“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 sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:41-47)
We are called to actively love our enemies and do good to those who hate us.
Do these words of Jesus nullify the Law? No, because the Law never commanded Israel to hate its enemies—although it only commanded them to love their neighbors (Lev 19:18). Still, there are multiple examples of love shown to enemies in the OT.
We are challenged to go far beyond the minimum standard of social / familial decency (kindness to friends and family). We are to love even our enemies!
The early church held to this teaching for three centuries:
Justin Martyr: “We used to hate and destroy one another. We would not live with men of a different race because of their peculiar customs. However, now, since the coming of Christ, we live intimately with them. We pray for our enemies and endeavor to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good teachings of Christ.We do this to the end that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope of a reward from God, the Ruler of all.” First Apology 14. Also: “We who formerly murdered one another now refrain from making war even upon our enemies.” ANF 1.176.
Clement of Alexandria: “It is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained.” ANF 2.234.
Tertullian: “We willingly yield ourselves to the sword. So what wars would we not be both fit and eager to participate in (even against unequal forces), if in our religion it were not counted better to be slain than to slay?" ANF 3.45. He adds, “The Christian does no harm even to his enemy.” ANF 3.45.
Cyprian: “Wars are scattered all over the earth with the bloody horror of military camps. The whole world is wet with mutual blood. And murder—which is acknowledged to be a crime in the case of an individual—is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not because they are guiltless, but because the cruelty is perpetrated on a grand scale!” ANF 5.277.
Lactantius: “The Christian considers it unlawful not only to commit slaughter himself, but also to be present with those who do it.” Divine Institutes ANF 7.153. Also: “How can a man be righteous who hates, who despoils, who puts to death? Yet, those who strive to be serviceable to their country do all these things. ...When they speak of the ‘duties’ relating to warfare, their speech pertains neither to justice nor to true virtue.” ANF 7.169
Aristides: “They comfort their oppressors and make them their friends. They do good to their enemies.” ANF 10.276.
Origen: “We are taught not to avenge ourselves upon our enemies. We have therefore lived by laws of a mild and wise character. Although able, we would not make war even if we had received authority to do so. Therefore, we have obtained this reward from God: that He has always fought on our behalf. On various occasions, He has restrained those who rose up against us and desired to destroy us.” Against Celsus 8.
Lactantius: “Torture and godliness are widely different. It is not possible for truth to be united with violence or justice to be united with cruelty. …Religion is to be defended—not by putting to death—but by dying. It is not defended by cruelty, but by patient endurance.” Divine Institutes (ANF 7.156-157).
The Didache: “If you love those who hate you, you will not have an enemy.” Didache 3
Chrysostom: “You should feel grateful to an enemy on account of his wickedness. This is so even if he is evil to you after receiving from you ten thousand kindnesses. For if he were not exceedingly evil, your reward would not be significantly increased. You may say that the reason you do not love him is because he is evil. However, that is the very reason you should love him. Take away the contestant, and you take away the opportunity for the crowns.” Homilies on Hebrews 19.5.
Paul taught the same:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. ... Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom 12:14, 17-21).
To illustrate, when the early Christian leader Polycarp was arrested, he first directed that food and drink be brought to the soldiers who were about to bring him to execution. Martyrdom of Polycarp 7:2
The observation of Ammianus
Roman soldier and historian Ammianus Marcellinus (c.330-400 AD) noted that rival Christian parties exceeded wild beasts in their hostility toward one another!
What changed in the 4th century? The state and the church become inseparably connected.
From the disastrous 4th century till the present day
In the fourth century, most of the Roman emperors professed to embrace Christianity. Nevertheless, they continued to kill their opponents (even family members) and to wage war—ignoring the teaching of Christ.
At first, Christians refused to fight in their armies, as in earlier centuries, soldiers who became Christians refused to kill. However, in time the state church relaxed its teachings on nonresistance.
Eventually, Augustine (354-430 AD) came up with a rationalization to defend both personal vengeance and war: It’s permissible to kill enemies as long as we still “love” them!
As a result, fighting, killing and revenge became the norm in medieval “Christian” Europe.
Professing Christians waged war against Muslims, pagans, and fellow “Christians.” They persecuted heretics (real or imagined), tortured people, and oppressed the weak in the name of God.
Not surprisingly, Catholics and Reformers alike persecuted those genuine Christians who refused to go to war and who spoke out against torture and oppression.
Act lovingly towards enemies, strangers, and people we do not like.
Take some time to compare Paul’s teaching with Jesus’s.
Invest in learning some early church history, and how the church embraced the teaching of the world regarding enemies.
Refuse to take credit for behaving kindly and decently to friends and family.
If you’re disturbed by any of these teachings, take time to pray.
originally posted from Douglas Jacoby, used with permission.