, and peace (Deuteronomy 28:1-14). So Jesus calls us to desire and declare divine flourishing for our enemies. This takes us from simply praying for them to wanting them to be at their very best and fullest.
Give: But Jesus goes even one step further. We shouldn’t simply pray, do good, and bless our enemies. We should “lend to them without expecting to get anything back” (Luke 6:35). This action takes us deep into personal sacrifice and more radically connects our prayer and practice: if we’re asking God to “bless” our enemies, then we should become partners in that blessing with our own resources. And we shouldn’t do it expecting to get something back, which would be just another attempt to control our enemies. We should simply be generous, with no strings attached – like God. (This is very different from Jesus’s contemporary Philo, who encouraged lending to enemies because it “enslaves” them [On the Virtues §118].)
Forgive: Finally, Jesus says, “Be merciful” (Luke 6:36) When we forgive, we say, “You are more important to me than the pain you caused me. I hold onto you and release your failure.” This radical mercy prepares the way for new beginnings that free us from being imprisoned in the past. In the midst of his execution, Jesus himself cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34).
A Requirement for Salvation
We often speak about how parents and their children have a “family resemblance” in their facial features or personalities. For Jesus, these counter-cultural practices of enemy-love are the “family resemblance” between God and God’s children. When you pray, do good, bless, give, and show mercy to your enemies, you embody the birthmarks of God’s unnatural family. You imitate “your Father in heaven.”
And this points to the most challenging aspect of Jesus’s teaching. He doesn’t see loving our enemies as optional or extra-credit for super-believers. Jesus sees loving our enemies as a basic requirement for salvation:
“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:44-45
“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High…” Luke 6:35
Jesus makes enemy-love a necessary expression of being born again. If you aren’t working on loving your enemies, you aren’t part of God’s family.
This teaching is extra challenging, because Jesus wasn’t speaking to Seneca and other Greco-Roman elites who saw themselves as proud elephants ignoring barking dogs. Jesus was speaking to minorities and oppressed people in the heartland of an occupied territory who were intimately familiar with suffering (Matthew 4:23-25; Luke 6:17-18). And still Jesus commanded them to love their enemies.
It’s no wonder, then, that Jesus launched his message with the word “Metanoieta!” – completely change how you think (Matthew 4:17). Jesus was calling for a worldview overhaul, a paradigm shift, a total conversion.
It’s also no wonder that the crowds who heard Jesus’s teaching were “amazed” by his “authority” (Matthew 7:28). They were literally the first people in history to hear this unprecedented description of God’s character and command, and they found it awe-inspiring.
Jesus’s Original Mission
Any leader of a team knows how important it is to stay crystal clear about your mission. “Mission drift” is all too easy.
The same is true for those who want to follow Jesus. If we’re not careful, we’ll misunderstand and derail the actual mission that Jesus has given us.
Look at Jesus’s last words to his followers where he defines their mission:
“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19-20
Jesus doesn’t commission his disciples to convince people to identify as “Christians” or to build and attend churches. Jesus commissions his disciples to educate and immerse people in a totally new way of thinking, feeling, and acting: “to obey everything I have commanded you.”
And what did Jesus command? As we’ve seen, the Gospels are clear:
“I tell you, love your enemies.” Matthew 5:44
“This is my command: love each other.” John 15:17
At its heart, then, Jesus’s Great Commission was really a call to embody and inspire his unprecedented vision of God’s enemy-loving character and command in culture all around the world. That’s the mission: teaching and obedience to what Jesus actually commanded.
By Jesus’s own standard, entire countries can identify as “Christian,” go to church, and shout, “Jesus is Lord!” But if enemy-love hasn’t transformed our ideas, attitudes, and actions, Jesus’s mission remains an unfinished project and we’ve missed the point.
So how should we treat our enemies in our time of hatred, conflict, and deadly violence around the world?
Jesus’s answer remains counter-cultural and clear: we should love our enemies. And this love looks like praying for them, doing good to them, blessing them, making personal sacrifices for their flourishing, and being merciful.
If you want to learn more about Jesus’s ethics of enemy-love and its evolution to the present, check out my new course Neighbor-Love: A Revolutionary Idea that Could Save Our World.