“What religion are you?” the driver asked. Even in the best of circumstances, that’s a pretty loaded question, and usually means something unpleasant is coming behind it. But this time, it was being asked of my wife, Tammy, by the driver of the bush taxi she was sitting next to as we sped along the dirt roads of rural western Uganda after a 12-hour local bus ride across the country to a camp where we were actually staying to go view mountain gorillas in the wild. You may have heard me tell stories in other sermons about the beginning and end of that travel day (that trip produced a lot of good sermon material!). This story is about how we got from the last stop of the bus we tool from the capital of Kampala to the place where we finally got some food and rest late that evening.
The last stop was just that: a stop, nothing more, basically just a small clearing on the side of the road. As we got off the bus, a woman we had befriended on the bus, who turned out to be headed the same place we were, motioned us towards a pick-up truck. “Bush taxi,” she said, and negotiated a fare with the driver for the three of us. The driver instructed Tammy and our new friend to sit with him in the cab; I was told to join the other men in the bed of the pick-up in back. There were at least thirty of us back there, and I had an amiable conversation with a group of them for the duration of the drive. Tammy, in the seat of honor up front, had a different experience.
“What religion are you?” The question just hung there over her head. “Christian?” she said hopefully. The driver, still facing forward, pondered that for a moment. “So,” he finally said, “then you are my enemy.” Not the response she was looking for. “Why do you say that?” Tammy asked, trying to salvage the situation. “I am Muslim,” he responded simply, as if that explained everything. Then he asked his follow-up question: “Where are you from?” She considered claiming Canadian citizenship, but decided there was no point in pretending otherwise. “I’m from the United States,” she admitted. “Ah, so you are my double enemy.” Clearly, this was not going well. She realized quickly that he would probably not be swayed by an argument detailing how the U.S. is actually a multi-ethnic, multi-faith society that includes many faithful Muslims and so there is no inherent conflict between Islam and America, any more than those American Christians who argue something similar would be. Thinking fast, she simply responded, “well, I don’t consider you my enemy.” The driver turned to look at her as he considered that, which was still disconcerting, given the speed the truck was going over such rough terrain. Then he finally smiled and said, “yes, this is good. We should be friends. How are you finding Uganda?”
If only it was always that easy to win over an enemy. Some of us have more enemies than others, but enemies are a fact of human life; we find them early in life on the playground or in the neighborhood, we find them at work or in the community, we find them in the church. An enemy is not the same thing as a rival or competitor. An enemy is someone whose will is set against you specifically, who intentionally wills misfortune or failure or punishment or shame upon you and works to achieve that as an end in itself. The Greek word for enemy that Jesus uses in this passage literally means, “hateful one” or simply “hater,” and that pretty much sums it up; an enemy is one who hates, and your enemies are the ones who hate you.
Sometimes that’s more theoretical than personal. The bush taxi driver, for example, was operating out of a worldview that told him that Tammy, because she was a Christian and an American, was his enemy, that her will was set against him and that she desired and worked for his detriment. Luckily, he didn’t seem to hold that worldview too tightly, and he didn’t seem to be operating from personal experience, so it wasn’t hard to change his mind when she made it clear that wasn’t the case. But enemies are often much more personal. They are someone who really is against us, who really does want us to fail, really does want to do us harm, really does hate us. But many would argue that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you Google “having enemies,” the top results include an article from Forbes entitled, “Go Ahead and Make Enemies, It’s Good for You,” and one from Psychology Today entitled, “Enemies Enhance the Meaning of Life”! The first one argues that making enemies simply shows that you’re accomplishing something significant that makes other people feel threatened or jealous, while the second argues that having enemies makes the world more coherent because we know who to blame for the bad stuff that happens to us. Those two arguments are among the most popular understandings of why we have enemies and how we should deal with them.
The latter argument, though, is particularly tricky, because when we declare someone an enemy, a “hateful one,” what naturally follows is our own hate, as well. And we feel pretty justified in that; after all, this person is quite literally out to get us! But hate is like a wildfire: all it takes is a little flame and some wind, and what seemed manageable and even desirable quickly gets whipped into a roaring blaze that consumes everything it touches. One of the greatest literary depictions of the corrupting power of enmity is Robert Browning’s poem, “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister.” It’s a dramatic monologue written in the voice of a monk contemplating his enemy, a fellow monk in the cloister. The monk is utterly consumed by his hatred for his enemy; he actually growls like an angry predator in both the first and last lines of the poem! “Grrr – there go, my heart’s abhorrence!” he begins, then quickly gets to the point; “If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence, God’s blood, would not mine kill you!” He seethes at the way this other monk waters the plants he’s charged with tending; he rages at the way he holds his utensils and drinks his cup at the common table; he rails against the other monk’s failures of piety compared to his own; and he finally considers making a pact with Satan himself against the monk before the call to vespers interrupts him, leaving him to hiss out a last “grrr!” underneath the lines of prayer that he begins to recite. The monk does not simply have an enemy; he becomes an enemy, becomes a “hateful one,” one whose basic identity and core being is defined by his own hate, and that hate then guides his actions.
We usually hear Jesus’ command to love our enemies as a clearly difficult and seemingly unreasonable thing to ask or to do. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” isn’t easy, but we can more or less get behind that, at least in theory. It makes sense that you shouldn’t treat other people in ways that you yourself would not one to be treated, and if you do, that is the definition of hypocrisy. The hard part in the so-called Golden Rule is how you define “others.” It’s not a coincidence that, later in Luke, when Jesus is teaching again and presents another version of this instruction that goes, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” that a lawyer then immediately asks Jesus, “and who is my neighbor?” The lawyer, like any good lawyer, is trying to define the specific requirements of the language of the law. Jesus then tells the famous parable of the Good Samaritan, turning the lawyer’s question on its head so that it becomes not a question of what others count as neighbors that we then have to love, but rather whether we are willing to count as a neighbor by loving others regardless of who they are. And what Jesus is making explicit here is that who our neighbors are even includes enemies. We’re not expected to have no enemies; we’re not expected to win them over; but we are expected to love them.
But what does that mean? This passage has been gravely misused by people in positions of power to justify exploitation, oppression, and abuse, and particularly intimate partner violence. So it’s important to be very clear here: Jesus is not saying that we should simply accept whatever abusive behavior or exploitative actions our enemies direct towards us; that’s not love. What he’s saying is that we shouldn’t reciprocate that behavior. The ethic of reciprocity was one of the foundational elements of Near Eastern culture, and it governed nearly every personal relationship in free society. To give something to someone, from a gift or a slap, meant that you could and should expect them to reciprocate with something equivalent, and that you had the right and expectation to do so if they gave something to you. That’s why Jesus talks so much about it not being a credit to you to love or do good or lend to those who do the same to you, because that was standard reciprocal behavior. Jesus is saying that the way we should treat others has nothing do with how they treat us, but rather with how we wish to be treated; with how God treats us. Because reciprocity is a dangerous and deceptive moral guide. When we treat others with reciprocity, it usually feels like justice, even when it is evil; and sometimes most especially then. And when we fall prey to it, we quickly shift from having enemies to becoming enemies, becoming hateful ones, ourselves.
Tonight is the Academy Awards, and for the first time, one of the films up for Best Picture is a superhero movie, Black Panther. If you haven’t seen the film, you might raise an eyebrow at that idea. Stereotypically, many of us think of superhero movies as basically a series of fistfights and explosions between a clearly good costumed hero and their clearly evil arch-enemy, who is generally motivated simply by the desire to wield unrestrained power. Black Panther doesn’t lack for fistfights or explosions, but it is a sophisticated and multi-layered film exploring themes like the ethics and responsibilities of fighting for the oppressed in the world, the destructive legacies of colonialism and slavery, and the moral tension between being a good person and a responsible and effective leader.
But perhaps the most notable dimension of the film is the villain, despite having the name “Killmonger,” he is anything but the typical enemy of a superhero. Yes, he wants to kill the hero, Black Panther, and take his place as the King of Wakanda, a fictional African nation that secretly owns the (also fictional) world’s supply of vibranium, the most valuable and powerful metal on earth. But he wants to do so in order to use those resources to equip oppressed peoples to free themselves, and he bitterly critiques both Black Panther and the nation of Wakanda for focusing solely on their own security and prosperity while their fellow Africans were colonized and sold into slavery and remain marginalized to this day across the earth. So Killmonger actually has motivations and opinions that many might consider morally laudable. It’s how he pursues them that makes him the villain. In the final fight, Black Panther tells him that he has become indistinguishable from the colonizing enemies that he hates so much, killing and dividing and exploiting innocent people to secure his own vengeance. “Nah, I learn from my enemies, beat them at their own game,” he responds. “But I’m gonna make sure we’re even.” That’s what an ethic of reciprocity does, in the end; as the saying goes, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, and no matter how noble our goals or intentions, we become our enemies instead of just having them.
And that’s why Jesus telling us to love our enemies is a blessing, not a curse; it is another path of salvation, another way of delivering us from our own self-destruction. Loving our enemies IS a clearly difficult and seemingly unreasonable thing to do. But it also the best way not to become them. And it does not mean accepting or excusing or ignoring their behavior; love includes holding the other accountable for their actions and commitments. Rather, it means identifying ourselves and basing our behavior on God’s love rather than our enemies’ hate. It means doing to others as we would have them do to us, not as they actually do to us, using God’s measure towards us rather than our enemies to determine how we will live. And that, alone, is enough to change the world. We know, because it already has, over and over again, especially in and through Jesus Christ; and it always will, until the world is as always as it should be, as God always intended it to be, and as God has promised it will be in the end.