There is a basic level of kindness which is probably common to all people. It is a sort of shared concern for our fellow human beings which might be present everywhere. It is that sense that if a person’s needs are great enough, for example if they were drowning, and that if the cost of helping them was low enough, if they were only asking you to throw them a rope, then of course any person would help. Failing to do so would mark you out as peculiarly callous and unkind. It would only be in the case of your bitterest enemies that you might not act in this way. Three question arise over the possibility of giving assistance in this way: To whom? In what circumstances? And at what cost? The first question “To whom?” invites us to consider who we might help. The more we have in common with person in question, the greater our likelihood of helping. And vice versa the less we feel we have in common the less likely we are to help. We would certainly help our family, friends and neighbours. We would probably help someone we sense is someone like us. But less likely to help a stranger who was somehow very different from us. And we would be least likely of all to help someone who frightens us, or whom we might call an enemy.
The second question “In what circumstances?” invites us to think about when we might offer help. I suspect the greater and more urgent the need the more likely we would be to intervene. So the example of the person drowning is an obvious case. The need is great, the person might die. And the situation is urgent, they need help right now. But we can imagine less pressing circumstances where we might be less inclined to intervene. Where a need was trivial or not urgent we might think it was better to mind our business and let people sort their lives out for themselves. And the the third question “at what cost?” invites us to consider the risk we might be taking or the price we find ourselves having to pay for our intervention. So again in the situation of the person drowning, throwing them a lifeline is easy, it costs us noting, it puts us a relatively little risk. But what if there was no lifeline available, and to effect the rescue we would have to wade into the water? We would be cold and wet, and there might be a small chance of us getting into difficulty ourselves. And what if they were further and the water deeper and the rescue would involve a swim? And what if it was in the middle of a storm? As the risk and the cost increases so our willingness to help might decrease. But the prospect of a reward to balance off the risks might make us more willing to act Of course in any given situation these consideration may be unconscious and take less than a moment but our actions would probably be determined by a balance of those three questions.
Then Jesus says:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray you those who abuse you.
Jesus sets an immeasurably higher ethical standard for his followers. When it comes to offering assistance, in answer to those three questions: To whom? In what circumstances? At what cost? Jesus demands the most inclusive answers possible: Even our enemies, For any need, at the cost of our lives! “Love your enemies” is both Jesus’ most demanding teaching but also his most characteristic. This is what Jesus is all about. I once heard someone call Jesus “a bit of an all or nothing guy.” He is indeed! But we shouldn’t take what he says any less seriously because of that. So when it comes to the question of who we should help, Jesus says we she exclude no one. Our doing good should extend even to those who are doing us harm. And he says that we should be willing to help even in the face of violence and coercion:
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 and if anyone takes away you goods do not ask for them again.
So Jesus is also clear that we should be willing to accept any price that was asked of us in order to do good.
Jesus is also clear that he is calling his followers to a much higher ethical standard than others.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do as much. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to receive as much again.
Jesus sort of points to that basic level of human kindness and those three calculating questions that might go with it, and he contrast it with what he expects from his followers. He says even bad people are likely to manage the most basic level of human kindness. But he says: is that setting the bar high enough when you are trying to be the children of God? We know of course that Jesus is setting an almost impossibly high standard. We ask ourselves, who could act like that? But just because it is difficult doesn’t make Jesus demand on us any less pressing.
The problem is, not only difficult to carry out, it is also difficult in another way. It is troublesome! Jesus was speaking to oppressed people. They had an unavoidably clear idea of who their enemy was. They were subject to precisely the kind of oppression, violence and coercion and humiliation that he points to. And he spoke those word as one subject to exactly those things himself as well.
In contrast: I have effectively no enemies. There is no one in my immediate environment who can impose that kind of oppression, violence, coercion, and humiliation on me. So my saying “Love your enemies” sounds very different from when Jesus says it. For me, as a commandment, it is more or less theoretical. What is worse, I’m speaking from that position of privilege, where some of the people who are hearing me may have very real and immediate enemies, to say nothing of all the people in the world for whom oppression, violence and coercion are a reality. I do speak as one who firmly believes that Christians should obey Jesus when he says love your enemies. I firmly believe that the Christian response to those who might harm us should be kindness and prayers. And I believe that the implication of Jesus’ teaching here is that Christians should always be non-violent and pacifists. But as I do so I am also very conscious that that is easy for me to say. I am not the victim of oppressions, violence, coercion or humiliation, not political, nor societal, nor personal. I do not have to love my enemies because there are none to hand for me to love. So my words must ring hollow and painful for those whose enemies are right in front of them.
This most demanding of Jesus’ teachings seems also to be his most problematic. We are left to ask what about justice?
How do we love the enemies of our friends when they are making them suffer? One of the things that happens to Christians is that there love can be used against them to make them do things that Jesus asked them not. Time and again Christians have found themselves condoning, endorsing and even participating in violent and coercive interventions on behalf of the weak and the defenceless whom we naturally love. But at the cost of breaking Jesus’ command to love our enemies!
I would be a happy preacher if I could find a way for us out of this bind. But I don’t think there is one. This is just the difficult place that Jesus leaves us in. Jesus does promise:
Your reward will be great and you be the children of the most high.
But saying that God in his final judgement will resolve all these things, whilst it may be true, is just too glib an answer, and doesn’t actually help us to live as Jesus asked us to live. But then Jesus doesn’t ask us to live any life which he himself hasn’t lived. In the end he loved his enemies, he refused to act with anything but kindness and prayer towards them, and it cost him his life. Jesus asks us to give up on everything, our coat, our shirt, our possessions, even our dignity. We should allow these things to be taken if needs must, in order that something more important not be taken from us, our likeness to God as we see it in Jesus himself. Our faith changes the questions we might ask when making a moral decision about how we might help. When considering giving assistance we should no longer calculate: To whom, in what circumstances, and at what cost? For Christians this is replaced with a single question: how do I live a life like Jesus lived?
Postscript: Stanley Hauerwas has said, “Originality is forgetting where you read it.” In the course of preaching, preachers may draw on many sources, seldom do they give credit to those sources. From the pulpit it not usually necessary or appropriate. But more often, it is simply the case that we have forgotten where our ideas came from. But not always. I am aware where I got the idea for the first paragraph of this sermon because I red it it as I was working on it. So credit where credit is due: David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything; A new history of humanity. (London, Allen Lane, 2021) p. 47
Love Your Enemies by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0