One Sunday, a pastor was preaching on Jesus’ command to love our enemies and he began by saying to his congregation, “I’ll bet that all of us struggle with this command and you may think you are alone but you are not. Raise your hand if you feel you have any enemies.”
Quite a few of the people raised their hands.
“Raise your hand even if you have only a few enemies,” he continued and several more put their hands in the air.
“Now raise your hand even if you have only one enemy,” he pursued. Finally, everyone in the congregation was raising their hand except for one very elderly man in the back row.
The pastor said to him in surprise, “You have no enemies?”
“Not a one,” the man said proudly.
“What a blessing,” the pastor said. “Tell us your secret. How is it that you have no enemies?”
The man grinned triumphantly, “I’ve outlived every one of those snakes!”
This story was in our church newsletter a couple of months ago and it struck me, not because of its punchline but because of the pastor’s original invitation: “Raise your hand if you feel you have any enemies.” I’ve preached many times on Jesus’ declaration that we should love our enemies and yet in some respects, that command has always remained an abstract concept because frankly, I can’t think of anyone that I would put in the category of “enemy.” And I don’t think I’m exceptionally forgiving in that outlook; many of you too, I suspect, would have difficulty naming individuals whom you consider your enemy. Enemy is a strong word and though in our ordinary day to day lives, we may have people who annoy us, who trouble us, who get in our way, drive us crazy, oppose our ideas, and stretch our patience to the limit, we would hesitate to call them our enemies. And yet, we also know that in the larger society, enemies are a reality and in fact, most of the time when I preach about the command to love our enemies, I preach specifically about those more abstract enemies: groups of people with whom we are in conflict and who we feel threaten our existence and well-being. To me, this raises a central question: if it is rare as human beings to have enemies on an individual level and yet not rare at all to be able to name enemies on a social level, then what creates enemies? What turns the ordinary struggles of living with one another into such adversarial relationships that we think of those people no longer as mere opponents but as actual enemies?
I’m preaching a series called, “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” looking at some of the issues and questions that confronted the early church with which we still struggle today and the early church thought a lot about how to cope with those who opposed them. Paul addresses the many types of conflict that arose for the early Christian church both with those outside the church and between factions within the church itself, and Paul’s advice could be summarized as, “The best way to love your enemy is to stop thinking of them as your enemy.” Paul, in essence, argues that what changes our opponents — those with whom experience conflict in human relationships — into enemies — entrenched and adversarial relationships — is not the conflict itself but the way in which we think about the person on the other side of the conflict.
In an article in the Christian journal, “Relevant,” Thomas Christianson wrote, “As I read about the latest shooting, or the latest beheading, my natural response is to dehumanize the people who do these things. I think of them as monsters. Or demons. Or something else that allows me to pretend that they are not fellow humans. But that’s not true. Each one was born. Each one has a mother and a father. They eat. They drink. They have personal stories and experiences full of pain and joy. They are human. And if I take the narrative of the Bible to be true, they are fellow children of God. They are loved by God….
“I want to be very clear:” he continues, “I’m not supporting or accepting terrorism or mass shootings. I’m also not arguing against legal consequences for those actions. But if I [say I] hate the people who undertake these actions, I [have to recognize that I] am not hating monsters or demons. I’m hating fellow humans. Some are suffering from mental illness, or from personal anguish or from religious manipulation…. We like to live in a binary, black and white world, where everyone is basically “good” or “bad.” But life isn’t so cut and dried. Someone can be guilty of terrible things and still deserve compassion.” 1
Paul tells us that loving our enemy simply means refusing to dehumanize them: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” While that last bit about burning coals may sound a little vengeful, Paul is making the point that our refusal to dehumanize our enemy will in turn make it more difficult for our enemy to dehumanize us. Biblical scholar, Matt Skinner said, “When we extend generosity and justice to others, it alters our relationship to them…. Hospitality has ways of making the people who receive it come inside and stick around, whether we really want them to or not.” 2
One man who understood this was Richard Kirkland, a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Union army attacked a firmly-entrenched Confederate army, and wave after wave of the Union men fell on the fields, shot by the Confederates protected behind their stone walls. During lulls in the fighting, the agonized moaning of wounded Union soldiers filled the air but because the ground where they fell was unprotected, the Union army didn’t dare to go to them and so they lay helpless in their suffering. Eventually, a young man on the Confederate side, Richard Kirkland, couldn’t stand listening to the wounded cries for help and he begged his general for permission to give water and aid to the injured. His general tried to dissuade him, pointing out that as soon as he ventured on the field, he would be exposed to the Union guns, but Kirkland was insistent. When his general relented, Kirkland gathered several canteens of water and went over the wall. The Union army saw him scrambling through the field and began to fire but when they saw that he was bringing water to their wounded, they stopped and instead began to cheer. Kirkland’s canteens were soon empty, and when he returned to his side of the wall, the hostilities resumed but a minute later, Kirkland appeared again with more water and supplies, and the Union guns stopped. All night this went on, enabling Kirkland to reach most of the wounded, and his act of compassion led to his being remembered by men on both sides of the war as “The Angel Of Marye Heights.”. 3
Kirkland’s kindness toward the enemy was remembered not just because of his care but because of the contrast between his insistence on caring for the enemy and the continuation of the fighting every time he left the field. His act “heaped coals” upon the heads of others and continues to challenge our desire to dehumanize our opponents, ignore their suffering, and demean their value. We can’t control how others think about us, but we can control how we think about others and the best way to love our enemies is to refuse to dehumanize them. We may have people who annoy us, who trouble us, who get in our way, drive us crazy, oppose our ideas, and stretch our patience to the limit; but they are still human beings loved by God. There may even be people who try to hurt us, kill us, and challenge our fundamental convictions, but they are still human beings loved by God. There may be people who have been so consumed by their own hate and greed that we have to stand against them in protest and sometimes maybe even in war in order to protect others from their cruelty, but as unrecognizable as their hate may have made them, we have to hold firmly to the conviction that they are still human beings loved by God.
To love your enemy by refusing to reduce them to only your enemy but retain in your hearts your conviction that they too are fellow human beings may be simple to say but it is incredibly hard to do which is why we celebrate those who do so as heroes. On Memorial Day, we honor the men and women who gave their lives for their country but we reserve our greatest honor for those who not only had the courage and conviction to serve but who also insisted on retaining the humanity of all of those they engaged, even their opponents. The battle they fought was not on the field but in the struggle of their own human hearts, and the victory for which they are honored is the triumph of overcoming hatred with love, of overcoming evil with good.
In December 1943, Hanz Stigler was a proficient German pilot fighting the Allied forces. His brother had died early in the war and Allied forces had begun bombing German cities so when Stigler saw an American B-17 bomber flying in front of him, he had every reason to shoot it down. Moreover, he needed to take out only one more plane to secure the German equivalent of the Medal of Honor. Nevertheless, Stigler realized that the American bomber wasn’t firing back at him, and so he flew in for a closer look. He was able to get close enough to see that the gunner was dead, most of the crew wounded, and the pilot was struggling to keep the damaged plane aloft. Maybe it was because Stigler thought it dishonorable to kill men in cold blood; or maybe it was that once he saw the suffering and fear on the faces of his enemy, he could no longer depersonalize them but knew them to be fellow human beings. Whatever the reason, Stigler signaled to the shocked American pilot to follow him, and he then escorted the plane to protect it from German anti-aircraft artillary. When he reached the North Sea, he saluted the pilot, and flew away.
Firfty years later, the American pilot, Charles Brown, tracked down Hanz Stigler and the two became close friends. Brown invited Stigler to a reunion with the rest of the plane’s crew and at that reunion, they honored Stigler and showed him a video of all of their children and grandchildren, people who would never have been born if Stigler had let the crew die.4
“Bless those who persecute you;” Paul said, “bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep…. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”
May we all be victorious in the battlefields of our own hearts, refusing to dehumanize our opponents, repaying evil with God, and insisting on seeing every person as a fellow human being and child of God.