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What is love? Part 5: the nature of our love for enemies

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5 minutes to read What does it mean that God is love, that he loves us, and that we are to love him? In part 5, I consider what loving our enemies means in light of onetogetherness, and whether it entails pacifism as some Christians think.

Love of enemy is a particularly difficult duty we are called to. It is the challenging task of striving for onetogetherness with really bad neighbors. And I think it’s worth looking at separately, because many Christians think it entails radical pacifism, and opposition to any kind of violence.

For example, Greg Boyd—frankly, a wolf in a mangy and ill-fitting sheepskin—talks about how we are to love the soldiers of ISIS, and makes out that praying for them and attempting to make peace with them is strictly contradictory to taking up arms against them; even when acting on behalf of a legitimate government, which he acknowledges bears the sword for God!

The first thing to notice, of course, is that people like Boyd are the exact ones who promote foolish definitions of love as simply “doing good” or “desiring flourishing”. Given that they don’t understand what love is, it should come as no surprise that they promote mistaken ideas about how to go about doing it. They are simply inept exegetes, theologians, and philosophers.

But what of more sophisticated Christians, like my friend Ben Askins, who observes:

The Son values, prays for, and remains non-violent toward his enemies—doing the will of the Father. If this is how God in Christ acts toward his enemies, how can I act differently and maintain ‘onetogetherness’ with him?

And that’s a good question—how should we understand love of enemy, and particularly pacifism toward enemy, in light of love as onetogetherness?

Applying the principle rather than the particulars

The first thing to recognize is that the question loses the forest for the trees. Rather than looking at how Jesus acted as a man on a particular mission, we need to step back and find points of analogy between God’s relationship to his enemies, and our relationship to ours, so we can see what the principle looks like which we should follow. To try to figure out the principle from specific circumstances, like Jesus’ actions in first century Palestine, is the exact approach which I argued in part 1 is exactly backwards.

Indeed, using that approach will yield only confusion if we also examine how Jesus acted toward his enemies as the commander of Yahweh’s army in Exodus, or how he is going to act toward his enemies when he returns as the conquering king depicted in Revelation.

Points of analogy

Straight up, it should be obvious that the creator/creature distinction results in a notable amount of disanalogy here. For instance, God has absolute power over his enemies; they are impotent against him. He can separate them from himself forever and punish them eternally. Indeed, he will do this for some of them—which has to temper any conclusions we draw about loving our enemies.

The one principle that does connect God’s redemptive plan, and our relationship to, say, ISIS, is the goal of onetogetherness. Because God desires onetogetherness with his enemies (or at least some of them), he acts to achieve this goal by taking their punishment, and then changing their minds so that they desire the same thing.

By the same token, he commands that we aim for onetogetherness with our enemies. (And I should be surprised if a thoughtful Christian would not prefer that to wiping them out.) The catch is, because God is sovereign while we are not, we may aim for onetogetherness with ISIS, but that doesn’t imply we have the ability to achieve it. Indeed, the chances look extremely remote when we consider our options. It’s not as if we could join them in jihad. When God said to love our enemies, he did not mean to join them in doing evil. Onetogetherness with evil is not the goal; we’re not going to aim for unity with evil at the expense of unity with God. That would obviously be absurd.

The only way to achieve genuine onetogetherness, as I’ve argued, is in God. We can try to live peaceably even with those who are not Christians, but sometimes they force our hand. If they are determined to kill us, peace is not an option. Either they kill us, which makes onetogetherness impossible; or we kill them, which has the same effect. And there is a prima facie duty of self-defense which makes the latter preferable if those are our only options.

(Now, that duty can be overcome by other considerations. But it is a prima facie duty.)

Of course, we should do everything in our power to avoid conflict and share the gospel with our enemies; because our goal is indeed onetogetherness and not mass slaughter—even in self-defense. But although we are to be innocent as doves, we are also to be wise as serpents. We know that although we should start with prayer and the word, we might need to fall back on good ol’ fashioned ordnance.

The problem with pacifism

There is also another critical issue that affects how we should act: ISIS and ourselves are not the only parties to consider in the moral calculus. Our obligation for onetogetherness with God carries obligations of onetogetherness with everyone; not just enemies. We have a duty to love our good neighbors as well. And one of the reasons that ISIS is a significant enemy is that they are killing millions of those good neighbors. Now, if our efforts to achieve onetogetheness with ISIS are at the expense of those lives, then we have simply sacrificed love of neighbor on the altar of love of enemy. Even in the unlikely event that we achieved onetogetherness with ISIS, is it likely God would be pleased with the price we paid? But in fact, pandering to evil does not tend to result in evil changing its ways; it just tends to result in existing goods being destroyed.

Pacifism = sacrificing current or achievable onetogetherness with our good neighbors for the hope of onetogetherness with our bad ones.

So this is the kind of line I think we have to take when trying to understand our obligations to our enemies, in light of God’s actions toward his enemies. I don’t think you can get anything remotely like pacifism out of love construed as onetogetherness, because pacifism would end up destroying onetogetherness in significant and terrible ways.

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