I recently had the privilege of travelling to the nation of Sierra Leone and working with an orphanage in a place about 90 minutes from Freetown, called Rogbere. I met a boy there, by the name of Idrees, who is 17 years old. When he was just 12 months old, his village was attacked by rebel forces. It happened so suddenly, that his parents had to flee. Unable to carry him, they hid him in a bush. Unfortunately, he was found by the soldiers, who for some unknown and horrific reason dipped his right hand into boiling oil leaving it appallingly burnt and disfigured. When his parents died a few years later, he was left in an orphanage, considered to be of little use. When I talked with Idrees about his hand, he told me that he has forgiven those who did this to him and he would like to become a peacemaker and teach others that love and forgiveness is possible. I was really humbled by his story.
After hearing the stories of many of the other children, I lay in bed one night and cried almost uncontrollably – why do we do these things to each other as human beings? Why do we allow hate and bitterness to fester in our hearts? How can we abuse others so dreadfully? There can be nothing but sadness in my heart when I think about the simply atrocious things human brothers and sisters are doing to one another in Israel/Palestine, Ukraine/Russia, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. And as I watch the supposed peace process and the utter hypocrisy of the nation states involved, I struggle to feel any hope.
I have many friends, some Muslim, some not, who passionately support the Palestinian cause, and I have an understanding and empathy with the great sense of injustice towards them as a people. I also have many friends, some Jewish, some not, who with the same felt passion and sense of injustice support Israel’s cause, and I also seek to understand and empathise with the injustice and complexities involved. But I find myself asking how many more lives? How many more children must die?
I am currently reading ‘A Knock at Midnight’, which is a compilation of the great sermons of Rev Martin Luther King Jnr. One of his sermons is simply and starkly entitled: “Loving Your Enemies.” It is, of course based on the challenging words of Jesus, found in Matthew 5:43-48.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
What was Jesus talking about here? Did he mean that we just have to love those individuals who are mean to us sometimes? Yes, but he is making the most profound and overtly political statement that any body has ever made. This was his manifesto. This was the key revelation he brought about what God is like and where humanity falls short. If people groups and nations do not learn to love one another, to forgive one another and to bless and seek the good of those who seek to destroy them, then we will never know what it is to have heaven on earth and we will never have the peace we long for.
Martin Luther King Jnr said this in the context of his sermon:
“Jesus was very serious when he gave this command; he wasn’t playing. He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies. He realized that it’s difficult to love those persons who seek to defeat you, those persons who say evil things about you. He realized that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard. But he wasn’t playing. And we cannot dismiss this passage as just another example of Oriental hyperbole, just a sort of exaggeration to get over the point. This is a basic philosophy of all that we hear coming from the lips of our Master. Because Jesus wasn’t playing; because he was serious.
Within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls “the image of God,” you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never sluff off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.
In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.
And this is what Jesus means, I think, in this very passage when he says, “Love your enemy.” And it’s significant that he does not say, “Like your enemy.” Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that 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. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemy.” This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.
Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you. Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.
And our civilization must discover that. Individuals must discover that as they deal with other individuals. There is a little tree planted on a little hill and on that tree hangs the most influential character that ever came in this world. But never feel that that tree is a meaningless drama that took place on the stages of history. Oh no, it is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity, and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power-drunk generation that love is the only way. It is an eternal reminder to a generation depending on nuclear and atomic energy, a generation depending on physical violence, that love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.”
(read the whole sermon here: http://mlkkpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_loving_your_enemies/)
I blogged a while ago about a conversation I was having with my daughter, about Israel/Palestine and she said to me ” Daddy, why can’t they just love each other?” There are many answers to this question, and yet the question remains.