Corroboration from other parts of Jesus's teaching and other parts of Scripture
Let me try now to get a bit more of Jesus's teaching and other bits of the New Testament before us to try to bolster my case that Jesus and other New Testament writers were understanding the love command in this way. We won't have time here, obviously, to go into depth.
I start with Matt 5: 38-42:
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
Note the first part: "you have heard it said, eye for eye, tooth for tooth". This just is the myth of redemptive violence: If someone visits violence on you, then you should visit it back on them. But not so, says Jesus. "Don't resist an evildoer," he says—or perhaps better, since the Greek verb here is often used in the New Testament to refer to armed conflict or revolution: "Don't violently resist an evildoer." Rather, if he slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek to him; and if sues you for your shirt, give him your coat too, and if he forces you to go a mile, go with him two. To your enemy's violent attack, then, don't respond in kind; instead, return extravagantly generous love.
And Luke’s Luke 6: 27-36:
“But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also. And if anyone takes away your coat, don’t hold back your shirt either. Give to everyone who asks you, and from one who takes your things, don’t ask for them back. Just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do what is good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do what is good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is gracious to the ungrateful and evil. Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”
It's interesting to note that the initial material in this Lukan passage—pray for those who mistreat you, offer the other cheek to the one who hits you, offer your shirt to the one who takes your coat—finds difficult-to-miss parallels in Luke's depiction of Jesus's crucifixion, in which we find Jesus praying for those crucifying him, offering his other cheek to those who slap him, and giving up both his coat and his shirt. Jesus taught his disciples to do these things, and then modeled them en route to the cross.
Next there is Luke 9, where we find Jesus rebuking James and John for wanting to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritan city who refused to welcome them, and according to some manuscripts, exclaiming, "You don't know what kind of spirit you are of; the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them."
And Luke 22, where Jesus rebukes a disciple who takes up a sword in his defense and heal the soldier injured by the sword; and Matthew 26, where Jesus rejects the option of calling down an army of angels to fight against his enemies.
All of this is the sort of teaching you'd expect if Jesus were interpreting the love command in the radical way I've suggested—as enjoining love even to one's enemies. All of this counts as corroborating evidence of that read of the command.
Likewise Paul in Romans 12:16-21:
“Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse. … Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
And 1 Peter, Chapter 2:21-23
“For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly.”
All of this is the sort of teaching you'd expect if the New Testament writers were interpreting the love command in the radical way I've suggested—as enjoining love even on one's enemies. All of this counts as corroborating evidence of that read of the command.
That we should love our enemies, our real enemies—those who seek to harm us or our loved ones—is, I grant, counterintuitive. For many, it's obvious—as obvious as anything gets—that the proper response to someone trying to harm me or mine is violence, lethal violence if necessary. "Something must be wrong with your read of the love command," you might say, "because it has implications that are flatly and obviously crazy."
Let me look next at a couple reasons you might have in mind for rejecting the read of the love command I am putting forward.
So many people can't be wrong!
First, there's the fact that the myth of redemptive violence seems so obvious to so many people. It’s a pervasive and deeply held moral conviction for so many people. It can't be, surely, that so many are wrong!
Well, it wouldn't be the first time. In the Europe of the 1920's and 30's, it was a tremendously widespread and deeply held moral conviction of millions of Christian people that people of Jewish descent were somehow inferior, of less worth or dignity than other human beings. In the America of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century, it was a tremendously widespread and deeply held moral conviction of millions of Christian people that people of African descent were somehow inferior, of less worth or dignity than other human beings.
A tragic fact of the human condition is that we humans are capable of mass moral delusion, of being deeply wrong, en masse, about matters of deep moral import. I suggest that if Jesus's read of the love command is to be believed, humanity's widespread embrace of the myth of redemptive violence is another of those areas where we have been deeply wrong, en masse, about matters of deep moral import.
The Doormat Objection
Next, there is what you might call the doormat objection. Surely Jesus did not want us to be passive doormats, to simply roll over and let evil people walk all over us and our loved ones.
That is repugnant, cowardly, detestable, and makes us complicit in the crimes of the wicked; surely Jesus would not call us to that.
To which I reply, he most certainly would not and did not. The practice of enemy love to which Jesus called his followers is not a practice of passive acquiescence to evil and injustice. It is not a practice of being a doormat whilst evil people walk over us and our loved ones. There are two general and widespread responses to evil: (1) passive acquiescence (doing nothing); and (2) violent resistance (fighting it with violence of some sort).
As New Testament scholar Walter Wink helpfully notes, Jesus was proposing and practicing a third way, a third kind of response to evil, which was neither passive acquiescence nor violent resistance to evil. Rather (and here I’ll put things in my own way, which is a bit different than Wink thinks of it), it was nonviolent resistance to evil and injustice employing these six weapons of the Rule of God:
1. courageous truth telling: publicly and prophetically speaking truth, in love, to power that oppresses, at personal risk to ourselves;
2. Noncooperation with evil: refusing to cooperate in any way with practices, structures, cultures, and systems of evil;
3. enemy love: seeking the inclusion of our enemies in shalom community, feeding them when they're hungry, protecting them from harm, always respecting their dignity;
4. self-suffering: willingly enduring suffering in our own persons as a means to the transformation of our enemies;
5. prayer: for our enemies, for their transformation, for their well-being; and
6. forgiveness: forgiving our enemies, whatever they do to us, over and over again.
Such is the way of resisting evil Jesus taught and modeled to his followers: he spoke public and prophetic truth to the powers that would oppress and marginalize; he refused to cooperate with a corrupted purity code and Temple system that marginalized and further bankrupted the struggling poor; he loved his enemies, seeking their good, their inclusion in shalom community; he was willing to take terrible suffering into this own body to see his enemies transformed and brought into shalom community; he prayed for them throughout; and forgave them as they crucified him. The early Christian movement understood this, followed Jesus in this way of the Cross, and in consequence, turned the entire Roman
Empire Upside Down.
A modern-day follower Jesus who understood the Way of the Cross as well as anyone in history was Martin Luther King Jr., who said:
“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory."
Such was the kind of resistance employed by the spectacularly successful Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, which, in the face of hatred, lynchings, and other murders, stood up to the evils of institutionalized racism in the United States and effected a sea change in our political and moral culture. The freedom riders and other civil rights workers of the era did not cowardly roll over and and passively acquiesce while evil men walked over their backs. No, they courageously spoke truth to power, refused to cooperate with evil, accepted suffering in hopes of winning over their oppressors, loved, prayed, and forgave.
This was their means of resistance, and it worked. Such was the kind of resistance employed by the Gandhian Indian independence movement against the British in the early 20th century, against similarly institutionalized racism, hatred, and violence. Gandhi, it turns out, was deeply impressed by Jesus's Way of the Cross.
It is said of Gandhi that he meditated on the Sermon on the Mount morning and evening, every day, for forty years. One of his political opponents in South Africa, against whom he had the deployed the Way of the Cross, said of Gandhi and his fellow Indians:
“I do not like your people, and do not care to assist them at all. But what am I to do? You help us in our days of need. How can we lay hands upon you? I often wish you took to violence like the English strikers, and then we would know at once how to dispose of you. But you will not injure even the enemy. You desire victory by self-suffering alone and never transgress your self-imposed limits of courtesy and chivalry. And that is what reduces us to sheer helplessness.”
No, this was no cowardly rolling over and being a doormat, whilst evil men perpetrated injustice. It was active resistance, in the Way of the Cross, a style of resistance that requires tremendous self-discipline, courage, and strategy. More, as history has shown again and again, it’s a remarkably effective style of resistance. From the People Power Revolution in the Philippines in the 1980s, to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarik's dictatorship in 2011, to the overthrow of several dictators in Latin America over the course of the 20th century, the Way of the Cross has been a remarkably effective means of resisting evil and injustice.
So far, then, a couple objections to reading Jesus in the way I’ve suggested. There are many more to consider. Had we more time, we’d want to talk about how to square this read of Jesus’s love command with the so-called Holy War texts in the Old Testament, where one seems to find Yahweh commanding the Israelites to war, even brutal war, war that seems genocidal in some instances. These texts don’t fit at all well with a read of the love command on which the proper treatment of our enemies is pursuit of their shalom! There is much to be said about this, but, alas, theology is long and life is short. I must hasten to my conclusion.
As in my last two talks, then, let me close our time together with an imaginative thought experiment, imagining together what it might look like to live some of this out.
So imagine that you eat together weekly with a group of thirty or so brothers and sisters in the way of Jesus: thirty or so black, white, and brown men, women, and children living in the teachings and practices of Jesus, some rich, some poor. You know each other well; see each other often. You pray, worship, study, and play together; together you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless. You live simply and give with abandon to those in need.
Together you practice the Way of the Cross, in several ways. Firstly, you practice radical forgiveness with one another. Which means, you don't punish one another for wrongs (for that is what forgiveness is, a decision not to punish). We humans tend to punish each other for wrongs, and this in two main ways: we attack (with anger, criticism, complaint, and harsher forms of violence) and, we withdraw (into cold, stony, angry silence). You make a practice of not doing these things to each other in response to wrongs.
You have developed a deep and pervasive habit of non-punishment. You speak truth to one another in love, sometimes hard truth, but you've given up attacking one another with anger, criticism, and complaint, and given up withdrawing from one another into cold silence. In this way, you practice the Way of the Cross daily. You practice the Way of the Cross in other creative ways: One of the homes in your community was recently broken into while the family was at home. Rather than attack their assailant, they shocked him by calmly introducing themselves, welcoming him into their home, offering him some coffee, and telling him he could do them whatever evil he would, they would return only good. After a long conversation, they asked what money he needed, gave it to him, and he left peaceably.
One of the members of your community was attacked recently by a deranged gunman who turned his gun on and killed himself. Though your community member wasn't killed, he was hurt badly, and he and his family have suffered as a result. Your community responded in the Way of the Cross, seeking out the gunman's widow and her children, bringing them food, praying with them, paying their mortgage for a time, and finally, inviting them to move into your neighborhood to be part of your community.
Several of you regularly engage in nonviolent protest at a local company engaged in abusive labor practice to its mostly immigrant labor force. You've spoken truth to the management of the company about its practices, practiced noncooperation by refusing to buy their products and encouraging others to follow, practiced self-suffering by willingly enduring arrest and jail several times, and practiced love and forgiveness by hosting the president of the company for dinner at your home, treating him with the utmost respect, kindness, and hospitality.
The practice of the Way of the Cross has, at times, been hard: it’s meant jail time for some of you; some have been beaten up, choosing to absorb violence rather than inflict it. There’s difficulty in it, to be sure, but there’s also a sweetness, as more and more you find a power of love surging up from within you, strengthening you, comforting you, enabling you to wear down your enemies with love.
This power is Christ in you, for as you practice his way—his teachings of familial community, radical simplicity and generosity, the Way of the Cross, and more—he comes more and more to dwell with you, abide with you, and strengthen you. More and more, you find yourself swimming in oceans of grace, drinking in the shalom of the inbreaking Rule of God. And it is good, deeply good, like a pearl of great price, just as Jesus said, worth selling all, giving all, to lay hold of.
May God bless us more and more with this pearl of great price. Thank you.