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John W. MartensFebruary 04, 2014

In the movies, a persecuted protagonist can exact revenge on the evil antagonist and the theater audience cheers! Movie heroes and heroines have limitless scope to exact vengeance on the villains because “they have it coming.” Moral considerations melt away in the shared reverie of personal payback. We in the cinema seats can relate because we share the desire to take vengeance on those who have hurt us or a loved one. When we are harmed, intuitive, pre-rational feelings begin to bubble up that propel us to hurt the person who injured us.

Feelings of anger and a desire for vengeance in response to harm are more than ancient; they are primal, something human beings have been struggling to manage individually and communally for ages. In Chapter 19 of the Book of Leviticus, Moses outlined the commands of God for those who had been harmed, directing the Israelites not to “hate in your heart anyone of your kin” and not to “take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” God’s commands direct the Israelites away from hate, vengeance and grudges, not only in actions but in their hearts as well.

While these commands are directed to the Israelites alone in Leviticus, as behaviors essential for holiness, Jesus extends their application to all of his followers in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus cites Lv 19:18 when he tells his followers: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Jesus gives only a portion of the verse from Leviticus, but adds a phrase, “hate your enemy,” which is not found in the Bible.

Since “neighbor” in the Leviticus passage originally related to relations among fellow Israelites, some scholars have seen Jesus’ additional phrase as proverbial wisdom indicating how “other” people beyond the Jews were to be treated. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Rule of the Community, even states that the members must “love all the sons of light” and “detest all the sons of darkness” (1:9-10). Since the sectarians of the Dead Sea included many of their own Jewish people among the “sons of darkness,” however, it is clear that the definition of who is a “neighbor” or an “enemy” transcends ethnic or religious limits.

So where might Jesus’ additional phrase to “hate your enemy” have come from? He might have drawn it from a common saying, but more likely he draws it from the reality of human hearts. To hate someone is to not love them. This becomes explicit when we designate someone an enemy. Where do people say, “Hate your enemy”? Wherever there are enemies. Hate, that is, knows no boundaries; it can be found within families or directed toward a distant enemy, and it can be found wherever people hurt each other.

Hate’s reach is universal, which is why love also must know no boundaries if it is to transform the lives of both persecutor and victim. The love of enemy to which Jesus calls us is counterintuitive and foolish. It challenges us not just to love the ones we already love, but those who have given us every reason not to love them. Yet Jesus calls us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” And Paul challenges us to be fools for Christ, and to be holy as God is holy, as he reminds the church in Corinth, “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” In both verses, you is plural. We, the church, are called to be perfect, are named that holy temple and are called to love so that we “may be children of your father in heaven.”

It is this desire, grounded in the longing to be holy as God is holy, that allows us to rise above our feelings for vengeance, feelings which the world understands, accepts and might even urge on us, to love our enemy. In the love of enemy we convert not only our own hearts, but the possibility exists that when we forego destroying enemies with weapons of vengeance, then love, the weapon of the spirit, will transform them.

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