“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
To whom are these words addressed and what are their political significance? Let me suggest that this teaching makes best sense when its context, The Gospel of Matthew, is understood as a political document. It begins by establishing Jesus as the true ruler or political authority through its use of the term “kingdom.” There are seventeen references to that term or one of its cognates in the first seven chapters of Matthew. The first appears in the genealogy, Matt 1:6, when it presents Jesus as “King of the Jews.” The same title will be placed on the cross as the indictment against him (27:37). The gospel is a political contestation about what constitutes the true kingdom, the true city, true political rule. The Sermon on the Mount manifests the shape of political life that takes place once God’s rule in Christ the King has been established. It is marked first by “beatitude.” The first beatitude assures its readers/hearers that the poor in spirit inherit the “kingdom of heaven.” Other beatitudes are then announced, after which Jesus refers to his disciples as “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” Correlated with the latter is another political term, this time not defined in terms of “kingdom,” but another essential ancient political entity – a “city.” Jesus tells them, with what most take to be a clear reference to Jerusalem, that a “city set on a hill is not able to be hidden.” Jesus does not tell his disciples to be a city set on a hill; he tells them that they are this and their light cannot but shine.
Because Jesus fulfills the law, he tells his disciples that those who loose any of its commands “shall be called least” in the kingdom, and those who observe and teach it “shall be called great.” What these commands are is not easily identified. Is he speaking about the Jewish Torah, or his reinterpretation of it in what follows? It is most likely the latter, although Matthew appears to be writing to a Jewish-Christian community who has not abandoned Torah, but finds in Jesus its fulfillment. If this is true, then it is significant that Matthew does not reject those who “loose” the commands, but identifies them as “least” in the kingdom. Does this provide evidence that Matthew did not assume everyone would abide by Jesus’ difficult teaching in the Sermon? Lesser adherence is still possible in the kingdom? Roman Catholic moral theology, like our Wesleyan tradition, affirms a Christocentric ethics of perfection, but it does so by dividing the evangelical counsels for religious who seek perfection from the biblical commands binding on all. Unlike our Wesleyan tradition, it does not assume the pursuit of a Christocentric ethics of perfection is available to everyone. The difficult teaching is affirmed for those seeking perfection, but those involved in everyday politics live by a different standard. One reading of Martin Luther’s protest is to understand him as opening the pursuit of evangelical perfection to all Christians. Wesley did so as well.
Wesley understood the Sermon as autobiographical; the Sermon first describes Jesus’s righteousness (see Sermon 21, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount I”). But he also thought that righteousness could be ours, that we were called to put on the “righteousness of Christ” and not simply claim that we are justified by it without it perfecting us (see Sermon 20, “The Lord Our Righteousness”). He did not develop a sufficient political theology or address at length the question of violence. He affirmed the then-prevalent teaching of the Church of England that, when the ruling authorities say go to war and kill in their name, one does it. But he lamented the violence and war Christian were perpetrating on each other.
As we are preparing to tear ourselves apart both in the church and the world at this moment, it is good to remember again his words:
You may well say (but not in the ancient sense) “See how these Christians love one another!” These Christian kingdoms that are tearing out each other’s bowels, desolating one another with fire and sword! These Christian armies that are sending each other by thousands, by ten thousands, quick into hell! . . . Yea, what is most dreadful, most to be lamented of all, these Christian churches! – churches. . . that hear the name of Christ, “the Prince of Peace,” and wage continual war with each other. … O God! How long? Shall thy promise fail? Fear it not, ye little flock. Against hope believe in hope. It is your Father’s good pleasure yet to renew the face of the earth. Surely all these things shall come to an end, and the inhabitants of the earth shall learn righteousness. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they know war anymore.” … They shall all be without spot or blemish, loving one another, even as Christ hath loved us. Be thou part of the first-fruits if the harvest is not yet.” (Sermon 22, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount II”)
What are the implications of the biblical teaching on loving our enemies in the context of our Wesleyan tradition? Perhaps the best implication is already with us; it is found in article 16 of our Confession of Faith – which our forebears in the faith presented and accepted, making it binding on all of us: “We believe war and bloodshed are contrary to the gospel and spirit of Christ. We believe it is the duty of Christian citizens to give moral strength and purpose to their respective governments through sober righteousness and godly living.” This should be the expectation of all the people called Methodist, but like the Sermon we should tolerate those who “loose” the commands and acknowledge there is a place for them as well in the kingdom – for the purpose of loving our enemy is to make sure they (we) are still present to each other to hear Christ’s demanding but gracious word. To kill them or separate from them is not to hear Christ’s difficult teaching well.