- Eldon Peterson
Love Your Enemies
Following the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, we may wonder how we would respond if something like that happened in our church. We know Jesus’ words, “But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27) Yet, could we or would we even desire to love those who hate us? It is good for us to ask these questions because in doing so we will find that the only path for healing is through forgiveness.
Singer/composer Steven Curtis Chapman says that he was struck by how, “Rev. Pinckney and the other believers gathered at Emanuel AME Church to worship, pray and study God's Word, opened their hearts and made room in their "circle" for a stranger...unknowingly but willingly inviting in the very one who would take the lives of many in their circle. They chose to love...and Love never fails...Love always has the last word!”
It is important for us to understand the interconnectedness of love and forgiveness. Without love there can never be forgiveness and if we are unwilling to forgive then there is no love. “They chose to love...and Love never fails...Love always has the last word!” Martin Luther King Jr. made the following observation about forgiveness at a 1957 Christmas service after he was released from jail for his nonviolent civil disobedience during the Montgomery bus boycott, “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one's enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us.”
John S. Dickerson, in his column in Monday’s USA Today, observed how the families of those killed in Charleston begged “Dylann Roof to turn to God. One after another, they prayed for his soul. One after another, they forgave him. It was neither expected nor explicable, that forgiveness. Such forgiveness is unseen in the animal world, is illogical in the rational world, and is nonsensical to common human nature. Such forgiveness is humanity at its most human, or perhaps its most divine.”
Indeed, it is only as we trust in God that we are able to extend forgiveness. How does one allow for the other? Paul says that the key is for us to lift our eyes off ourselves to others, “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good.” (Romans 12:9) It was only because they knew that God had forgiven them that they were able to extend love and forgiveness to the very person who hated them. How? By knowing that their hope is in God who knows their trials and pains; in God whose love for them brought them grace and forgiveness.
Martin Luther King Jr. also said, “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship.” This was the prayer and hope of the believers at Emanuel AME Church. They longed for Dylann Roof to know the love and forgiveness that Christ died to bring to him. If we were to ask them how they could love those that hate them, they would likely quote Paul, “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” (Romans 5:6, 8)
While we may be tempted seek our pound of flesh when wronged, where will this take us? Rather than bringing us healing, it will consume us. If we doubt the need for or value of loving our enemies, we need to hear King’s observation, “Without [forgiveness], no man can love his enemies. The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies… Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
My prayer is for us to learn from those at Emmanuel AME Church. Rather than seeking excuses to not love our enemies, may we long to show the love and forgiveness that is only seen in Christ.