This article first appeared at The Table. For more articles featuring thoughtful Christian perspectives on the the nature and embodiment of love, growing through suffering, and acquiring humility, click here.
I have long taken pride in the distinctive teaching of Christianity to love your enemy. It was not until I began learning Arabic I better appreciated what this called for.
Perhaps like many American Christians my pride was an identity marker more than a mark of Christ. I had never suffered for my faith, nor had any enemies to speak of. But in a pluralistic world of competing religious claims, widespread political polarization, and far-flung military adventures, ‘love your enemy’ became a mantra to lift me out of the morass and place my feet firmly on the moral high ground.
Only Jesus commands this, I thought; my Christian religion is different. I had always believed it was true. This was confirmation it was better.
The Sermon on the Mount allows us to cherish our ideals, with full admittance of the still mostly philosophical difficulties. Who has ever forced us to walk a mile? And beggars? They’re all in the big city. Turning the other cheek would be hard, but the envisioned moral strength? Powerful.
One morning years later I awoke surrounded by posters of smiling Arab pop stars. During vacation break from language school in Jordan I arranged for an immersion experience in the ancient city of al-Karak, home to a 12th century Crusader castle. One-quarter of the population remains Christian; one local family took me in and displaced their preteen daughter from her room.
But there at the door by the light switch a prominently placed sticker served as a reminder each morning as she left the room. Ahibbu ‘adakum. Love your enemies.
I went to the Arab world imagining a place where this command might be more practical. Muslims were not essential enemies, of course, and Jordan was well known as a place of coexistence. But perhaps they were theological enemies? In any case the region was characterized with tales of persecuted Christians. How would ordinary believers live the Sermon?
Ihsanu illa mubghideekum, the sticker continued. I was less familiar with this injunction. Baariku la’aneekum. Perhaps like many American Christians, Jesus taught me from the mountain. What I would come to learn is that Arab Christians quoted his Sermon on the Plain. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those that curse you.
The family I stayed with in al-Karak was well respected with no known enemies. But every morning their daughter entered a Muslim culture armed with instructions that have buoyed Arab Christians for 1400 years. Whether jizyah and jihad, or colleagues and citizens, they have been the minority ‘other’. American Christians, white-skinned at least, have little idea what this entails.
Going to Egypt, later still, I saw the results first hand.
I wished eagerly to explore the context. Both Matthew’s and Luke’s account end with the command to pray for those who treat you wrong, and more than other places in the Arab world, Egypt was understood to be a place of Coptic suffering. ‘It takes a presidential decree to fix a church doorknob,’ I was told. ‘Christians get attacked in their villages, and they are the ones put in prison.’ Over time I would learn that the reality is quite nuanced, but the sentiment is telling both for visceral incidents of suffering as well as the ethos they produce. Many have suspected that Christians of the region had bought a modicum of peace in exchange for evangelistic mission, beaten down by the task of communal preservation. I experienced Copts as simultaneously integrated in society and withdrawn into their churches. They would speak of Muslims as friends, but whisper of Islam as an enemy ideology.
But what of the celebrated Sermon on the Plain? How would they not just love, but also bless? Specifically and practically, how would they do good?
In one city south of Cairo I interviewed a man who provided a commendable, if telling example. Due to government difficulties in extending services to underdeveloped areas, Muslims and Christians have learned to take care of their own. Until recently Islamist groups had long provided a safety net for the majority, while the Orthodox Church ensured care for Christian widows and the Coptic poor. Neither group would profess denying help to the religious other, but both mirrored the reality of increasing emphasis on religious identity.
This man worked with a Christian agency that aimed to break the dichotomy and serve all. Unaffiliated with the church, Muslims were the employed majority as well as present on the board of trustees. By no means were they an enemy, but Christ’s love to the other was clearly among his motivations.
A jovial and cheerful man, he turned deadly serious on my next question: ‘To better reach your community, would you consider partnering with a Muslim organization?’ It seemed innocuous enough but touched a deeply sensitive nerve. ‘I swear by the Messiah,’ he answered angrily, ‘there is not one Islamic organization that also takes care of the Christians!’
He may be right; he was certainly the expert. But from the heart, the mouth speaks. Here was one of the best examples of a Christian doing good to people who many in his community would internally generalize as a sort of enemy. But despite his charity, he ultimately demonstrated an uncharitable spirit. Let there be little condemnation, but the question is fair though terribly hard: As I Corinthians 13 warns, did he risk becoming a resounding gong?
Nuance is necessary, for the other is not the enemy unless they press against you. For most Arab Christians the ordinary Muslim is an ordinary person, though the Islamist can be a threat in the desire to set his creed as the organizing principle of society. In a region with much religious conservatism, the line between Muslim and Islamist can be difficult to draw. This man railed against the latter, and perhaps with good reason. But it was clear his love for the other did not extend to love for the enemy. Instead of doing them good, whatever that could have meant practically, he was in existential competition.
In the years that followed Islamists rode a revolutionary wave into the presidential palace. Despite their conciliatory discourse with Western audiences, in Arabic some of their members and supporters uttered vile and vitriolic threats against their opponents, Christians included. One year later as Copts joined the masses that turned against the new political elite, they paid the price as their churches were burned throughout the country. Christians were praised for their patience, and rallied behind the military and millions of Muslims to oppose the Islamist enemy. In this case the term is at least rhetorically appropriate; once chosen as legislators and government ministers, they were now rejected as terrorists and an internationalist cabal.
Western opinion is divided over the veracity of this accusation, but as concerns local Christians it is largely irrelevant. Certainly they suffered; certainly they ascribed to widespread public messaging. But in the vanquishing of their enemy almost no voices of love were offered. These need not be in dissent; they might only be in pleas for due process or care for the relatives of the justly imprisoned. During Islamist rule many Christians worried and some chose to emigrate. Some, probably many, prayed for their new president. But if a few have since sought to bless the fallen Islamists who curse them still, their example has not moved the needle of Coptic opinion, where nary a tear has been shed.
How then is this spirit present in a ten-year-old girl who lost everything?
If Islamists in Egypt were a challenge, even a disaster, in Syria and Iraq they were a catastrophe. When the so-called Islamic State overran Mosul in July 2014, thousands of Christians left their homes and fled to Kurdistan. Among them was Myriam, who with her family lived in a half-built shopping mall. Interviewed a year later by the Christian satellite network SAT-7, her testimony went viral.
‘I will only ask God to forgive them,’ she said when asked how she felt about those who caused this tragedy. ‘Why should they be killed?’ Contrast her with the opinion of some Americans, who wonder why we have not yet bombed ISIS into oblivion.
Perhaps it is the depth of the loss that summons the breadth of compassion. Perhaps children are not chiseled as rigidly as adults. Beautiful testimonies of forgiveness have been offered by Egyptian Christians as well, whose family members were martyred by ISIS in Libya. Unjust suffering recalls a crucified Jesus, whose dying prayer to God was that sin not be accounted to his tormentors. From afar we recoil, and demand justice. Likewise, Egyptian Christians felt vindication when their government bombarded ISIS in Libya the next day.
Let them not be blamed on account of ‘love your enemy’. The children of Israel broke into song when Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea. David prayed for deliverance from his enemies and a psalm of exile wished their children smashed against the rocks. Romans established the role of government in the preservation of order and punishment of the wrongdoer. And one day, Christ himself will wield the rod of iron as his enemies are fashioned into a footstool. Outcry against suffering is natural and must be voiced for emotional health. Justice is real, necessary, and must never become the antonym of love.
But mercy triumphs over judgment, and love covers over a multitude of sins. The Christian ideal keeps no record of wrongs, and hopes all things. This seems impossible when facing an enemy of any caliber, let alone the Islamic State. It almost seems perverse. The higher calling of love must uphold the lower calling of justice, and demands great discernment in weighing Jesus’ instruction to be wise as serpents yet innocent as doves.
Arab Christians are in an unenviable position. The Egyptian church must navigate this wisdom-innocence paradigm with the utmost care. The Syrian-Iraqi church has been scattered. If they have not yet lived up to the fullness of ‘love your enemy’ it only serves to remind us how far we are from what they endure. That God has kept them from abject loathing is sign enough of the Spirit’s power. That they fill up in their flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions is reason enough to humbly bow and support them in prayer.
Unfortunately, my proximity has not enabled the vision of practical suggestion. Lord willing, the eyes of a foreigner have helped some see afresh the demands of the gospel. Ultimately, application is up to them.
But over the years I have come to see the Sermon on the Plain as a better template than the Sermon on the Mount, especially if read in reverse.
Pray for those who mistreat you. If persecution is rare, mistreatment is not. If love if ethereal, prayer is grounding. With an act of the will I can choose to place my enemy before God. Perhaps I even begin with the imprecatory psalms. But rather than grumble or plot revenge, I turn the matter over to him.
Bless those who curse you. Once in God’s hands the prayer can change, even with rising of the nature of offense. No matter how difficult in our power, the Spirit’s power enables our will to progress further. The step is tangible, but nothing is yet asked of the heart. With gritted teeth I seek God’s grace not only for my hurt, but for the ultimate well-being of my enemy.
Do good to those who hate you. But again, God pushes the envelope as the severity of opposition increases. Anyone might curse me in a moment of frustration. Hatred takes time. But in answer to a decision that hardens a heart, my decision is to loosen my own. In asking God to bless my enemy, he transforms me to do it myself.
Love your enemies. Whatever practical action results, something mystical occurs. At least, I can only trust God that it will. Somehow, and whatever it means and feels like, love happens.
It is this love that is the hallmark of Christianity, not my initial congratulatory pat on the back that I was born into and believed in a superior faith. This is the love that can transform conflict. But it is also the love that can get trampled underfoot.
Why has the latter been the trend for Arab Christians over the past 1400 years, as their numbers have dwindled to near extinction? Have they not loved enough? Have they not stood for justice? Have they compromised too readily? Have they allowed their hearts to harden?
We cannot know, and we dare not judge. Bear well that the sermon passage ends with a plea: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Look upon them with sympathy, and upon the region. They are brothers in sisters in faith, within brothers and sisters in humanity. Surely among them are the ungrateful and wicked, but as sons and daughters of the Most High, in imitation we are commanded to be kind.
And remember, the Sermon on the Plain places the Golden Rule smack within the section on loving your enemies. It is among the most beautiful verses in Arabic: Kama tureedun an yafal al-nas bikum, afalu antum aydan bihum hakatha. Do not let the foreignness of the language exaggerate further the foreignness of the concept. Enemies need love even more than the rest of us. Invite Arab Christians to help us learn.