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Do we see those who disagree with us, who hold differing theological positions, political agendas, or religious ideas, as “enemies”? Jesus wants us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. One of the preachers’ most challenging tasks is calling our congregations (and ourselves) to identify and love our neighbors. While scholars tell us that 1st-century definitions of who constituted a “neighbor” were narrower than our 21st-century Protestant concepts of the man or woman living next door, the idea is easy to grasp while hard to put into practice. We should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. However, our neighbors may be annoying, loud, of a different political party, and God forbid we may hold religious, racial, or social prejudices against them. Sometimes our neighbor, whom Jesus called us to love, might even be our enemy.

It’s one thing to have neighbors, friends, and acquaintances. It’s another thing altogether to have enemies. Who has enemies? Superheroes have enemies and nemeses. Regular people who work ordinary jobs with kitchen table issues and pay taxes to the IRS don’t have enemies, do we? Maybe we do and don’t realize it. Perhaps we do, and do we recognize them? That’s what scares me.

The Bible talks a great deal about enemies. The plural form, enemies, is found eight times in Matthew’s gospel and occurs 140 times in the New Testament. Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, seems to assume that we all have enemies. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!” That’s a beautiful verse. I’ve quoted it thousands of times. Yet now, I’m starting to think about it a bit more deeply. To someone who lives in Ukraine and may see the Russians as their enemy and feels persecuted because they’re being bombed daily, I know that verse possesses a veracity I’ve never felt. Sure, there are people I don’t like and those who don’t like me. Maybe I’ve been picked on a time or two but never to the level that would meet the persecution standard, as Jesus (or your average Ukrainian or Sudanese caught in a civil war) would know it. It seems trite to quote the verse. After all, I’m a white man living in the United States. What do I know about persecution or enemies? Nothing. Who or what is my enemy? The inevitability of prostate cancer.

In this time of global, national, and denominational polarization, we are conditioned to think of “the other” as our enemy. I believe considering anyone as our enemy currently is a little odd. For example, China may be the most significant geopolitical adversary to the United States, but we still shop at Wal-Mart. Our two economies are interwoven, and we cannot survive without the other. So even China isn’t our “enemy” in a traditional secular sense.

Jesus asks us to love our enemies, yet we haven’t found a better word to use for people we don’t get along with other than a word dripping with negativity and militaristic connotations. The word “enemy” carries lots of baggage. It’s a word steeped in the imagery of war, violence, death, and destruction. We are primed to kill, conquer, and destroy our enemies. The last thing we want to do is love our enemies. Yet, this is what Jesus calls us to do. He says, “Those emotions are probably inside each of us, somewhere, directed toward some people, somewhere. That’s an unhealthy way to live. Try love instead of hate. Look for the good in people.” Maybe he chooses “enemies” for a reason, because our self-described enemies are the most demanding people for us to love. And real Christ-like, authentic, cross-Centered love is hard. If you can find the Beatitude where Jesus said it would be easy, I’d love to see it.

–Richard Bryant