As much as we expect him to, Jesus never discards the category of “enemy.” “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; Invite your enemies to the table; go and be reconciled with your enemy” etc. I’m sure that many other people have reflected on this with greater depth and insight than I will be able to. Nevertheless, here come a few brief meditations.
Jesus had enemies. There were people who wanted to harm him, wanted to take his life. There were people in Jesus day who knew what he stood for (or thought that they did) and couldn’t stand him. He had a program, an agenda, a point. When he said, “follow me” to his disciples, it was because he was going somewhere, and he thought it was important that they come along. Having enemies means standing for something definite, something concrete, something that cannot be denied even at the cost of alienation. Living in the tension between truth and sinfulness, humanity lives in enmity.
We are tempted to domesticate Jesus and truncate the urgency of his message. We shrug our shoulders at the nearness of God’s kingdom, assuming that it will be just as close tomorrow as it is today – a resource accessible at our choosing. Jesus, who was sent because God loves the whole cosmos so much that he’d rather be torn himself than watch creation tear itself in two, is not a pastel figure. But we do not live in a pastel world. Where people refused to listen, he shook the dust of their town off his feet and went looking for people with ears to hear. He understood that offering pearls in the public square occasionally leaves one trampled and torn to pieces (that is certainly his own meta-narrative). And so, there are times and places where Jesus enemies successfully turned his love away.
Immediately after noting that Jesus had enemies, which is instructive in and of itself, it is crucial to note that Jesus totally subverts and reorients the category of enemy. It seems that in Jesus perspective, enmity can really only be a one-way relation. It is inconceivable that the disciple of Jesus should hate anyone. Kierkegaard expressed it by saying that the Christian does not know about any enemies, only neighbors. While Jesus is unbending in the convictions and criticisms that bring about enmity between he and those whom he encounters – even in his starkest pronouncement of woe, he comes to his enemies in love and service.
The enemy is the one I am to love, the one I am to serve; the enemy is my neighbor. Following Jesus means foregoing definitions of my own identity based in opposition and exclusion of someone else. After Jesus calls us, we are no longer defined against an “other.” “When you are baptized, you are no longer white.” (Galatians 3) Following Jesus doesn’t negate individual difference, but it undermines the attempt to arrange any rigid hierarchy on the basis of race, class, gender, etc.
All too often Christian community is defined in opposition to the world, or the “secular.” This reeks of an illegitimate scapegoating mechanism to me, whereby the unity of our community is based on the exclusion of those than don’t fit. This unity is always a false and deceptive unity because it denies God’s reconciliation of the world to himself in Jesus Christ. In the incarnation, God assumed human nature categorically; he didn’t bestow divinity on the best, brightest, and most deserving of us. On this account, the community of God can never exclude anyone from God’s invitation.
The church is the place where all God’s enemies are always welcomed as neighbors – the church is the place where the truth (both law and gospel) is proclaimed as God’s word spoken in a beloved but fallen world. We leave Jesus’ narrow way when we forget to hold this tension.
I confess that I don’t have any enemies to speak of. I’d like to think that this is a result of my open and amiable character, and perhaps that is partly the case. On the other hand, I am unwilling to disagree and oppose others (even with great sensitivity – as it is properly done) for fear of offending them and losing their good will. I am more desirous of a watery peace than a hearty respect; there is a certain respect even in enmity that is lacking in merely “getting along.” My own particular temptation is to deny that I have any access to the truth or specific insight that is unavailable to others. I devalue my own knowledge with a false humility and a cowardly shyness, offering it to others only when directly pressed, rather than being generous with the gifts that God has given me. Jesus calls me to account in this regard by telling me about his enemies.
The preceding paragraph is appropriate for my context – for many others, the contrary may be the case. My good friend Cameron told me, four years ago now, “Jesus pissed people off, but he made them angry with the truth. Christians today seem quite adept at pissing people off, but I’m not sure that it’s with the truth.” All of us have met with unattractive examples of belligerent, over-inflated certainty – that is certainly not what I’m pushing. All of us could use a more generous measure of the ability to truly listen. Yet, I recognize that some of us more than others (myself included) are reticent to make the fullest use of all that God has given. The parable of the talents (Luke 19) teaches me to confess this hesitance as sin.