In a recent issue of AMERICA magazine, John Donahue makes this comment: “Virtually no Christian group has adopted Jesus’ teaching on love of enemy as the critical test of orthodoxy. Yet Jesus issues four ringing commands: love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you.”
That remark deserves to be highlighted, especially at a time when Christian circles are so painfully polarized and so many individuals and groups, from both the left and the right, are trying to impose on others their own view of what constitutes a true Christian.
For example, within conservative circles there is the perennial itch to draw very hard and clear lines in regards to what constitutes a genuine following of Christ. Some people are defined as real Christians and others are deemed to be in heresy, in error, or lacking in some essential of the faith. Some are seen as “in” and others are seen as “out”. But who’s “in” and who’s “out” is generally judged along these lines; intellectual adherence to a very clearly defined set of creedal statements (about Jesus and the church); acceptance of a number of moral precepts to do with church-going, prayer, and private morality; and, in the neo-conservatism of many of today’s young, a re-emphasis on canon law and rubrics as a test of one’s catholicity.
Liberal circles, despite their protests, are generally no less dogmatic. For them, the critical test of what defines who’s “in” and who’s “out” generally has to do with social justice. Those who try to live the gospel demand for justice are understood as true followers of Jesus. The rest are seen as caught up in a distracting piety. How they apply this as the litmus-test for Christian orthodoxy might look different from what the conservatives do, since liberals aren’t much into accusing others of heresy, but in terms of attitude, there is little to choose between the left and the right. Both are highly selective and exclusive as to whom they define as actually living the gospel. There is more commonality between liberals and conservatives than first meets the eye.
Sadly, what is too common to both circles is anger, accusation, a giving back in kind, and a not-so-subtle hatred of those who hold a different view. What one sees too little of (both in terms of actual practice as well as in terms of any kind of theoretical enshrinement of it as the guiding principle for Christian orthodoxy) is love of enemy, forgiveness, and compassion. One might also mention that very little humour emanates from either circle. What conservatives and liberals share today is certain grandiosity which makes them both believe that their causes are so cosmic and serious that all humour and playfulness are ex officio excluded. Thank God, both still drink wine; at least we haven’t abandoned Jesus on this!
All of this can be said without in any way denigrating the critical importance of the issues that liberals and conservatives put so much energy into defending. The right is right in defending the importance of proper dogma and private morality, just as the left is correct in singling out justice as a central piece in Jesus’ message. These things aren’t politically correct – they are correct. Jesus, as we know, makes both private morality and social justice non-negotiable. Neither may be down-played. Likewise, as history has painfully taught us, bad dogma invariably makes for bad religion and intellectual heresies all too often become viral heresies that infect real life in bad ways. There is need for some clear and defining lines.
But in the end, the acid-test for Christian orthodoxy is something else, something more demanding, and something that lies closer to the heart of what is most unique and novel within Jesus, namely, his call to love our enemies, to not give back in kind, to wish good and do good to those who are unkind to us.
That is also the message that comes through in Jesus’ death and resurrection. What is revealed in Jesus’ death and resurrection? A number of things: God can be trusted, God delivers on hope, what’s dead can be redeemed, dead bodies can come back from the grave (even physically), and God’s patience and love are infinite and outlast all else. All of that, the vindication of ancient hope, is revealed in Jesus’ dying and rising. But the resurrection also has a startling new message. Because God can be absolutely trusted to love and redeem us, we need to love and forgive our enemies. We may not give back in kind, but must love those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and do good to those who do bad to us.
To love one’s enemy is the acid-test of who’s a Christian and who isn’t. Everything else is an old tape, simply replaying itself over and over.