What do I love when I love my enemy?

Matthew 5:38-48
February 19, 2017
Matt Elia

What do I love when I love my enemy? This question echoes Saint Augustine’s: “What do I love when I love my God?” To hear the gospel of Jesus Christ, neither question can be answered without the other being asked. Both must be asked together and answered together.

What do I love when I love my enemies? What do I love when I love my God?


One morning a few weeks ago, I began my day like usual: I woke up like usual, opened twitter like usual, drank coffee like usual, read the news of Trump’s chaos, malevolence, and incompetence like usual, almost spat out my coffee like usual, swore under my breath like usual, and then I sat down at my computer—filled with anxiety, and grief, and anger, and fear—and I began to think about this sermon.

One browser window shows a New York Times headline: “Trump Bars Refugees and Citizens of 7 Muslim Countries.” Next to it, another tab displays a widely-circulated online resource titled: “A Practical Guide for Resisting Trump.” I open a third window to the lectionary readings, where God’s only begotten son says: “Do not resist an evildoer. Love your enemies.”

I try not to spit out my coffee; I fail, again, to avoid swearing under my breath.

Then I let out a heavy sigh. I worry about the sermon it seems I’ll now have to preach. Maybe you’ve heard this sermon before? It usually goes something like:

The world is engulfed in violence. Our country is divided, torn asunder, polarized. Liberals hate conservatives. Conservatives hate liberals. Each side talks past the other. Bitterness and anger abound on both. No one is having real human conversations. In the midst of this, Christians are called to transcend these sides, heal human divisions, and love their enemies. God is not a Republican, dot dot dot, or a Democrat.

That last line got popular on a bumper sticker produced by Sojourners, a progressive Christian magazine which, the day after the election, published a reflection written by an Episcopalian priest from Ohio entitled simply, “Love Your Enemies, Do Good to Those Who Hate You.” Describing his experience on November 9th at 2 am, as the election’s outcome became clear, the priest recalls flipping off the TV, taking his dog for a walk, removing the Clinton signs from his yard, and taking a shower. “But I felt unable,” he writes, “to wash off the sticky residue of the presidential campaign just ended. I felt and still feel dirty…I don’t know that any amount of scrubbing will cleanse this.”

Then he starts prepping for the Sunday service. What “immediately came to mind,” he writes, was this: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.”

“This is it,” he says. “This is the test. Can we live up to it? Even as soiled as we feel, even as reluctant as we may be, can we do it?”

His approach is admirable. It not only attempts to hear the call of Jesus; it tries to apply his high moral demand—love your enemy—to the complex world of politics. No easy task. As a Baptist turned Mennonite, I have often thought and articulated just this approach: you must love the one who doesn’t share your values, the one who votes the other way. But as we try to hear together Christ’s call to enemy-love—what do I love when I love my enemy?—I wonder if this approach risks saying too much, and at the same time, entirely too little. Too much and too little.

Too much, in that—in ways I’ll make explicit in a moment—this approach tries to say something about a situation it does not yet understand. Too much, in that it tries to say more than it is actually ready to say. Too much, that is, because it tries to apply enemy love to the realm of electoral politics, even though many of us—the priest and myself included—do not yet know, and are entirely unprepared to know, what it means to have an enemy in that realm, or to be one.

In our personal lives, of course, we may indeed have enemies: coworkers turn hostile, family fights drag on for years, sometimes decades, and even intimate friends betray. And here, very straightforwardly, Jesus calls us: love treacherous coworkers, bless belligerent uncles, do good even to the lost friend.

But to hear Jesus’s call when it comes to political life, I think we must pause more carefully with this category of ‘the enemy.’ In what specific ways does this category—the enemy—fit the shape of one’s actual life? In the context of my real existence in the realm of politics, how do I know where the line between friend and enemy lies?

If we recall Jesus’s words, it seems that answering this question is not primarily a matter of how I inwardly feel. Instead, it’s about the actual relationships between bodies. He says: if someone strikes you on one cheek…if they force your feet to walk a mileif they take your goods away. So if we want to think about enemy-love in the context of contemporary politics, according to Jesus, we might need to ask this:

When the immigration officers raid a community and carry off the undocumented into the night, is it my cheek that will get slapped? When white nationalists incite violence against the Islamic community, am I the one to be hated, cursed, and abused? When the president empowers law enforcement even further to lock up, harass, shoot, and strip Black people of their dignity with legal impunity, is it my coat which will be taken away? And when military power, at last, is deployed to force the indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock off their land, will it be my shoulders that carry the soldier’s pack a second mile?

The priest, and I, and many of us must answer, simply and without shame, “no.” Many others of us answer, “yes.”

Between this yes and this no, a new chasm and a different gap opens up in front of us. This chasm, this gap, brings into view a very different line of “division” to be healed. To borrow from the great mystic and theologian of the Black church, Howard Thurman, there is a profound chasm, an unyielding gap between those whose backs are against the wall and those whose aren’t.

And if that’s true, and if I answered no, and if the back pressed against the wall isn’t mine, but someone else’s, then the reality of this chasm means at least two things. First, it means I am in no position to dictate to the person whose back is against the wall what she should do, how she should love. But second, and more disturbingly, it means perhaps I am neither the friend, nor the enemy I have imagined myself to be. Picture the one who strikes my neighbor’s face, steals her cloak, curses her name—the one who presses her back against the wall: If that one can count on me not to interrupt him, can count on me to pose no danger to his ability to keep on striking, and stealing, and cursing, then regardless of my genuine good will, regardless of my passionate feelings for justice, it becomes clear

that he’s found in me
just the friend he needs.

“Our good will,” James Baldwin wrote, “from which we yet expect such power to transform us, is thin, passionless, strident.” When it comes to politics, to bodies and actions and power, we may not have chosen it, but some of us have indeed inherited a profound and abiding friendship with the Roman soldier, an unyielding kinship with the oppressor who presses backs against the wall, and just at the moment we come to realize this, the meaning of Matthew 5 is turned around:

We are the enemy to be loved.


And that brings us back to the second half of what I said earlier: the priest’s approach—love the one who votes the other way—has also said entirely too little.

If that approach says too much by trying to speak to a condition it has not yet understood, it says too little in that it leaves unanswered something rather urgent, something which seems like it must be made clear. The priest takes a long shower hoping he might “wash the sticky residue” of politics from his body. He worries he may be unable to “cleanse” himself of its dirt. For those of us who must answer, “no, it is not my cheek that will be slapped” that cleansing is desirable. For those of us who answer “yes,” it is unthinkable. It has never been an option. There is no dirt to scrub off. Enmity just exists, and for those of us who are undocumented, or trans, or nonwhite, or Muslim, for those of us who, like Jesus and his community, live with their backs against the wall, politics does not go away when election night is over.

What then can be said? Where does this leave us?

I have attempted to take off the table from some of us—myself and the priest included—a misplaced and superficial notion of “loving the enemy.” But as many of us hear Matthew 5 turned around, as we hear and say words like, “We are the enemy to be loved,” it becomes immediately very tempting to let that place us into the position of an object: a receiver of love, a passive observer. At its worst, that can become: “Great, I’ve checked my privilege. Now I’ll go back to life as usual.” But to accept that position of passivity, tragically, would be to repeat the very mistake above: to think politics, and thus friends and enemies, are defined by my inward feelings, rather than through the way actual bodies relate to one another in a violent world. That position of passivity cannot provide us a way forward.

And I don’t pretend to offer a fully satisfying one either. But in closing, here is one promising place to start. I began this sermon by suggesting that we cannot answer the question What do I love when I love my enemy? without asking the question What do I love when I love my God? The two are asked together, and answered together, when God shows up in the man Jesus Christ. When God shows up in Jesus Christ, God shows us both what sort of God we are dealing with, and how this God loves her enemies.

This may sound like a familiar point. It’s often noted, quite rightly, that we learn about enemy love not only in Jesus’s words in Matthew 5, but in his actions on the cross. There he shows his love for us who, as sinners, are the enemies of God. He doesn’t strike back at us, but rather lets us kill him, showing love for his enemy through submission to the cross.

But less often noted is the connection between the enemies who are loved on the cross—us—and the enemies who are not loved on the cross. Jesus repeatedly applies to himself the words of Psalm 110, in which the Lord says to the messiah, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.” And in his parables, and throughout the New Testament, we learn who those enemies are. The scriptures are unmistakably clear that there are two enemies who are not loved by God in Christ: the devil and death itself.

The devil, whom Jesus often calls simply “the adversary” or “the enemy,” and death which is “the last enemy” in 1 Corinthians are the only two enemies in a final and absolute sense. And when Jesus goes to the cross, he is emphatically not going to make peace with these enemies; he is not going to love these enemies, but instead to crush them. To grind them under his heel and spit upon their head. To destroy them, and banish them to the outer darkness. Why?

Precisely because in loving us, God does not love the forces that have taken us captive. God hates and destroys the enemy that made us enemies of one another. Thus the good news: Jesus reveals God’s love for us not by making peace with the forces of death which entrap us, not by reconciling with what enslaves us, harms us, shoves our backs against the wall. God does not love the wall. God does not critique, or reform, or persuade the wall, much less forgive it. But instead, in great love for us, as Ephesians 2 says, God destroys “the wall of hostility.” God does not love the system of death, the demonic forces which hold us captive at the wall—some of us with backs against it, some of us holding the guns. God loves us, so the wall must go.

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