The way of Love
The Lectionary reading for the seventh Sunday after Epiphany (this year on Sunday, February 24) continues Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, verses 27 and following:
27 ‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 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. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.32 ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Many denominations, especially those of a conservative bent, including those that do not consider themselves denominations but are, emphasize their “distinctives” – the things that set them apart (and by implication make them better than other Christians in their own estimation). But what are Jesus’ distinctives? What is the core of His teaching?
Before Constantine’s Edict of Tolerationin 313 AD, which halted the persecution of Christians and ushered in a homogenizing of Empire/State with selective Christian theology dressed in Christianeze (from which Christendom has never recovered), by far the most quoted verse in the Bible was Luke 6:27: Love your enemies.
Loving our enemies and practicing nonviolence are the core distinctives of Christianity. Nonviolent enemy love is the essential characteristic of the Kingdom of God, as opposed to the kingdoms of this world, all of which worship and venerate Mars (the god of war) and Mammon (the god of consumerism, capitalism, and wealth). Look, for example, at the USA with its more than $600 billion military budget and $13,000,000,000,000 in consumer spending. Since the Eisenhower era, the motto of the United States has been “In God We Trust.” Nothing could be further from reality. We do not trust in God, perhaps we may as individuals, but not as a nation. As a nation, we trust in missiles, bombers, warships, stock markets and real estate.
In an effort to hold onto the gods of war and wealth while deceiving ourselves into believing we are following Christ, many argue that Jesus’ words in the sermon cited above are meant to be personal, not national. We are to love our personal enemies while killing our national enemies. Similarly, some have sought to internalize the command. To appease the Empire, Augustine devised a theology that maintained one could (and should) love one’s national enemies internally while killing them. But if Jesus’ command to love our enemies is meant to be only personal and not also national, then we have exalted nation over the Kingdom of God. We are nationalists, not Christians, and you cannot be both.
The call of Christ is radical. It is contradictory to nationalism. It calls us to respond in every instance with love, never with violence or retribution. It calls us to willingly choose our own deaths rather than taking the life of another human being. For the first three centuries of Christianity, baptized believers were forbidden to bear arms, serve in the military, or use violence under any circumstances.
The early Christians were not passive. They rejected flight, fight, and freeze. None were viable options. Instead, they insisted, based on the clear teachings of Jesus in His Sermons on the Mount and on the Plain (Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6), on resisting evil with active agápēlove. Nonviolent resistance exposes and shames the injustice while maintaining the dignity and humanity of the oppressor, thus transforming not only the situation, but also those who caused it.
Someone invariably will bring up Hitler. Others will invariably bring up a hypothetical scenario of a home invader about to kill a person’s spouse or children.
Hitler came to power because people who called themselves Christians elected him to office. Had they been living by the teachings of Christ, there would have been no Third Reich.
If I love everyone, as Jesus commands, I will love the home invader as much as I love my family. Greg Boyd (Teaching Pastor at Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota) uses an illustration: Suppose my son (whom I love) goes nuts and is trying to kill my grandson (whom I also love). How do I respond? I do whatever I can to prevent my insane son from harming my grandson. I would rather have him harm me. But I wouldn’t kill my son. We are called to love the imaginary home invader as much as we love our children.
The way of love.
The way of nonviolence.
The way of Christ.