You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 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. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Matthew 5.43-48 (NIV).
I call this passage the “terrible commandment”. It teaches a kind of love that borderlines on insanity. This week, we had the tragic shooting of San Bernardino, California, a relatively quiet and sleepy community (in comparison to LA). Now is a good time for prayer for the victims and their families and of hoping for the justice against perpetrators of terror all over the world. The tragedy also provides an opportunity to talk about lots of issues such as guns, Syrian refugees and of course terrorists, but I’m not here to talk about governmental policies on these issues (though we certainly need to dialogue more about governmental policies that can guarantee justice and protection for its citizens). Neither am I talking about combative situations where soldiers have to kill or be killed. This post is much more basic than that. This post is written for Christians addressing a very narrow and basic issue. I’m here to talk about Jesus’ teaching and how it impacts our personal piety. If you aren’t a Christian, you can think that I’m a moron. I’m okay with that because sometimes, my gospel is that foolish.
In the process of my discussion with people, I notice a trend among Christians. This is truer for many of my white Christian friends than friends of other backgrounds. The same people that respond to the “black lives matter” movement with “all lives matter” also respond most violently against Muslims and in most cases, against ALL Muslims. I find this so interesting because if ALL lives matter, then should there be exceptions? I hear a lot of silence even among well-known Christian leaders about this question.
When we say all lives matter, we aren’t really saying that all lives matter. We’re merely saying all lives of those with whom we can identify or love matter. All lives matter except for some! In our present case, we’re talking about the Muslims among us. I don’t think many Christians will be too sorry (let’s be really honest here) if a few Muslims were gun down here in the US in the aftermath of San Bernardino.
Many pay lip service to following Jesus, but in all reality, most don’t understand how tough and crazy Jesus’ teachings are. They enjoy praying to him for things, but they don’t enjoy listening to him for change. In Matthew 5.43-48, Jesus wasn’t “suggesting” some self-therapy advice; he was commanding us to love our enemies. It’s hard enough to pray for people we don’t know, but Jesus was talking about praying for people we KNOW to be enemies. I personally struggle with that. In such situations, sometimes cuss words might come out while I pray. Who knows? Many Christians plain ignore it. Others refuse to acknowledge that they too struggle with this command. Many mistakenly see the enemy as some abstract thing “out there” we can pray for, but Jesus is talking about known enemies, real people. I have a number of Muslim friends. I have no problem praying for them. I have no problem praying for victims or advocating for better usage of guns. That’s easy. Is it ever easy for me to pray for the enemies? No, it isn’t. Jesus wasn’t asking us to do the easy thing.
What does our treatment of our enemies look like? I hear a lot of people who don’t even have a single Muslim friend saying that no Muslim leader was denouncing such acts of terror and the leaders are as guilty as those who do this terrible thing. In fact, many Muslim leaders did denounce and have continued to denounce such acts of terror. However, many Christians, in their tone-deaf politics, ideology and hatred, have already made up their minds that these Muslims, all lumped into one group, are either actively or passively guilty of terrorist acts. In the situation of the US, treating others like the enemy means to demonize others without even identifying who the real enemy is. In reality, many Muslims are more than willing to be partners with Christians in many parts of the world to make the world a more peaceful place. Many American Christians have had their minds made up to hate, and that’s that.
Is it possible that when push comes to shove, when matters really reach a boiling point, we’d rather choose being a good and safe American over being a radical and unsafe Christ follower? It’s easy to act Christian when nothing is at stake but when everything is at stake, I see a lot of Christians turning tails from Jesus’ teaching to their violent and vitriolic rhetoric. These aren’t the days we can be proud of as Christ followers. Their patriotism to America has completely overrun their loyalty to God’s kingdom.
I know a young man who was a child soldier, your stereotypical terrorist. I will withhold his name and identity because those aren’t really the point. He was conscripted into a terrorist troop in Africa (I won’t tell you which country) after terrorists slaughtered his family right in front of his eyes. His life was full of bitterness and hatred. One day, he had the chance to escape from this destructive life he left behind and made his trek across country lines to find asylum. Eventually, he moved to a developed country where they accepted him only as an asylum seeker but no possibility of full citizenship (at least not without great difficulty). He had no employment prospect. As a result, he turned to a life of crime and was eventually arrested. While incarcerated, someone from the church began visiting him and sharing the Christian faith with him. He later found the Christian faith. Since then, he went to the local university making honors grades and married a local girl. Today, he’s one of the most productive, joyful and helpful young men I’ve ever met in my life. If no one bothered to visit him in his alienated state, I don’t think he would be the man he is today. I believe in the redeeming power of the gospel. I don’t think many Christians do. So, during this Advent, why would anyone believe in this fairy tale about some divinely born baby that was supposed to save humanity from their sins (Matthew 1.21)? We don’t even believe in redemption ourselves.
Many of my readers will think that this passage has nothing to do with us because honestly, Jesus’ time is very different from ours and surely “enemies” doesn’t mean the same thing. I’m here to tell you that Matthew was writing to a church that was undergoing alienation and oppression. They knew what persecution means. If what we read in history was accurate, Matthew’s readers had already seen crucifixion and burning of Christ followers by Nero and many other forms of barbaric acts against those who believed in Jesus. They also knew about the destruction of Jerusalem where many were killed by Roman soldiers. They weren’t as ignorant or somehow idealistic as we often presuppose. Matthew wasn’t writing some ideal. He was recording Jesus’ commands for believers to follow in his time and ours.
So, before you say “all lives matter” again and appeal to the fact that God thinks all lives matter, think really hard about what you’re really saying because to God, all lives truly matter, Muslims and Christians, gentiles and Jews, enemies and friends. We really should hear what we’re saying or such sayings are mere polemical platitude against ideologies we don’t agree with. In the internet age that is devoid of substance, it’s yet anther case of blowing in the wind. I personally am not hopeful that this post would get shared because honestly most Christians care more about what their neighbors think than what their invisible Jesus thinks. Call me a bleeding heart liberal if you will. I prefer to see myself as a Christ follower who continues to wrestle with Jesus’ issues in our world. Sometimes, I think it takes more courage to love than to hate, to pray than to avenge. Now may be such a time, lest we betray the very gospel we preach.