The Heart of the Gospel: Loving the Unlovable

Saturday, March 21, 2015

I have often made the claim that love of enemies was the very heart of the message of Jesus. Understand the way of grace, forgiveness, and enemy love, and you have understood the core message of who God is as revealed in Christ, and how we are to be in the world as his followers. Understand enemy love, and you have understood the message of Jesus, what led him to the cross, and God's plan of salvation in Jesus. Miss it, and you miss everything else with it.

But if "love your enemies" is something Jesus only specifically said once (recorded in the Sermon on the Mount in the 5th chapter of Matthew's Gospel, and in the parallel account in Luke 6), how can it be said to be the very core of his message?

The key here is understanding how everything else Jesus says, every parable, every paradoxical statement, every act of healing or caring for the poor, all culminates in the way of enemy love. So let's step back and take a look at the bigger picture and context of Jesus' message. 

Jesus begins his sermon, both in Luke's and Matthew's accounts, with a list of beatitudes that turn our normal values and expectations of what is desirable, fortunate, and good on their heads. Both our culture and theirs would normally say "blessed are the wealthy," but Jesus instead provocatively declares "blessed are the poor." 

Matthew adds to this "... in spirit" which can make this easier to relate to if you happen to be a middle class American. But the original statement made by Jesus, found in Luke's Gospel, is simply "blessed are the poor."

In the time of Jesus the poor were regarded as cursed. They were seen as sinners who deserved their suffering. Similarly today the "American dream" is to make it and become rich, and all it takes is "hard work." So those who are poor obviously are not working hard and consequently are derided as freeloaders, deadbeats, entitled, and welfare queens. Cursed are the entitled. Cursed are the deadbeats. That's the assumption of our culture, and it leads to our idealizing obscene wealth while despising those in need. That is the opposite of Jesus' message of compassion and care for the poor.

Similarly when Jesus proclaims,

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free" (Luke 4)

We can take this to refer metaphorically to "captivity to sin" or "bondage to destructive patterns of behavior" but the original context of what Jesus is saying is to people who are literally in chains, literally prisoners.

If you have read Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, you will know the story of how Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, and that upon his release after 19 long years he is unable to get food or a place to stay because of a card he must present that identifies him as an ex-con.

That's the story from pre-revolutionary France, but today in America it is little different. People, especially black and brown people, are regularly imprisoned for years for trivial offenses, or even for no offense at all. Upon release, just as Jean Valjean was turned away with his card, they too are required to "check the box" identifying themselves as felons on forms for housing, benefits, and job applications. Systematically denied housing, jobs, education, and public benefits for life -- the very things they need to re-integrate into society --  as a result, many become homeless or return to jail.

If we as a nation despise the poor, this is doubly so with those labeled "criminals." As Michelle Alexander puts it in The New Jim Crow, blacks labeled as criminals "are perhaps the most despised minority in the U.S. population... Criminals, it turns out, are the one social group in America we have permission to hate."

As Alexander documents,  this is not simply a matter of attitudes and mindsets, but takes the form of policies of systematic oppression. It translates into laws that are "tough on crime" and result in rampant discrimination and injustice as well as widespread patterns of "law enforcement practices that violate the law and undermine community trust, especially among African Americans." That quote is from the findings of the U.S. Justice Department's investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.

The message of Jesus, over and over, is focused on caring for "the least of these." That is, the way we treat the person who is seen as the least deserving, is the way we treat Jesus. This is not about romanticizing a problem. The poor are often poor because of destructive patterns, abusive and hurtful patterns. Jesus was not naive to this, and neither should we be. We are talking about people who are broken, and that is not the pretend picture of Oliver Twist with rosy red cheeks and an innocent heart.

Nevertheless, Jesus calls us, over and over, to love the unlovable. He calls us to compassion for the poor, the sick, and yes, for the sinner and criminal, too. His focus was not on punishment and law, but on restoring people who were broken, on freeing people from bondage, and a huge part of that is about being valued and honored and loved.

This re-humanizes a person, and that leads to their restoration and redemption. Punishment and condemnation -- which is the focus of our broken criminal justice system -- does the opposite, and is the reason for the "revolving doors" of our prison systems.

If we want to learn to love our enemies, the place to start is where Jesus starts. He begins by having us learn to care for the poor, to recognize our own brokenness, and also to develop compassion for others who are less fortunate than we are. This carries over into recognizing that those caught in the cycles of crime should not be hated as enemies, but also need help to reform. Jesus calls us to practice forgiveness and reconciliation in our lives.

Before we can begin to practice love of enemies towards those outside of our borders, those who have declared themselves our "enemies," we need to first begin to practice love of enemies at home in our own communities. We need to develop open hearts of compassion for the poor, seeking realistic and wise ways to help and care for those in need. We need to likewise seek to help rehabilitate those labeled as criminals in our country, being driven again by open-eyed wise compassion rather than by fear.

Jesus' message culminates in the idea of enemy love. But everything he says leads up to this. It begins with having compassion for ourselves, and spills over to having compassion for others. Understanding the larger context of how we are to practice compassion, reconciliation, and restoration of broken people and broken society gives us the larger context to understand that enemy love is not simply about prohibiting violence, but far more substantially is the culmination of  a way of working to make things right in our world that we desperately need today.

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5 Comments:

At 10:42 AM, OpenID earthymonk.com said...

I always love your work. I have long believed that the central component of Jesus' message is restoration (restoring us back to God, restoring people back to families, communities, and purity, etc.). AND, as white, college educated recovering addict with a felony charge on his record, I can attest to the truth that it is socially acceptable to loathe criminals.

 
At 9:31 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

As to why people hate criminals, I think this is because people associate crime with either themselves or a loved one being victimized.

Drug addiction, unlike perhaps every other crime, is a victimless crime (in that neither the person selling or buying the drugs feel victimized in the way a person does who is, for example, assaulted or mugged would.

Yet because of the "war on drugs" we have harsher punishment for drug offenses than we do for many violent crimes. That's really messed up. Why is addiction treated as a crime rather than as a mental illness?

Now with other crime, I can certainly understand why people would feel anger/hate/fear towards those who have violated them or someone they love. This a very natural reaction, and I'm sure I would feel that way too.

The question is whether this is really what we need? I think it is not. What we really need is not vengeance, but instead a restorative justice approach that addresses the needs of all affected parties.

First and foremost, such an approach would seek to restore the victim, seeking to find what their needs are, working to address those needs. It's striking that our current criminal justice system does next to nothing to address the needs of victims of crime.

Second, if we want those who hurt others to stop, then incarceration alone is not enough. Reform requires programs that work towards violators accepting responsibility for their hurtful actions and also learning to develop empathy for those they have hurt.

 
At 2:34 PM, Blogger Robert said...

http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/03/11/can-you-forgive-someone-elses-enemies/

 
At 9:33 PM, Blogger Brad said...

Derek, I get how love of enemies is something we all should do. How do you see that play itself practically in your life? Do you have enemies you are struggling to love? Theory is great, but what does it look like in practice?

 
At 10:25 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Maybe I'll write about that in a future post Brad.

 

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