When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” exactly how broadly did he intend that command to apply?
Don’t know if you saw it online recently, but Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the fiery, opinionated Orthodox Jewish rabbi who frequently makes the rounds on cable opinion shows, wrote an article in response to last week’s attacks in Mumbai, India. In that article, Boteach argues that people of goodwill ought to hate--passionately and actively hate--people who commit acts like those in Mumbai. Here’s how he deals with Jesus’ command to love our enemies:
As for my Christian brethren who regularly quote to me Jesus' famous saying, "Love your enemies," my response is that our enemies and God's enemies are different parties altogether. Jesus meant to love those who steal your girlfriend, cut you off on the road or swindle you in a business deal. But to love those who indiscriminately murder God's children is an abomination against all that is sacred. Is there a man who is human whose heart is not filled with moral revulsion against terrorists who target a rabbi who feeds the hungry? Would God or Jesus ask me to extend even one morsel of my limited capacity for compassion to fiends rather than saving every last particle for their victims instead?
Could God really be so unreasonable, could Jesus be so cruel, as to ask me to love baby-killers? And would such a God be moral if He did? Could I pray to a God who loves terrorists? Could I find comfort in Him knowing that He offers them comfort as well? No, such a god would be my enemy. He would abide in Hades rather than heaven. And I would be damned before I would worship him. I will accept an eternity in purgatory rather than a moment of celestial bliss shared with these beasts.
I’ve seen these paragraphs excerpted all over the internet in the last few days, even on some sites done by Christians. And most of those sites are linking to it as if the rabbi’s words here are really useful in thinking through all this, as if he’s nicely threaded the needle on who deserves to be loved and whom we can safely hate.
I think that’s wrong. And I think Rabbi Boteach is wrong, both in his prescription and in his understanding of Christian teaching--and even Old Testament teaching. It’s true that if you caricature Jesus’ command there as a happy-sappy, kumbaya love that can’t see the difference between the terrorist and the terrorized, Boteach’s approach looks reasonable and even nicely realistic in comparison. But that’s just a caricature. Actually there’s a whole lot more going on in Christian thought about all this. Here’s how I think through it:
1) First of all, I think Boteach is wrong to limit Jesus’ command just to minor personal offenses. Jesus says, “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you. Bless those who persecute you.” Persecution isn’t just stealing your girlfriend. For the early Christians, it was killing them--and/or their families--in often brutal ways. Those are the enemies Jesus is telling them to love, not just a punk who cuts you off in traffic. Besides, isn't Rabbi Boteach espousing here precisely the mentality that Jesus rejects? "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you . . ."
2) Loving our enemies does not mean that we should work or hope or pray against justice. On the contrary, we should work, pray, and hope for justice--even human justice. Of course, there is a day coming when God himself will exact perfect justice and put everything to rights. Thus the Bible tells us not to take revenge, but to remember that vengeance belongs to the Lord. But even before that day, Romans 13 gives the state the power of “the sword,” that is, the right and authority to execute justice--if necessary by executing those who commit the most heinous crimes. There is an important distinction to be held between justice exacted by an individual, which is vengeful and wrong, and justice exacted by the state, which is retributive and right.
That means that it is perfectly right and good for Christians to pray and hope for law enforcement officials and military personnel to find and bring to justice those who commit atrocities like those in Mumbai. Loving one’s enemies does not mean hoping that they will escape justice--either God’s or the state’s.
3) So what does it mean? Well here’s where we come to the heart of the Christian gospel. I think, at root, loving one’s enemy means genuinely hoping for that enemy’s salvation--even a terrorist’s--and (given the chance) acting in ways consistent with that hope. Now I realize that this is exactly what repulses Rabbi Boteach: Give me purgatory, he says, rather than heaven with a forgiven terrorist. But isn’t that kind of fulmination just born of a boiling self-righteousness? Doesn’t it come from a conviction that the terrorist deserves to be punished, but I don’t?
But Rabbi Boteach is an Orthodox Jew. He reads the Old Testament, so he ought to know better than that. He ought to know that it doesn’t take BIG sins to fall under God’s judgment. Uzzah was just as dead as Jezebel after God judged them. So to go on and on as Boteach does about how shocking it would be for God to forgive a terrorist--much less to charge him with being a monster for doing so--is to prove nothing but one’s own sense of self-righteousness and misunderstanding of the Old Testament. Because really, it’s shocking that God would forgive any of us! And it would even be unjust for him to do so if it weren’t for Jesus’ death on the cross in the place of the forgiven.
Not many of us will ever have the opportunity to sit face to face with a terrorist and have to decide what loving that person might look like. But we do have to decide whether we’ll take pleasure in the thought of that person being in hell--or whether we’ll pray and genuinely hope for that person’s salvation and forgiveness. Putting it all together, I think the best and most Christian response is probably this: to be glad when a terrorist is brought to justice and punished, even executed, by the state, but at the same time to pray that someone, somehow, in those final moments is telling him the Gospel of Jesus, and to hope that one day you’ll stand next to him praising Christ as two forgiven sinners who, if it weren’t for him, would both be in hell.
What you simply can’t do, though, is decide that you’re worthy of God’s grace but that other guy is not.
Greg Gilbert is senior pastoral assistant at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. and contributing writer at 9Marks Ministries. After graduating from Yale University, Gilbert earned his Master of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he served as the director of research for the president’s office.
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