Love Your (Terrorist) Enemies?

Jennifer DeWeerth
January 24, 2006

This article originally submitted to Pacific School of Religion as part of Progressive Christian Witness, a 2006 initiative of PSR designed to bring voices of progressive Christianity to churches nationwide. 

Jesus asked us to do some very difficult things. It is not easy to forgive seventy times seven (Matt. 18:22), turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39 and Luke 6:29), or love your enemies (Matt. 5:44 and Luke 6:27). When we read statements like these, the most comfortable response is to apply them to everyday situations. The neighbor who is occasionally disagreeable or the business associate who suddenly is obstinate are the people whom we try to forgive and love. But though they are not really our enemies, we find it difficult to love even them. What does it mean to love someone who has annoyed or tested us—not simply to avoid hating them, but truly to love them?

It is even more difficult to love real enemies, and it is especially difficult if the enemy is a “terrorist.” Someone who seeks to cause vast destruction and death seems beyond the pale of the human family and, therefore, outside the circle of those whom we can or should love. There is, however, no evidence that Jesus meant, “Love your enemies—except when they are terrorists.”

Americans are now engaged in a “war on terrorism.” What does it mean for American Christians to be faithful followers of Jesus when our enemies are terrorists?

As a first response, we are likely to transfer this question to the sphere of national and international policy, to so-called “rules of war.” How should our government, our military, our secret service treat the enemy? Outrage over the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay reveals our answers: We should not torture the enemy physically, we should not deprive the enemy of life’s necessities, we should not degrade the enemy’s religion. On these we generally agree. But are these “do nots” the equivalent of “loving” the enemy? Do not torture, do not deprive, do not degrade—is this all that “loving” means?

Jesus taught that loving enemies goes beyond such “do nots.” For example, Jesus said we should pray for our enemies. When we pray for someone, we put that person in the middle of a conversation we are having with God. Prayer humanizes the enemy. When a Christian prays for her enemy, she spends time and spiritual energy putting herself in that other person’s shoes, if not looking at the world through the enemy’s eyes, at least looking at the enemy through God’s eyes.

Jesus also taught that we should actively engage our enemies in non-violent relationships. Jesus engaged with religious leaders who opposed him and, despite the danger, went to Jerusalem to confront the government representatives who condemned him. To engage in relationship with our enemies requires significant courage. Our natural instinct on such occasions is fear, and fear usually produces avoidance or a violent response. Jesus taught that what casts out fear is not violence or avoidance, but love.

Finally, Jesus taught that the specific way to engage enemies is to forgive them. Jesus forgave his enemies, and thus he made hatred powerless over love. Prayer, non-violent engagement, and forgiveness are not easy. But as Martin Luther King Jr. said, when Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, “…he wasn’t playing. He realized that it is painfully hard… to love those persons who seek to defeat you.”

Loving his enemies was costly for Jesus. Loving our enemies could have social and political costs for us today. Someone who seeks to love the terrorist enemy could be labeled unpatriotic or, worse, a traitor.

Why should we take the risk of loving our enemies? There are three reasons:

First, Christians believe that every human being is made in the image of God. Jesus teaches that God loves every person—the good and the bad, the righteous and the unrighteous. The way we recognize the worth of all people is by working for their well-being, never for their destruction.

Second, our Christian faith teaches us that not one among us is without sin. So we need to be humble about our causes and our ability to know the right course of action in any given situation. Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War, refused to identify his cause with God’s will. Rather than being confident that God was on his side, Lincoln expressed only the hope that he was on God’s side.

Finally, Jesus taught that love is redemptive. When you love others, your love has the power to transform them—even if they are terrorist enemies. That may seem unrealistic in human terms, but the Christian believes that love has this power because the Christian believes that love comes from God.

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About the Author

Jennifer DeWeerth, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, earned her Master of Divinity degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She served as director of recruitment and admissions and as assistant dean and registrar at Pacific School of Religion. In 2006 DeWeerth was director of the Student Service Center, Mohawk Valley Community College, New York.