when Jesus said “love your enemies,” he probably meant we shouldn’t kill them
I used to be a staunch supporter of the death penalty.
I can still make the arguments in favor of it – I can still speak that language when I need to – and I still believe in the principle that justice is deserved for the families of victims of tragedy, but over time I came to the realization that the old adage is actually true: violence is not redemptive, and an eye for an eye really does leave the whole world blind.
I changed sides on this issue about a year ago, after talking with some good friends including my roommate about how the radical claims of self-sacrifice and nonviolence that Jesus of Nazareth espouses in his Gospel teachings relate to the American prison-industrial complex.
The change started with my declaration that I supported the death penalty in principle but no longer in execution because of the gigantic racial bias that the system operates under. It disturbed me that you are many times more likely to get the death penalty if you’re an African American male than, say, if you were a white guy. (And God forbid your victim was white? There’s a huge chance that the unaddressed systemic racism that undergirds our entire prison system would see you put to death).
Anyhow, what eventually happened was that I realized I could no longer reconcile the worldview I had inherited (a decidedly Christian paradigm) with a government-sanctioned system of killing incarcerated individuals.
But I still point fingers and ache for the blood of the guilty to be shed. I still enjoy watching shows like Dexter, I still derive grisly pleasure from hearing about the bad guys who had it coming. But sometimes, I’m guilty of crying out for justice when all I really need is some peace.
One of my good friends, Scot, he’s in the military. He may be the most faithful, carefully learned, and theologically fascinating believer I know (and he can talk about just war theory till the cows come home).
But folks give Scot crap all the time for being in the army and also being a practicing Christian. There are quite a few local churches who won’t welcome his presence (really, his “sinful lifestyle”), despite his being a certified trauma medic and aspiring military chaplain.
I’m not going to say that people like Scot – people who are honestly and patiently following their conscience and the leading of the Spirit in their lives – are being unfaithful to the message of Christ. Scot’s vocation is something he has thought and prayed long and hard about.
Which leads me to the strange idea that because of his commitment to careful consideration, Scot is a force for healing and redemption, even as a soldier by trade. (Suffice it to say, neither of us would go as far as Martin Luther, who suggested that sometimes the most Christlike thing to do is “stab [your enemies] secretly and openly…as one would kill a mad dog“).
All of which leads me to the point that followers of Christ need to be very cautious when dealing out lethal force – that when Jesus said “love your enemies,” he probably meant we shouldn’t kill them.
If someone hits you on your left cheek, Jesus preached, turn to him your right also.
Do not resist an evil person.
If someone compels you to go with him one mile, he is recorded as saying, go with him two miles instead.
Do not retaliate with violence.
But the startling beauty of the kingdom of God is that it is often heralded in the most subversive of ways.
It’s important to mention that the Christian commitment to ‘nonviolence’ doesn’t leave us helplessly clinging to a vapid pacifism; rather, by embracing Christ’s teaching on the matter, we can actually begin to experience peaceful resistance as the blossoming, unconventional sort of liberation that it really is.
Rather than the typical human response of “fight” or “flight” (a dichotomy which could perhaps be crudely contrasted as a choice between weak “pacifism” and bellicose “militarism”), Bible scholar Walter Wink calls Jesus’ teaching an insistence upon the third way (<- read this!). Rather than letting the oppressor trample over our rights – and rather than retaliating in a manner will create more bloodshed – Wink highlights in Jesus’ instruction a commitment to truly encounter your enemies: to “meet force with ridicule or humor,” to seek “creative alternatives to violence,” and to fearlessly “assert [one’s] own humanity and dignity as a person.”
In other words, Wink sees in Jesus’ call to nonviolence not a summons to carelessly throw away our lives (as our loved ones should perish around us), but an act of radically Christlike self-defense.
And this self-defense is contingent upon the idea of not being flippant with human life, but respecting the divine image in everyone.
One of my favorite verses of scripture is 1 Peter 2:16-17
Therefore, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Live as slaves of God. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
It says a lot about our faith that early Christians were told to even show proper respect and honor to their pagan, Roman emperor (a man who rarely treated believers with such kindness).
As disciples of Jesus, we are bound to treat the criminal as our neighbor, the stranger as Christ himself in disguise.
When Jesus calls us to lay down our lives before we would raise our swords, he’s talking about the impossible idea that the stranger is really our neighbor – and that even though our neighbor may be an enemy, we are bound up to them in a higher responsibility.
That higher responsibility? It isn’t to a God who embraces a spirit of retaliation. That responsibility is to a Creator I am desperately seeking, a Being who is markedly nonviolent, a Father who forgives seven times seventy times, a God who grieves with me and listens each time I cry out for justice.
All of which leads me to believe we can do a lot better than the death penalty.