by Rev. Doug Gray
I am generally a pretty easy-going guy. I tend to assume the best of people, and I generally find that people treat me well. I always figured I could pretty much get along with everyone until I met Gregory. Beginning in 9th grade, Gregory was a pain in my back side. He walked around school with a self-satisfied smirk on his face, but when he saw me, he would grin and something malicious would sparkle in his eyes. He delighted in saying nasty things, and if he could rip on me, so much the better. His favorite thing was to get me into trouble with teachers who, inexplicably, trusted him. Those of you who have read the Harry Potter books will understand when I say that Gregory was my Draco Malfoy. All this would have been fine, except that while I was in high school I read today’s passage. I thought Jesus was crazy: Love Gregory? Is he kidding? Who are some of the kinds of people you find it hardest to love? [Take responses from the congregation.] Is Jesus kidding? Are we really to love even our enemies? Martin Luther King Jr. wrote,
“Now let me hasten to say that 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…This is a basic philosophy of all that we hear coming from the lips of our Master…We have the Christian and moral responsibility to seek to discover the meaning of these words, and to discover how we can live out this command, and why we should live by this command.”*
How can we learn to love everyone, particularly our enemies?
First, we learn to love everyone by looking at ourselves. We like to think of ourselves as lovable. We’re pretty lovable, right? But have never hurt someone—physically, verbally, emotionally? Have we never once fallen short of the way we believe God wants us to be? Jesus said, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? Whenever we examine ourselves, if we are honest, we will recognize that they are not perfect…and neither are we. Examining ourselves with a clear eye, knowing the good and the bad in ourselves, will keep us humble.
Second, we learn to love our everyone by looking for the good in them. In each of us there is a battle rages. The great German poet, Johann Goethe wrote, “There is enough stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rogue.” He echoes Paul who wrote in Romans 7:19, “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” Isn’t it true that we all struggle at least from time to time to do what is good and right? Martin Luther King wrote, 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 slough off. Discover the element of good in your enemy.
If we can find that good, then we can begin to love them for that—not for the evil they do, but for the good that is there too. If we pray for them, we can pray for the good that is at work in them, for the image of God trying to shine from them.
Third, we learn to love everyone by looking for opportunities for kindness. Our opportunity for kindness may come by refusing to humiliate someone who opposes us. At some point, even our enemy will find themselves in our power, and we will have a chance to hurt or humiliate, even crush our enemy. But if we are followers of the way of love, we must not do it. A person who is made in the image of God—and we all are—is never our enemy so much as the forces, institutions and systems they represent are our enemy. We can and sometimes must fight the forces, institutions and systems that are evil, but we are called to love our enemy. Our opportunity for kindness may come with an opportunity to show grace for someone who has no right or reason to expect it of us. We learn to love everyone by looking for opportunities for kindness.
You’ll notice that Jesus did not call us to like our enemy. We are not called to like everyone. Liking someone is a feeling. Martin Luther King writes, “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.” We are not called to be fond of everyone. We are called to love. Love is not a feeling. Love is a choice we make to seek someone’s good. That is why when the opportunity comes to bless someone, especially our enemy, we must take it if we are to love.
All of this leads us to ask, “Why?” Why should we love everyone? Why should I love that lousy Gregory? Why should we pray for those who are gunning for us? Because in Gandhi’s words, “An eye for an eye only makes the whole blind.” When we hate, we only make the forces of hate stronger in this world. Anyone can hate. King would add, “The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate…and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.” Why should we love everyone? Because when we hate, it twists and warps us into something less than human. When we hate, we vandalize the image of God in us. Martin Luther King writes: “We usually think of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates…So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.” Why should we love everyone? Because only in love is there a power from God to bring people to a new place. Only love can lead us to wholeness, to real joy and hope. Just as hate can scar and ruin our souls, so love can heal and restore relationships. Force breeds force, and hate breeds hate…but love yields love. Again, MLK: “We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make [people] better. Love is the only way. Jesus discovered that. “One day as Napoleon came toward the end of his career and looked back across the years—the great Napoleon that at a very early age had all but conquered the world. He was not stopped until…he moved out to the battle of Leipzig and then to Waterloo. But that same Napoleon one day stood back and looked across the years, and said: ‘Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have built great empires. But upon what did they depend? They depended upon force.’ But long ago, Jesus started an empire that depended on love, and even to this day millions will die for him.” And what about you…what about me? Are we willing to be like Jesus, to love those who don’t love us?
*The quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr are taken from his sermon, “Loving Your Enemies” delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on 17 November 1957. This sermon is part of a collection entitled, A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The book (and audio!) is available through The King Center and can be found online at http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/publications/sermons/571117.002_Loving_Your_Enemies.html