As the details of the mass-shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, we learned that the killer was targeting Christians. This comes only a few month removed from another mass-shooting where the killer targeted Black Christians at an AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, though racism was the motive in this mass-shooting. Added to all of this is the continued conflicts in the Middle-East and the threat of terrorism, especially the horrific persecution of Christians at the hands of ISIS.
All of that creates a lot of anxiety and I get that. It’s scary to think that a disturbed person might show up where you study or work, or where you worship, and shoot you simply because you are a Christian. It’s even scarier to know that there is a group or terrorists who would like to kill you, or someone like you and do so by cutting off your head or burning you alive. Yet if we allow that anxiety to brew, all kinds of dark emotions and desires take hold. And as we know, fear has been the base of much evil throughout history. Shouldn’t we just wish death upon such people and do everything we can to support taking them out before they get us?
Two Different Responses
Jesus ministered in a time and region filled with more anxiety than we’ll likely ever grasp. The Roman rulers had proved themselves as ruthless in dealing with their political enemies and the Jewish people were among those enemies. Yet within one sermon about the way of life we must live, Jesus says this in Matthew 5:43-45,
“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…”
I know this is not an easy teaching but it’s not an impossible teaching either.
Too often this passage is caught in the middle of the ethical question about whether followers of Jesus can act in defense if they or someone they see is being attacked by an assailant. I understand the importance of this issue but I also think it often keeps us from seeing something profoundly important about this teaching.
Jesus is teaching us to see the enemy differently and treat the enemy differently! When people decide that we are their enemy and plot to do us harm, our instinct is to their level of evil and return the hatred. We do so by plotting how we might do to them as they would do to us. If they want to attack us, we’ll send an army to take them out before they get the opportunity. But Jesus, who defines for us by his own self-sacrificial life of service what is means to love, wants us to see the enemy as a person just like us in order that we will seek their best interest by doing good to them. By doing good to all people, even those who hate us, we participate with God in demonstrating what the inbreaking kingdom-reign of God is like. That, my fellow Christians, is why this difficult teaching is later echoed by both the apostle Paul and apostle Peter (Rom 12:14; 1 Pet 3:9).
How different is that from the advise offered by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Tennessee who, after invoking the mass-shooting in Oregon, urged Christians who are serious about their faith to get a gun. He went on to say, “Our enemies are armed. We must do likewise.” How different is that from what Jesus says! Lt. Gov Ramsey is telling is to see those who may harm us as the enemy rather than as a person like us, who bears the same image of God we bear. Invoking fear rather than encouraging faith, he is telling us that if someone is plotting to kill us then we should plan ahead by arming ourselves so that we might kill them in order to protect ourselves.
This is more than just reacting defensively in the moment, should we ever find ourselves under attack. What Lt. Gov Ramsey is telling us to do is decide now that we are going to respond with deadly force, doing harm in order to protect ourselves from potential harm. How different that is from how Jesus teaches us to live? How different is that from the disciples in Jerusalem who, when faced with a threat, did not discuss how they might arm themselves for protection but came together and prayed that would perform signs and wonders while empowering his servants to preach the gospel with boldness (Acts 4:23-31)?
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not under any illusion that following Jesus is easy, especially when it comes to loving the enemy. It’s not easy and it won’t ever be easy. It could be the way we are called to be a martyr for Jesus, just as it has been for other Christians throughout history. But that is why we must speak with boldness now and remind each other of this important teaching, so that we will encourage faithful discipleship if and when the road does get rough. Should I ever encounter someone doing harm to others, I won’t stand by and do nothing. I pray that I would have the courage to intercede as Chris Mintz did during last weeks shooting, putting himself in harms way to save others. I’ll assume you would do the same. But I won’t resign myself to hating those who hate me and preemptively plotting how I might kill them before they kill me.
We must reject fear and accept faith! If we’re going to live faithfully as followers of Jesus then we must resist any premeditated plan to categorize evil people as our enemy with the intention of doing them harm in order to protect ourselves. To do otherwise is to disembody the gospel, rejecting the way of Jesus when it appears too difficult. What we need is more faith… more faith in Jesus. So on that note, I do agree with one tiny aspect of what Lt. Gov. Ramsey said and that is that Christians should arm themselves. We should arm ourselves by putting on the full armor of God — the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God — and praying we are instructed in Ephesians 6:10-20.