Oklahoma City, New York City, Riyadh, Aden, Sandy Hook, Boston. Timothy McVeigh, Khalid Sheik Mohammad, Osama Bin Laden, Adam Lanza, the Tzarnaev brothers. While parts of the world have experienced random violence against civilians for years, it seems that agenda-driven mass violence — terrorism—has touched the United States in this generation, more than ever in our history. Some even say we’ve entered an “age of terrorism.”
There’s no doubt that our nation is afraid. We mask it in bluster, anger, and threats, but underneath our most bellicose language lies the frightened notion that we can either fight them “over there,” or we’ll have to fight them “here.” And when the “they” turn out to be “us,” or at least living among us, the fear multiplies as we scramble to arm ourselves, to strengthen our surveillance and weaken legal restraints that might compromise our security. Whether or not this is an age of terrorism, we certainly are a generation terrorized.
Into this atmosphere of terror, Jesus’ command to love our enemies is baffling. How, Lord, are we to love those who hate our nation so much they want us dead, or even worse, want to harm or kill those we hold dear? Half a world away in geography, we (most of us, anyway) can’t reach out to touch them. A universe away in philosophy, we can only satisfy them by dying. What, Jesus, are we to do?
There’s a bumper sticker I have seen from time to time that says “when Jesus said to love our enemies, he probably meant ‘don’t kill them.’” That’s a start. But not-killing is by itself a passive non-action, and hardly rises to the level of love. Perfect love, the Apostle John says in 1 John 4:18, casts out fear. While none of us loves perfectly, it seems logical that even imperfect love reduces or controls fear. We might even say the two are inversely proportional—the more love, the less fear, and vice versa. John goes on in verse 20 to say that if we don’t love those we can see, we’re lying if we claim to love the God we can’t see. Clearly, this stuff matters.
But maybe in John’s explanation we can find a way to do this thing. Maybe the way out of our fearful hole is to start loving those we do see, who get caught up in our broad definitions of “enemy.” When we Americans focus on radical Islamist terror, all too frequently our Muslim neighbors become part of the hated enemy by association. When the focus shifts to government-hating American militiamen, our hatred spills over onto isolationist conservatives. All too easily, fear of the few metastasizes into fear and even hatred of the many. At its extreme, our fear walls us off from anyone we perceive as not like us.
The call of Jesus is to smash those walls we’ve built, to reach through the breach, to touch and meet and serve those we thought were enemies. Not just the ones halfway around the world, but the ones in our neighborhoods and towns who may be hiding in fear themselves. We may never understand and connect with the radicals of al Qaeda in the Middle East, but that might not matter quite so much if we just learn to love and respect the ordinary people worshiping at the mosque just down the street. Just maybe, we might discover that people others told us were our enemies, are just as scared as we are. Perhaps love can drive out not only our fear of them, but theirs of us too.
Or perhaps not. One of the great fallacies of our modern life is the assumption that we have the right to live in peace and security. Though I tremble to say it, the plain truth is that Jesus never promised us safety in this world; quite the contrary. We need to get serious about the fact that—practically speaking—the way of peace does not always “work.” Those who love sometimes die in the process. Jesus did. So did many who’ve come after him, and so, frankly, may some of us. Jesus did not say “love your enemies, for in so doing you will find they love you back.” Instead, he said “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” (Matt. 5:44-45). While love can and often does bring healing, sometimes it will simply give us the strength to face the threats of our enemy, without fear, and without threat in return.
It may well be that we cannot stop terrorism. But in the perfect love of Jesus Christ, we can stop being terrorized. May all of us learn that love.