Probably most of us get along well with our neighbours, though there are odd cases where neighbours make us want to shift house, and some even do. But, on the whole, we get on well with our neighbours. But enemies are something else!
Our federal government would like us to believe that we have enemies out there, “illegals” they wrongly call them, or terrorists or some other pejorative term… Then there are strangers in our community that are seen as the enemy or, if not that, those we feel uncomfortable about – Muslims, especially those in uniform, others in strange dress – maybe Aboriginal people – even the Homeless.
Maybe we might just have to dig a little deeper. Maybe we all have enemies – we just don’t want to face up to “the other” and have to deal with our feelings.
And let us not deceive ourselves, there are people who are not nice, who think only of themselves and are prepared to damage and hurt others. They may appear nice, but there is another side to them. Consciously or unconsciously they disrupt, distract and distress even whole groups, congregations and larger communities. And, if they are in positions of power and authority, their ability to do mischief is all the greater. Especially now that we are in the age of “post-truth”.
So it is a mistake to think we don’t have enemies. It is a mistake to think that we can avoid confrontation with the truth. Discovering who the enemy is or isn’t has the positive effect of forcing us to define who we are, what we stand for and what we want our future to look like.
Paul writes in Ephesians 6:12 –
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Paul reminds us that our enemies might have faces but the real enemies are not them but what hides behind, out of sight … and … even inside ourselves. Maybe we have met the enemy and they are us?
But loving your enemies is probably the most significant and difficult teaching of Jesus.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
(Matt 5:43-45 New International Version – NIV)
Spelling out the implications of this radical teaching Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “God’s love is too great to be confined to any one side of a conflict or to any one religion. People are shocked when I say that George Bush and Saddam Hussein are brothers, that Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon are brothers, but God says, ‘All are my children.’ It is shocking. It is radical. But it is true. God’s dream is that you and I and all of us will realise that we are family, that we are made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion. In God’s family, there are no outsiders, no enemies. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Buddhist – all belong. When we start to live as brothers and sisters and to recognise our interdependence, we become fully human.” 2
Indeed while we continue to use hate and violence rather than learning to love our enemies this world will continue to be in the mess it is in.
When he was imprisoned in Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a sermon on “Loving Your Enemies” and preached on the topic many times.
In answering the question “Why should we love our enemies?” he said, “Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.” 3
Recently we have celebrated the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore and the consequences that flowed from that for the many who were imprisoned and forced to labour for the Japanese.
Ernest Gordon was a prisoner of war in the death camps on the infamous Burma Railway, which he recounts in his book, Miracle on the River Kwai. 4 Each day Gordon joined a work detail of prisoners to build a track bed through low-lying swampland. Gordon said, “If a prisoner appeared to lag, a Japanese guard would beat him to death or decapitate him. Many more men simply dropped dead from exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease. Medicines and most food was not allowed. Ultimately, 80,000 prisoners died.
Being in a prison camp, suffering tropical disease, lack of food and the torments of your guards has a way of sharpening the mind about one’s beliefs and world views. So much was to be proved as mirages.” 5
Ernest felt that, as for Christianity, its doctrines and practices seemed irrelevant. The death of Jesus Christ as a sacrifice to appease a wrathful God was one. Followers of such a God were present among the prisoners. Ernest related, “With the vehemence of uncertainty they regarded themselves as God’s anointed and therefore critical of everyone else … they managed to extract the bubbles from the champagne of life, leaving it insipid, flat and tasteless.”
Ernest wanted none of that. However, at the request of a sergeant he started a discussion group. The sergeant had been talking things over with his cobbers, most of them calling themselves Christians but so shaken by their experiences wondering if there might be something in Christianity after all – that they had failed to understand. So Ernest with a small and growing group explored the New Testament to find out who Jesus was and whether Christianity was “dingo” (dinkum). He and they discovered that Jesus was a working man like them, he was no killjoy and, in the Crucifixion, that God was not indifferent, but suffering with them in their midst. They could see that so much of suffering was man’s inhumanity to man and they stopped complaining about their own plight. “Faith would not save them from it but it would take them through it.” 6 Ernest went on to describe the new hope and feeling for life that burst out in a myriad of creativity in the camp. They might have not loved their enemies but they no longer hated them.
Later in the war, when they were being moved to another camp, Ernest recounts that they were on a train and were shunted into a siding alongside another train carrying Japanese wounded who were in a shocking state. He writes, “We could understand now why the Japanese were so cruel to their prisoners. If they didn’t care a tinker’s damn for their own why should they care for us? … Without a word most of the officers in my section unbuckled their packs, took out a part of their ration and a rag or two, and, with water canteens in their hands went over to the Japanese train to help them. Our guards tried to prevent us…but we ignored them and knelt by the side of our enemy to give them food and water, to clean and bind up their wounds, to smile and say a kind word.
An officer from another section of the train had been taking it all in. “What bloody fools you all are,” he said to me. “Don’t you realise that those are the enemy?” I regarded my comrades with wonder. Eighteen months ago they would have joined readily in the destruction of our captors had they fallen into their hands. Now these same men were dressing the enemy’s wounds. We had experienced a moment of grace, there in those blood-stained railway cars. God had broken through the barriers of our prejudice and had given us the will to obey His command.” 7
So, like Ernest, let us be inspired to learn to develop and maintain the capacity to forgive and to love. And in so doing have the capacity to turn enemies into friends.
That which we cannot do in our own strength – we may through the grace and steadfast love of God.
Let us work to make it so.
1. Bible quotations are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®
2.Desmond Tutu, God has a Dream, First Image Books, 2005 p. 43
3. Martin Luther King Jr., Loving Your Enemies, Dexter Ave. Baptist Church, 1957.
see also a reading in Colman McCarthy, The Class of Nonviolence, Centre for Teaching Peace Washinton DC : http://www.salsa.net/oldsites/isoc/peace/conv/8weekconv4-2.html
4. Ernest Gordon, Miracle on the River Kwai, Fontana Books, 1970,
5. ibid, p. 99
6. ibid, pp. 100-103
7. ibid, pp. 162-164