Love your Enemies

By Joe Boot / June 1, 2015

Topic Justice

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Peace, justice and love are defined for us in God’s Word and by His divine character. Therefore there is a right way to seek after these things and we must be careful to discern it by the application of Scripture.

Love your Enemies

An oft-cited argument of the pacifist is the appeal to Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount and the command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:43-48); they conclude that this commandment rules out self-defence or war. So what might loving and praying for our enemies look like in the face of threatened war? What does this requirement mean in a context of violent hostility and aggression against our person or nation? The confusion of the pacifist here is in their understanding of the meaning of love and the purpose of prayer.

First, prayer is appealing to God on behalf of our enemies, but what are we to pray for? We might pray earnestly for their redemption; for their conversion; for a change in their hearts and actions; or even for God’s justice to be realized in their lives. The imprecatory Psalms (which have Jesus’ full stamp of authority) pray for God’s vengeance on his enemies! This is also prayer for enemies and biblically legitimate.

Second, loving our enemies is not about changing our emotional feelings, enabling us to let evil have its way. We should not try to artificially work up emotional feelings of affection for our enemies; that is not what it means to love them. Nor is it loving to let evil have its way – it is not loving to the perpetrator or victim. We should remember again that in this great sermon Jesus is interpreting the law of Moses, which already required love for enemies (Ex. 23:4-5; Lev. 19:17; Deut. 10:19; Prov. 24:17; 25:21).

As these passages make clear, love for enemies has nothing to do with how we feel, and everything to do with our obedience to God. Thus to love your enemy is to obey God’s law with respect to them. So we do not steal from, murder, commit adultery with, or lie, about even our enemies. St. Paul is clear about the nature of love in Romans 13:10, stating that love is the fulfillment of the law. Obeying God’s law regarding all people is love for our neighbor, friend or enemy. But God’s law does not forbid self-defence or just war. In fact God lays down rules of war, and He requires exact justice and the execution of murderers and rapists and kidnappers by legitimate authority to realize justice and restore peace.

Justice of the peace

Justice and peace are not incompatible. It is justice that brings peace. In Scripture God calls us to seek peace and pursue it. St. Paul tells us that as far as it depends upon us, we should seek to live in peace with all people (Rom. 12:18). Because of the Christian emphasis on peace, kindness, justice, reconciliation etc., war has been seen by most Christians as something to avoid as far as humanly possible. Christian ‘Just War’ theories, then (including Augustine’s), are not attempts to find ways of sanctioning war as far as possible, but to limit it as far as humanly possible.

However, sometimes people will not let us live in peace, and unprovoked aggression and hostility means that concord no longer depends upon us, but the actions of others. At such times, self-defence and war are an appropriate response, for only the realization of a measure of justice can restore peace. But even then, God has rules of war to prevent the abuse of people and creation (Deut. 20:19-20; 20:10; 21:14).

Christian theologians, then, in a world plagued by conflict, have sought to argue that war should be countenanced only when self-defence and justice demand it, and other routes to realizing that defense and justice are either exhausted or impossible to pursue. This means that wars pursued for the purpose of profit, aggressive unprovoked warfare for seizures of land and property from other nations, are nowhere sanctioned in Just War theory, nor endorsed in the Bible. 

In the world of St. Augustine, perhaps the earliest to write on the subject of just warfare, just war was easier to define because it was clear when an implacable enemy was at the gates of the city and had no desire for peace. Today, however, when nuclear missiles can be fired from submarines and ICBMs can reach nations from vast distances, when economic resources and trade deeply affect military threat and capability, defining what constitutes defensive action can be more difficult.

Moreover, in a world where global news reaches into our homes, can we be indifferent or turn a blind eye to genocide, and the horrendous abuse of other human beings? What is a war of illegal interference, and what is a war for the defense and protection of the innocent? These lines are clearly harder to draw in the modern world, but we must do our best to discern when defensive action is necessary and when it is illegitimate or counter-productive. Neither can we allow patriotism to blind us to lawless action motivated solely by national interest.

World War II is perhaps a good illustration of a just war in modern history. The aggression of the Nazis was unprovoked, ideological hatred that spilled over into total war with no regard for treaties, peace agreements or human life. The holocaust that marked this conflict is one of the worst evils perpetrated in history. I would ask the pacifist if it would have been more loving for the British not to have declared war on Nazi Germany and to have allowed the Nazis to march through Europe and Africa, taking rule over much of the world, whilst eliminating the world’s Jews. Or was the military defeat of Nazism by the allies and the liberation of the concentration camps ultimately a work of justice? I don’t think there is more than one rational, moral and biblical answer to that question.

The Prince of Peace

In the gospel, God fights for righteousness and justice against evil, and indeed the Christian life is pictured as one of conflict and war against a spiritual foe (Eph. 6:10-20). Jesus depicts His gospel work as conquering the strong man’s fortress (Luke 11:21), destroying the work of the devil (1 John 3:8), and at the cross, Paul tells us, He leads captivity captive, disarming powers and authorities, triumphing over principalities and powers (Col. 2:15). The truth is, much of the imagery of gospel triumph and Christian life is militaristic. Indeed, there is no contradiction between peacemaking and conflict, for it is through the conflict that peace is won. There is no incoherence in the God who is both a warrior and the Prince of Peace. For we are assured in His word, “The God of peace, shall soon crush Satan under your feet (Rom. 16:20).”