If I’m completely honest, I’ve been really discouraged as of late. A major source of my discouragement has been the way the American evangelical church (a tribe I have identified with for most of my life, so my critique and exhortation will be directed there) has chosen to engage the world in this season marked by division, violence, and trauma. Now, I admit I’m speaking in generalities, but rather than being the healing balm to society’s gaping wounds, we have often contributed to the bleeding by either withdrawing in fear or adding fuel to the violence.
I actually believe that if the American evangelical church took Jesus’ life and teachings seriously, our collective presence globally would not be associated with violence and division, but with hope and reconciliation. Call me crazy, but I believe the church — at her best — can be an instrument of peace in the world. The collective impact of the American evangelical church (which, obviously, is only one segment of the church global) on the world is unprecedented. That impact can either be associated with revenge (which it largely has been) or reconciliation.
When we are more driven by our fear to defend what is ours from the enemy “over there” than freed to live fully into our mandate to love, we morph into something we were never intended to be … and our actions follow suit:
Fear trumps hope.
Isolation trumps invitation.
Stereotype trumps understanding.
Dogma trumps generosity.
Critique trumps curiosity.
Safety trumps faithfulness.
And, ultimately, hate trumps love.
So, what is one reason I still have hope for the American evangelical church?
As much as you may be thinking I’m going to say Amy Grant’s infamous Christmas album or Nic Cage’s sterling performance in Left Behind or our fascinatingly disturbing alignment with the “politics” of Donald Trump, it is none of those.
What gives me hope is that we follow a God who, in Jesus, invites us to not only love our neighbor, but our enemy.
We follow an enemy-loving God.
I think we often miss how unbelievably significant and world-altering the implications of this mandate can be if we actually took it seriously. Having sat at the feet of religious teachers from all over the world representing many different traditions, I’ve never heard a teaching so radically provocative, subversive, and compelling as Jesus’ words of enemy-love in Matthew 5.
Of course, Jesus didn’t just teach this stuff, he embodied it as he’s dying at the hands of the “enemy” saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). I would argue that living this mandate is the best, most tangible contribution the American evangelical church can make in our divided world. In fact, I think this matters so much, our world can’t afford to have us withdraw from Jesus’ invitation to enemy-love.
Why do I believe the American evangelical church can actually live this out?
1. Church history affirms that a commitment to enemy-love is a normative element of discipleship. Dr. Ron Sider recently did an exhaustive study of the early church’s response to violence and found that there were no accounts of Christians responding to violence with violence for the first 300 years of its existence (Jesus to Constantine). Violence only infected the church when Constantine married Empire and militarism with Christianity in the fourth century.
2. I’ve seen it being lived out all over the world, and it has inspired and completely reshaped my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.
It’s being lived out in war zones in Iraq by my friends with the Preemptive Love Coalition.
It’s being lived out under military occupation in the West Bank village of Bethany by my friends Milad and Manar.
It’s being lived out in deportation shelters in Tijuana by my friend Gilberto at Casa Del Migrante.
It’s being lived out on the streets of East Oakland by my friend Ben McBride of the Empower Initiative.
Although we are still stumbling into this, it’s being lived out among my community right on our streets in Golden Hill.
And, here’s the thing: Every time hatred and violence is returned not with revenge, but with forgiveness and love, the world actually begins to reorder itself into the way God designed it to function all along.
The cycle of violence is immediately destroyed. The humanity and dignity of the abused is revealed. The inhumanity of the actions by the “enemy” are exposed for all to see. Relationships strengthen and deepen in mutuality. Imagination and creativity grow as we see that another way is actually possible (Jesus called it the Kingdom of God!). And, ultimately, people actually see, experience, and are transformed by this revolutionary first-century rabbi from Palestine we’ve all been trying to follow all along.
This, my friends, is Good News. This gives me hope.
This is our invitation and opportunity to join God in healing a broken world by living in the most counterintuitive and counter-cultural way imaginable.
It’s going to cost us something. In fact, it may cost us everything. But, it is in our willingness to die that the soil is prepared for new life.
Despite our temptation to be discouraged and paralyzed by our collective failures, we have something to contribute to a hurting world.
Now, let’s get after it.