I have a problem with the Gospel.
My problem is this:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43-44, ESV)
I find these words disconcerting. More than that, I find them somewhat terrifying. I read them and I want to run the other way.
You see, the past few months have been a challenge for me. I suspect they have been for a number of people. Some of my core beliefs were challenged over the course of the 2016 Election season. Both my wife and I have been the target of verbal attacks due to our opposition of Donald Trump’s candidacy, and we were some of the lucky ones. We’ve seen good people of faith, people like Rachel Held Evans, and John Pavlovitz, come under an almost constant barrage of vitriol and hate for acting as a voice of conscience. As a country, we’ve witnessed the rise of hate groups like the alt-right, and witnessed the re-emergence of men like former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke . We’ve seen mosques desecrated and churches burned. We’ve seen women denigrated and abused. Perhaps even worse, we’ve seen many in our country give overt and tacit approval to these behaviors.
After the election, I found myself shaken. My mind reeled with a mix of anger and grief. I felt consumed by anger and a creeping sense of despair.
I decided to read the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. I confess that I embarked on the reading in an effort to bolster my own sense of righteous indignation. Instead, I found myself being challenged. Not because of my anger. Feeling anger in the face of injustice is necessary. I felt challenged because I found myself saying, “I won’t pray for Donald Trump. I could never pray for David Duke. These are bad people. They do terrible things.”
A deep, corrosive bitterness clung to me. As this feeling grew, I read these words by Dr. King:
“…love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.” (Martin Luther King Jr., A Knock at Midnight, from the sermon Loving Our Enemies)
King went on to say that loving our enemy does not mean that you like them or what they do.
“…he does not say, ‘Like your enemy.’ Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them, but Jesus says love them.” (ibid)
This is a terrifying command. It is counterintuitive. It goes against our basic survival instincts, but Jesus commands it.
Later, King discussed the practical reasons for loving your enemy.
“…hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe…It never ends. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut if off and inject within the very structure of the universe that very strong and powerful element of love. (ibid)
Beyond this, King explains that hate distorts the personality of the hater. I could feel this growing in myself. My feelings of anger and bitterness were seeping into every aspect of my life. I felt restless and anti-social around others. I grew irritable at home. I grasped tightly to that feeling of hatred and let it take control.
After reading King’s sermon, I felt convicted. I decided then and there that I would pray for these people. I would pray for Donald Trump. I would pray for men like Richard Spencer and David Duke. I would pray for those who attacked me and others. I would love them because God loves them. God loves them enough to die that he became flesh and died for them.
When I tried it, I felt something break. That great, creeping negativity began to wash away.
Let me be clear. Their actions. Their words. Their attitudes still upset me. I still feel anger and still wrestle with those feelings of bitterness and spite. I still have a problem with this command, because I am broken and imperfect.
The choice to love our enemies is not a one time event. I will also continue to oppose their hatred. I will oppose injustice, but I will do it with love. I will do it while praying for them. I believe this is our only choice.
In the final analysis, I agree with Dr. King:
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together like fools.”