Enemy-love, community, and the healing of the world

Alone, few of us can love an enemy, perpetrator or abuser; in community, we can do it. (Listen.)

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also … Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” These words of Jesus are all very well if you are a six-foot male and built like a truck, or a burly fisherman, perhaps, with eleven brothers behind you. But too often these words are spoken to victims of violence in ways which cause terrible harm.

Your husband hits you? Turn the other cheek. Your uncle hurts you? Pray for him. A bully hates and humiliates you? Do good to them. Someone has done terrible things to you and you are locked in time, doomed to relive them at the slightest trigger? Forgive them, or you won’t be forgiven. Your mother rips you apart with accusations and curses from morning to night? Honour your parents by saying nothing; your only job is to bless her.

As a pastor, I have heard all of this and worse. So let me say upfront: These are shallow, callous and irresponsible readings, and to offer such advice to a victim of violence is an act of violence in itself. There is no question that Jesus calls us to love our enemies, but this is not the same as sending lambs to the slaughter. So let’s take a closer look at the text, because I think we’ll find a better way.

The first thing to notice about Jesus’ words is that they imply choice. They suggest that the people being addressed have the power to decide, for good or evil, how to respond when they are being harmed. Yet choice is precisely what victims don’t have. If you’re being thrashed by someone twice your size, being told to turn the other cheek is meaningless: it’s already black and blue. If everything you have has already been taken from you, you can’t give your tunic or anything else: you have nothing left to give. So Jesus is not telling a powerless victim how to respond, because such people can rarely choose.

Instead, if we go back to the text, we find that Jesus is not speaking to an individual victim, but to a collective of disciples: mostly men, some of whom haul heavy nets day in day out. These blokes have great physical strength, as well as enormous social power over women and children. They know how to swing a punch, and they know how to retaliate when they believe they have been shamed. If somebody wrongs them or threatens their honour, God forbid!, they can choose their response: and this might mean grabbing a few mates to corner that somebody in a dark alley and beat them to a pulp, or even to organise an honour killing.

So to people with such power, Jesus is saying, “When you feel offended, threatened or wronged, don’t retaliate. Not even an eye for an eye. Step away from retribution and violence: because these cycles never end. Be a stopper, not a starter. Take a deep breath and let it go. Just … let it go.”

More, these men belong to a community. The community was made up of individuals, yes, but in gospel understanding, individual identity is subsumed into the community of Christ. And so Jesus is teaching a community how to respond. If someone is hurting an individual in the community, it is not the individual’s responsibility to turn the other cheek and prayerfully submit to the abuse. On the other hand, nor is it the community’s responsibility to form a brute squad and destroy the perpetrator. Instead, it’s the community’s responsibility to love, do good, pray for and bless both victim and perpetrator; and in all things, to show the mercy and kindness of God.

We talk a lot about love, but what do we actually mean by it? Quoting M. Scott Peck, bell hooks describes love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Now, spirituality is all about integration. It’s the space where no part of the self and its history are left out; and it’s the space where selves are integrated with each other and with God. So to love is to act in self-giving ways which lead to integration and wholeness; and as hooks writes, love’s ingredients include “care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as open and honest communication” (All About Love).

To a victim, then, loving and blessing them means recognising and acknowledging their abuse. It means protecting them, body, mind and spirit, from further harm; and it means supporting them with care, affection and commitment. It means helping them find safe spaces where they can acknowledge their experiences and work towards healing. But it never, ever, ever means condoning violence or counselling a victim to accept it because to do so causes physical, emotional and spiritual harm; it fractures trust; it destroys relationship.

Of course, part of me would like to stop right there with the victim: but Jesus instructs the community of disciples to love, do good, pray for and bless the enemy, the abuser, the perpetrator, too. So as difficult as it feels, let’s set out how to do this.

For a start, it doesn’t mean cheap forgiveness and no consequences. Nor does it mean allowing people to continue to harm others. Their sin is tearing people apart, including themselves. It is the antithesis of spiritual growth and to allow it to continue is to fail to love both victim and perpetrator.

Instead, loving an enemy, that is, seeking their integration and wholeness, means truth-telling: for there is no wholeness in the shadow of a lie. Love means placing limits on behaviours, including, at times, limits on whether someone can participate in the life of a particular expression of the body of Christ. Love means involving denominational and even civil authorities when appropriate and, if the enemy is within the community, love means following established processes for justice, mediation, restoration and healing.

Of course, many enemies react to loving boundary-setting with rage, reject the processes, and leave the community, for it is the sad truth that loving our enemies will not necessarily turn them into friends. Jesus loved and prayed for his enemies, and they killed him. But however our own enemies respond, love never means retaliation. God is kind even to the ungrateful and the wicked, and we are to be children of God. So we refuse to let evil continue; but our response to evil must be grounded in love and mercy and an impulse towards the perpetrator’s growth, just as we seek growth for the victim.

Of course, all this is deeply, deeply challenging. It’s God’s justice, not our justice: and those of us who have been sorely wounded might not feel up to it. But this is why we have each other: to belong to a wounded body larger than ourselves. We gather to draw strength from one another and from the spirit of Christ; we gather to have witnesses and advocates, companions and healers, friends and siblings of faith in our lives;  we gather to be oriented, again and again and again, back to Jesus’ way of non-retaliation and love.

Why do we do all this? Martin Luther King Jr once said, “Hate … is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital centre of your life and your existence … Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.” Put another way, “the measure you give will be the measure you get back”: hate will sow hatred in you; love will sow love in you.

My friends, Jesus extends his loving self to draw us into his body and know the fullness of healing and wholeness. His love unites us; his love sows more love in us; when we are filled with his spirit, there is always more than enough love to give away. Alone, very few of us can love our enemies; but joined together, strengthened by one another, and filled with the holy breath of a merciful, kind and above all loving God, we can do it. So let us love, do good, and bless and pray for our enemies: for in this is the healing of the world, and of ourselves. Ω

Sanctuary is glad to have multiple safeguarding frameworks including a Safe Church Policy, which sets out our safeguarding responsibilities and processes; a Code of Conduct for all regular attenders; a congregational convenant for all committed members; a Code of Ethics and regular supervision for the pastor; and of course numerous legal obligations for the pastor and all church leaders including mandatory reporting of harm and suspected harm to children. These documents are reviewed and circulated to all adult members of the congregation at least once every year.

Reflect: How does your community respond to situations of violence, conflict or harm? How does it love and pray for enemies, perpetrators or abusers? Is there work needing to be done to formalise healthy processes? (If you think this would never happen in your faith community, you are setting yourself up for disaster: it can happen anywhere, and is much more likely to happen precisely in those places where there has been no work towards safeguarding.)

A reflection on Luke 6:27-38 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 20 February 2022 (Year C Proper 17) © Sanctuary 2022. Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash.

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