“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in Heaven.”
This might be the most difficult teaching from the Sermon on the Mount. And yet this may be the pinnacle of Christian love. It’s at the end of this teaching about enemy-love that Jesus utters the ultimate challenge, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Love perfected is love that loves even those who hate us.
In an effort to understand the lengths to which Jesus calls us to go to obey his one command to “love each other as I have loved you,” especially as that command pertains to our enemies, I’ve spent much of this year digging into ideas about pacifism and Christian non-violence. I’ve read a lot of arguments this year. Some were very convincing; some were not.
It seems to me that most of the time when Christians discuss nonviolence, the discussion hinges on one type of question: when is it okay for a Christian to use force and fight back? When can I punch someone in the face and still go to heaven? When can I shoot someone who threatens my country without getting on God’s bad side?
These are the wrong questions. These questions put the cart before the horse, because they look for the exception to the command to love our enemies without ever making the effort to obey the command to its full extent.
We readily acknowledge that the rule says that we are to love our enemies. But in our complicated world, we assume that there must be some exceptions to the rule. We are quick to think of scenarios when the command would be too unreasonable for us to follow. Does Jesus really mean that I should turn the cheek to a violent person who is in my home threatening my family?
I’m not sure what Jesus himself would do in that situation. I don’t think he would ever use force to protect himself. But would he punch a bad guy in the face to keep him from hurting an innocent kid? Isn’t it just as important to show the kid love by protecting him, as it is to show the enemy love by turning the other cheek? I tend to think so.
Yet I find that I have fallen into the same old human trap of thinking too much. We rationalize what is better and what has the most benefit for us and those we love. We rationalize away until we strip Jesus’ command of the full force of its irrational power. And then we wonder why we can never love perfectly.
C.S. Lewis famously said about Christianity, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” The same could be said of Christian nonviolence. It is difficult. And most Christians are unwilling to really, truly ever see it through to its full extent. At least in America, many of us have rejected it without ever trying it.
In the end, I have not been able to find any good, absolute answer about whether Christians are completely prohibited from using force or not, but I have decided that I am okay with that. My responsibility is not to decide when to use violence and when to withhold my hand, when to administer justice and when to leave it to God.
My only responsibility is to love others. At great cost to myself, I must seek what is best for them. As a follower of Christ I am free from rules that bind me to act in a certain way in all situations. I am free to do what is loving in any situation. If that means turning the other cheek, as it often will, then that is what I need to do. However, if it means using force to protect the weak (though I differentiate between force and deadly force), then that is what I need to do.
I continue to question whether or not love can ever mean force, but I believe that I don’t have to worry about that because of the freedom I have in Christ. Yet I contend that way more often than we want to accept, the love of Christ will call us to abstain from showing force. There is a reason that Jesus didn’t leave us any exception to the rules when he said to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile for our enemies. He only wanted us to think about how we can love them in every situation, no matter the stakes.
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21