BY CORY JONES
Have you ever considered how fatally radical - and completely impractical - Jesus' teaching was about loving our enemies? He told his listeners in the Sermon on the Mount:
Despite saying some pretty controversial stuff, this is, I believe, the most radical thing Jesus ever taught. Here's why:
Human civilization and the human psyche itself requires Enemy. Anthropologists have said that, while it's one thing to unite around a common good, every human civilization requires a "Satan" figure for its survival; a united attack against a common enemy. Without an enemy to fight, unity wanes and community dissolves.
Israel needed Egypt.
Christians needed Rome.
Colonials needed the British.
The Union needed the Confederacy.
Yankees need the Red Sox.
Democrats need Republicans.
Parents need Caillou.
By the end of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the most-spoken word at the four-day event wasn't "America," "Freedom," "Great," or even "Donald Trump." The most-spoken word at the RNC was (by far): HILLARY.
Why was the Democratic nominee the most-talked about person at the Republican convention? Because nothing unites us more than a common enemy.
That's why so many political debates focus on who is truly part of a political movement. It's not uncommon to hear a candidate say something like, "Sure my opponent opposes Policy X, but her record shows she's soft on Policy Y." The question is not, "Are you for the things that we are for?" but rather, "Do you oppose what we oppose, and do you oppose them with the same ferocity? Ted Cruz ran a very successful campaign this way, picking off almost every Republican candidate by pointing out the one or two places where they were outside the demands of extreme conservatism.
And it almost worked.
Because belonging to a human community requires that you fight the same Satan and you fight with the same ferocity. The greatest problem facing humanity is that we do not see Satan or Evil or Darkness as an external entity, but rather as an indwelling force in our fellow human beings. There is no easier Satan against whom we can turn our violence and rage than a group of people who look, act, speak, and live differently. Human beings are the easiest targets when deciding on a common enemy.
ENEMIES AND THE CHURCH
Sadly, this concept does not go away in the Church. Many Christians find themselves united around a common human enemy. Sure, we all believe in Jesus and Heaven and such, but what brings us to a particular church is often our common fight against “Them."
"Them" can be: liberals, conservatives, gay people, straight people, black people, white people, rich people, poor people, southern people, northern people, immigrants, people of other faiths, etc. We find community through mutual hatred of specific people. And when our energy is aimed toward another person, it becomes difficult to manifest the Spirit of Jesus among our neighbors.
Historically, the Church has lagged behind the rest of the world when it comes to loving our enemies. We often become tolerant because it is culturally expedient to do so, not because we stretch ourselves to love more radically and inclusively, according to the love of Jesus. Our Satan’s have been anyone from “heretics” whose beliefs are outside the boundaries of our own to people whose skin color makes us nervous. We’ve banished, excommunicated, exiled, and even executed, all in the name of Jesus and the Truth.
Jesus' teaching "Love your enemy" deconstructs our instinct to war against a common flesh-and-blood Satan and reconstructs a world in which all people humbly respect and love one another. To love our enemies is to say that there is no enemy, that Satan is not in the face of my neighbor, and that a person is to be loved purely because they have value in the eyes of God.
I have said numerous times that the most pushback I get from sermons I preach are when I challenge people to love those they cannot love. When I’ve invited a more generous view of homosexual people, the oppressed, the marginalized, the needy, that’s when I get the most angry emails or threats of people leaving the Church.
This isn’t because church folks are bad people; it’s because our human minds don’t know how to exist without a Satan, without an enemy. Taking away a person’s Satan is dangerous, and they react accordingly.
No wonder they crucified Jesus.
When he told his followers to love their enemies, he didn’t just offer some insightful teaching; he reshaped what it means to be human. His way was a clear and present danger to any empire, community, religion, or organization who protected itself by convincing its people that the Satan was out there, and they should be afraid. Telling people to stop being afraid threatens the stability of everything we know. It’s far more difficult to create a functional civilization with people who would love their enemies than with people who would fear or kill them.
DID JESUS HAVE ENEMIES?
If you want to know Jesus' enemies, you must ask "What", not "Whom." He made his enemies clear at the beginning of his ministry:
Poverty. Captivity. Sickness. Oppression.
These are the enemies of Jesus.
Not black people.
Not white people.
Not gay people.
Not open-carry people.
Not Donald Trump.
Not Hillary Clinton.
Not a single person.
Even the Roman soldier heard him say, "Father, forgive them."
If a person nailing you to a cross is not your enemy, then no one is.
THE MOST RADICAL THING JESUS EVER SAID
"Love your enemies" is threatening because it's easier - and usually more politically expedient - to throw literal stones at your enemy than it is to invite them to the table. But the gospels show the reality of what Jesus came to create, of what life can be when we rally around the good.
This is the challenge for the modern-day church: Can we be people who turn our enemies into neighbors? Can we be people of reconciliation and liberation?
There are millions living in poverty, captivity, sickness, and oppression. Imagine turning the full force of the Body of Christ against those enemies. Imagine millions and millions of people worldwide committed to showing mercy toward all people and using their relational, financial, communal, and political resources to unite around the good. Imagine working on your own heart until you can look at every person and see an image of Jesus to be loved rather than a Satan to be fought.
This is the world for which Jesus died, and the world for which we can live.
Cory has been serving as the pastor of CrossWalk Family Of God in Little Rock since 2012. He and his wife Christina have been married since 2001 and have 6 boys. He is also an avid New York Yankees and Houston Texans fan.