If You Can’t Pray Anything Nice

By Rev. J.C. Austin

When I first took the bus to Bethlehem from New York City during the interview process for this church, I immediately recognized the name given to the section of Route 33 between Route 22 and I-78, which is designated the “General Anthony McAuliffe 101st Airborne Memorial Highway.” Now, if you’re not a World War II history nerd like I am, McAuliffe was the acting commander of the 101st  Airborne Division during the Siege of Bastogne in World War II, part of the larger Battle of the Bulge that took place in late 1944 where Belgium, France, and Luxembourg come together.

When I saw the sign, I looked him up to see if he was from Bethlehem, but he never spent any time in the Lehigh Valley that I could find. It wasn’t until much later that I found out that McAuliffe’s deputy at the siege lived in Bethlehem Township, and he led the effort to get the Route 33 extension named after McAuliffe simply to honor him for his courageous leadership in that pivotal moment in the war.

And that leadership was remarkable. When the Germans launched their surprise attack that began the Battle of the Bulge, the actual division commander was at a conference in the United States, and command fell to McAuliffe for one of the most brutal and bloody battles in the history of the U.S. Army. Cut off on all sides by the German Army, the 101st Airborne fought for days without adequate food, shelter, or supplies in the bitterly cold winter snow, holding off an enemy that was far larger and better equipped.

After days of this, the German commander sent an eloquent but menacing message demanding that the 101st offer their honorable surrender to the Germans or face “total annihilation.” There are a few different recollections of exactly what happened next, but they all agree on that the general responded in disgust by saying “nuts!”, as in “nuts to that!” A pretty tame response, under the circumstances, but apparently, McAuliffe never used profanity on principle, so that was about as foul-mouthed as he ever got.

And that’s what ended up being the official response to that demand: in contrast to the German commander’s lengthy and flowery demand for surrender, the American message simply read: “To the German commander, from the American commander: NUTS!”  And the 101st then held off the enemy for four more days until reinforcements finally arrived, and the German army went on the defensive for the rest of the war.

As epic warrior quotes go, “NUTS!” is not impressive or intimidating in the way other famous retorts to an enemy are. When King Leonidas of Sparta was vastly outnumbered by a Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae, the Persians demanded that he lay down his weapons. He responded simply: “Come and take them.” When John Paul Jones’ Revolutionary War flagship was on fire and sinking, his flag shot to pieces in the battle, the British commander asked if he had struck his colors in surrender. Jones replied, “I have not yet begun to fight!”

But “NUTS!” is always on lists of those kinds of quotes precisely because it is so succinct and unexpectedly wholesome, but still communicates bold contempt for the enemy even when it seems like the enemy clearly has the upper hand. “Come and take them,” “I have not yet begun to fight,” and “NUTS!” are all a quick and utter rejection of any capitulation or concession to the enemy. They all declare: you may think you’re winning, but I will not stop, I will never stop, until I have defeated you, my enemy.

These quotes, and others like them, are famous because they are the epitome of how we are conditioned to respond to our enemies: with courage and tenacity, without compromise or condition. George Patton, the U.S. general who led the reinforcements that arrived at the Siege of Bastogne, once said: “May God have mercy on my enemies, because I won’t.” An enemy is not simply an opponent. Candidates in political races usually refuse to mention the name of the other candidate so they don’t give them any publicity; they simply call them “my opponent.”

But even given how toxic our politics can get sometimes, it is a rare candidate who describes their opponent as an “enemy,” and when they have, there has been a great outcry against them. That’s because an enemy is not simply someone with whom you compete or disagree, however vigorous the competition or however important the topic of disagreement.

No, an enemy is someone of ill-will towards you or those whom you love that wants to act on that will; someone who intends to do harm or has already been doing so. An enemy is a direct threat to you personally or to those whom you love, and so you cannot simply disagree with them the way you can with an opponent. You compete with an opponent and try to beat them; but you fight with an enemy and try to eliminate them.

That’s why this part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is one of his all-time least popular teachings. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” he begins. And the crowd must have nodded like, “yes, of course, we know that; you can go to the next thing.” Which he does, but the next thing is not what they expected or wanted to hear: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven.”

He is saying that we should love those who want to do harm specifically to us rather than respond the way everyone knows you treat enemies: without mercy. And just to rub it in, he goes further and says we should pray for those who persecute us. By doing these two things, he says, we may be children of God; and in saying so, he at least implies that if we do not do those two things, we can’t be children of God.

No wonder nobody likes this passage. In fact, here’s a long history of Christians responding to this and many of the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount like the friend of someone who is making outrageous demands or saying offensive things: “don’t worry,” they whisper, patting our arms reassuringly as phrases like “love your enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you” assault our eardrums; “don’t worry, he doesn’t really mean that. He’s just really passionate, you know, and he gets carried away sometimes.

Obviously nobody could really do those things in real life. It’s more like a goal, really. And wouldn’t it be nice if the world really worked that way?” But the difficult truth is that there is zero reason to think that Jesus means anything other than exactly what he is saying. He’s not talking metaphorically or allegorically. He’s not using any of the rhetorical figures of speech that indicate exaggeration to make a point.

He simply says, I know you’ve heard you can love your neighbor but hate your enemy; but I’m telling you, you have to love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, too, if you want to be considered a true child of God. Not a lot of ambiguity there, and he clearly means it.

What’s not clear is what exactly he means for us to do. Jesus doesn’t tell how we have to love our enemies and pray for them, he just tells us to do it. And that has created no small amount of problems in trying to respond faithfully to this command, because we tend to project our own assumptions about both love and prayer onto his instructions, both of which are very different from how someone in the first century Near East would have meant or heard them.

Now if you’ve spent much time in Christian worship at all, you probably have heard that Greek has specific words for different aspects of love, and that the word agape means a selfless dedication to acting for the well-being of another or others. That’s the kind of love Jesus calls on us to have for God, for one another, for our neighbors, and yes, for our enemies. But even if we know that, we often still get tripped up on our cultural association with love as primarily defined by emotion. Which causes us huge problems when we get to this teaching about loving our enemies, because it sounds to us like Jesus is saying we should feel love for them even though they’re our enemy. But Jesus never suggests anything of the kind.

When Jesus says we are to love our enemies, he doesn’t mean we have to feel any personal affection or even empathy for them. In fact, what we feel for them is irrelevant; it’s what we do (or don’t do) that matters, because love is an action, not an emotion. And love certainly doesn’t rule out conflict or resistance. If you find out a white supremacist is plotting a mass shooting in a Black church, the loving thing to do for both the church members and the white supremacist is to stop the intended shooter before they can commit such a heinous crime.

Jesus himself was frequently in conflict with his enemies; he often criticized their teachings and actions, sometimes harshly, and he acted himself in ways that were in direct resistance to their desires and goals, which made them very angry, angry enough to eventually plot to kill him. Yet, by definition, Jesus didn’t see any of that as violating his teaching to love your enemies.

That’s because loving someone is not the same thing as being nice to them. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is to not be nice. A devotion to being nice can be a way of avoiding conflict or resistance that needs to happen with someone for their own good. There is a common moralism that parents tell their children: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” But the problem with that saying is that it seems to assume that the alternative to saying something nice is to say something cruel or hurtful. And that, quite simply, is wrong.

Sometimes the alternative to saying something nice is saying something loving, and sometimes that means confronting someone and telling them they need to change what they’re doing because it is cruel, or unjust, or hurtful to themselves or others. In Christian terms, this kind of thing is inviting someone to repentance, to changing direction because the way they’re going is in opposition to God’s will. And people rarely experience repentance as something nice; but it is always something that is loving, because it is realigning your heart and spirit with God, and God is love, as the first letter of John puts it.

Similarly, Jesus would never suggest, “if you can’t pray anything nice, don’t pray anything at all” when we are praying for our enemies, for those who persecute us. Just a few verses after this passage in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us how we are to pray in general with the Lord’s Prayer. And one of the first requests in the Lord’s Prayer is, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That helps us understand what it means to pray for our enemies; for our enemies, mind you, not about or against them.

But praying for them doesn’t mean praying for them to succeed in what they’re doing, or even for them to thrive despite what they’re doing. “If you can’t pray anything nice about your enemies,” Jesus would have said, “you can still pray that they will turn away from being your enemies.” Sometimes the best we can do is not to pray against them, and to pray instead for them to repent from the wrong they are doing and to align themselves with the will of God and the nature of the kingdom of heaven.

That is still praying for them; that is still loving them, because it is always loving to pray for someone’s will and actions to align with the will and work of God. As long as we mean it, that is; as long as we don’t really mean we are praying for someone’s will and actions to align with our own instead. That is always the temptation, of course. Which is why it’s probably best to always pray for ourselves when we pray for our enemies.

Because it’s so easy, when we have an enemy, to feel justified in becoming one ourselves, to intend to do our enemies harm and look for opportunities to do so, even when we are praying to God, to put our will ahead of God’s, to seek vengeance and victory instead of justice and peace. Because the first step to eliminating an enemy in God’s kingdom is not to become one ourselves.

And if we pray to God to help us do that, we can pray for our enemies to be transformed rather than destroyed, which means we are really praying for God to eliminate two enemies instead of just one: we are praying that we don’t become an enemy, and that our enemy doesn’t stay one, because both of our wills and actions are aligned with God’s.

Now, it’s true: that’s not how the world actually works. But that’s also the whole point. Jesus didn’t come to maintain the world or work within its confines;  he came to save the world, to transform it, to establish God’s reign fully over the world, so that God’s will is truly done on earth as it is in heaven. May it be so for the world, for our enemies, and for us.




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