Loving The Enemy: Jesus and The Early Church

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven…”

– Jesus Christ, Matthew 5:43-45

This is the teaching of Jesus who refused to take up the sword against his enemies, instead submitting to the will of his Father in heaven by choosing the cross. This is the Jesus whom we are called to follow and if we call ourselves a Christian, we are making a claim to follow Jesus.

We’re fine with following Jesus until it comes to the way we treat those who would do us harm. Then we would rather have a militant Jesus who will say it’s ok to take up arms and, in the name of safety and self-defense, do violence to that enemy and even kill that enemy if necessary. We’re so comfortable with the idea of necessary violence as part of our way of living, that it is almost impossible to fathom that Jesus is calling us to a non-violent way of life as part of our kingdom witness. Seriously! Listening to some Christians defend the use of violence leaves me the impression that the Jesus they follow entered into Jerusalem with military gear and an assault rifle, like captured in the picture here.

The notion that Jesus is calling us to a non-violent way of life seems so asinine that some Christians will stop at almost nothing to negate this teaching of Jesus. Some will proof-text certain passages of scripture out of both their historical and theological context to do so. Others will appeal to utilitarian reasoning, beginning with some hypothetical circumstance that logically seems to necessitate some measure of violence, in order to dismiss the notion that Jesus calls us to not fight with violence. And some will even anachronistically read the Bible by claiming that Jesus, as the second-person of the Trinity, is violent because God allows violence to take place in the Old Testament (an argument that is fraught with poor theology and hermeneutics).

All of these attempts either ignore, evade, or attempt to redefine the historical and eschatological trajectory of the biblical narrative and the good news of the kingdom of God that it proclaims (the gospel Jesus preached) which tells us of the redemptive mission of God that liberates us from the old life marred by sin, much of which involves some measure of violence, into the new life as new creation in Christ. That is, the attempts at justifying violence prolong the old life even though, as followers of Jesus, we are called to live as new creation bearing witness to the heavenly life that God is restoring among his creation in Christ. Violence has nothing to do with this life that we are witnesses of!

Of course, I could be wrong. It is always possible that my reading of scripture is wrong and therefore my understanding of the life Jesus calls us to follow him in living, which includes non-violent living, is wrong. But one way of always checking our reading of scripture is by turning to early Christian history and seeing how some of the earliest Christian leaders, those who historically are much closer to the apostolic era, understand the life Christians are called to live regarding the issue of violence and loving our enemies. So here are a couple of blog posts here and here that have assembled some quotes from some of the early church leaders of the patristic era. You can click on those links to read all the quotes but here a few:

  • Justin Martyr: “We, who used to kill one another, do not make war on our enemies. We refuse to tell lies or deceive our inquisitors; we prefer to die acknowledging Christ.”
  • Irenaeus: “Christians have changed their swords and their lances into instruments of peace, and they know not now how to fight.”
  • Tertullian: “Under no circumstances should a true Christian draw the sword.”
  • Origen: “We have come in accordance with the counsel of Jesus to cut down our arrogant swords of argument into plowshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take swords against a nation, nor do we learn anymore to make war, having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our Lord.”
  • Athanasius: “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.”
  • Clement of Alexandria: Christians are “an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without anger, without defilement.

I won’t pretend as though this teaching of Jesus answers how we should respond in every possible situation that seemingly creates an ethical dilemma. However, it should be evident that peaceful living (which includes non-violence) should be one of the virtues that characterizes the Christian life. That means at the very least that we should strive to nurture peaceful mind-set among ourselves so that in every circumstance we might respond in non-violent ways that bear witness to the eschatological reign of God in Christ. It also means that even if we conclude that there is a time when some measure of violence is justified (on the criterion for just-war, see here), we should never speak and act as apologists for violence — especially in a time where the ethos of American culture appears saturated by violence rooted in the things of the world rather than Christ.

May we learn to follow Jesus embracing the cross rather than the sword, loving our enemies rather than killing them!

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6 responses to “Loving The Enemy: Jesus and The Early Church

  1. Very thoughtful, enlightening post. I enjoyed it.

    What many evangelical Christians fail to see was that even the prophets came preaching that might and power are not the answer. If they were here today they would be in our streets, in our faces, denouncing our trust in the sword.

    Yet, so many do not exercise their spirits and minds to separate their love and support for our young people in military service from the thoughtless rush into war. As I have become older, I am now in my mid-sixties, I see children marching into these wars that those led and used by the Christian Right become so excited for. When will they learn that these hawkish politicians and religious leaders who trumpet “values” are not their friends? The sword that they offer is thrust our way blade first, with the promise of power; but it only leaves us bleeding all over ourselves. However, as strange as it may sound to those who claim to follow Christ, peace in a nations soul is its greatness, its fertile field for values.

    “And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”.

  2. Pingback: Links To Go (August 5, 2015) | Tim Archer's Kitchen of Half-Baked Thoughts

  3. Rafael G. Sustaita

    “This is the teaching of Jesus who refused to take up the sword against his enemies, instead submitting to the will of his Father in heaven by choosing the cross. This is the Jesus whom we are called to follow and if we call ourselves a Christian, we are making a claim to follow Jesus.”
    This is a great line. We are left wondering a lot of things about this statement. Who were Jesus’ enemies? Keep in mind that with Jesus it was never about him but rather about his mission to “sacrifice himself” as the ultimate evidence of his message. Without his sacrifice his message was meaningless. The jury is still out as far as I’m concerning in comparing our calling to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross whose mission was specifically ordained by God, if we believe the Bible record.
    I can’t speak for others but for myself, I live on this planet have a family that depends on me. I love my enemies (those who disagree with me and wish me ill) and welcome them with open arms if they ever need my help but any attempt to physically harm me or my family will be defended. I leave it up to the final divine court to pass judgment. Until then, I hold my peace.

    • Rafael,

      I understand. One of the reasons I included the quotes from early Christian voices is because they give us a more precise insight about what Jesus meant by loving our enemies and living as peacemakers who carry our own cross with Jesus. Could it just be that the teaching of Jesus demands of his followers what Tertullian said, “Under no circumstances should a true Christian draw the sword.”? There are still ways of protecting those we love from harm without needing to carry and use a sword.

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

  4. Kyle,

    i appreciate the post. i thought i might just share a resource or two.

    Here’s a free book that records instances of persons who faced violent situations without resorting to violence:

    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19605

    Here’s another such book, not free, but super cheap:

    http://www.amazon.com/Victories-Without-Violence-Ruth-Fry/dp/0943734061/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1438866985&sr=8-1&keywords=victories+without+violence+fry

    Also, i’d like to suggest some of the American resistance to this teaching has to do with historically recent (and therefore non-biblical) normative theories. Consider this blog post i just read this morning:

    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/08/05/a-matter-of-life-and-death/

    That post also has a great quote from Hauerwas in it.

    –guy

  5. Amen! Put on the armour of faith, love, salvation etc. not of war. Offer the other cheek, give them your coat, walk the extra mile, love your enemies, and do good to those that mean you harm….If so, like Jesus, laying down your life may be the answer…

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