“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, there-fore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. —Matthew 5:43-48
In 2001, incited by the 9-11 attacks, a Texas man went on a shooting rampage and killed two people, severely wounding another. The wounded man, who lost an eye when the assailant sprayed him with shotgun pellets, survived because he shrewdly played dead. Ten years later, the State of Texas was set to execute the shooter, when the survivor unexpectedly stepped forward to plead for him. “If I can forgive my offender who tried to take my life,” he told BBC News, “we can all work together to forgive each other and move forward and take a new narrative on the tenth anniversary of 11 September.”[i] In short, he was asking the State of Texas to turn the other cheek, as he had done, the very cheek that was still full of pellets.
Texas, long known for the conservative evangelicalism of its governors, refused, and the shooter, Mark Stroman, a white supremacist, was executed. His victim, Rais Bhuiyan, is a Muslim immigrant born in Bangladesh. As Rais explained, it was while on pilgrimage in Mecca after the attack that he received a “ray of light” regarding forgiveness and compassion. Drawing on his own faith, he decided not only to forgive Stroman but also to take the further step to try to save him from execution. The Qur’an teaches that those who forsake retribution and forgive those who have wronged them become closer to God, he said. “My faith teaches me that saving a life is like saving the entire human race.”
In this quest Rais was joined by the widows and family members of the two other victims killed during Stroman’s anti-Muslim rampage, a Pakistani and a Hindu from India. “We decided to forgive him and want to give him a chance to be a better person,” said the brother-in-law of one of the slain. Bhuiyan also received a great deal of encouragement from all over the world, even from fellow Muslims back in Pakistan.[ii]
However, both the Texas Governor and the Pardon Board refused to hear the request. Mr. Bhuiyan was also prevented from meeting personally with Stroman, as was his right under law, but the two were allowed to speak briefly on the telephone just hours before the execution. While the condemned man seemed resigned to his fate, he told reporters,
It is due to Rais’ message of forgiveness that I am more content now than I have ever been. I received a message that Rais loved me and that is powerful…I want to thank him in person for his inspiring act of compassion. He has forgiven the unforgiveable.[iii]
In chapter 5 of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges the popular understanding of some key commandments and, instead, teaches God’s true purpose behind the law. For example, regarding murder, Jesus says, “You know that the law says, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but I tell you that even if you are angry with your brother, that is murder too, for murder begins in the heart.” In the same way, with adultery, he says, “The law states, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but I tell you that even looking at a woman lustfully in your heart is adultery, because that is where it begins.”
God’s intention in giving the Old Testament law was more than to provide a list of dos and don’ts that could be checked off. That is what the Pharisees were doing: keeping the externals of the law, without allowing it to touch their hearts. They were superficially righteous, and in being so, they thought they could tame the law and make it manageable.
God’s intention in the law, however, was quite different. His desire was that the law might break us, that when we looked into its polished stone, we might see ourselves as we truly are and, like the tax collector in Jesus’ story (Lk 18:9-14), beat our breast, saying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” That man, if you remember, not the self-righteous Pharisee, went home justified before God.
If all this were not hard enough, Jesus saves the toughest commandment for last. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The Old Testament law frequently taught love of neighbor and even of the foreigner in the land. It warned against hating a fellow Israelite in one’s heart (Lev 19:17-18). The rabbis of Jesus’ day were generous enough to apply the status of neighbor generally to any fellow Jew, but not to Israel’s national enemies, Gentiles, or the wicked. Jesus, however, categorically rejects the interpolation that commanded hatred of one’s enemies. In his teaching and ministry he expands the definition of neighbor to embrace such traditional enemies as Samaritans and outrages his more pious listeners by including God-fearing Gentiles and even repentant “lost causes” (prostitutes and tax collectors) in his eschatological banquet (cf. Mt 8:11; Lk 19:9).
What does it mean to love your enemies? The parallel passage in Luke 6 reads, “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” In other words, love is not just a feeling we have—“Oh, I just love those enemies of mine!” That is not where it starts. We love our enemies not just by the things we don’t do—that is, by not doing evil to them—but by doing good to them: serving them, blessing them, praying for them, and in Rais Bhuiyan’s case, not only by forgiving them, but actively, tirelessly working for their good. Love is active: it does things. And as we bless our enemies with both our mouths and our actions, our hearts begin to change as well. It is hard to keep hating someone whom you are praying for, blessing, serving. Serving our enemies? Why would we want to do that? That just sounds naive and dangerous!
Why does Jesus command this of us? He says, “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” In Near Eastern language and culture, to be the son of someone is to be like someone. We say, “he’s a true son of his father,” or “he’s a chip off the old block.” In Romans 8 the apostle Paul writes that “Those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he [Jesus] might be the first born among many brothers and sisters.” We were chosen to grow up into Christlikeness: here is a reference not only to our physical transformation (our future resurrection, in which we will receive new, immortal bodies, like Jesus’) but also to our sanctification (that we would be like him in character, in the way we act, speak, and love).
How God Loves
The Almighty does not have one kind of love for some people and another kind for others. He loves everyone actively. The passage says, “He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” We all enjoy the same sunshine, whether we are “good” or evil. God’s heart is wide open, and undivided. He has standards, and yes, he hates and must judge sin. But he loves sinners. If he did not, you and I would not be here.
Jesus goes on, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” In other words, even the world is nice to people who are nice to them; they bless those who bless them, love those who love them. That is not hard. What separates us from the world, what makes us different, is that we love even those who hate us; we do good to those who do evil to us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who plot evil against us.
This command to love our enemies is probably the most radical of Jesus’ teachings. It certainly can seem like a bitter pill to swallow. The world may call it foolishness, weakness, or stupidity. The Bible calls it Christlikeness. For as Paul says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Ro 5:8). That is his way, and that is why we were called: to make us like Jesus. To bring a little bit of heaven to earth.
I stated before that the Father’s intention is that we would love our enemies as our neighbor. Why? Because our enemy is our neighbor! Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates this point in a powerful, though disturbing way. You probably know the story. A man is traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and is set upon by robbers, who strip him of his clothing and beat him almost to death, dumping his body beside the road. Two men passing by, one a Jewish priest, the other a Levite who worked in the temple, choose not to stop. But one man does, and that man is a Samaritan, the enemy of the Jews, of a people considered so unclean, they could not be touched or their land even walked upon. Yet this man, Jesus says, takes the injured man in his arms, bandages his wounds, carries him to an inn, and pays the landlord generously to look after him.
Christ then asks the question, “Now which man was a neighbor to the wounded man?” The teacher of the law, to whom this parable is addressed, is so scandalized, he cannot even bring himself to use the word Samaritan. Instead, he says grudgingly, “The man who had mercy on him.” Jesus replies, “Go and do likewise.”
The point of the parable is—and this is what got Jesus into such hot water with the religious establishment of his day—not just that we are to love and set an example of mercy and compassion to our enemies. In this case, our enemy is the example, to our shame! So our hearts are exposed, and we have to ask, “So why do we hate them again?”
Over the past fourteen years, I have been listening to, reading, and watching the news and internet, and so have you. Our country is up in arms against those people. You know whom I mean. I am referring to Muslims. We hear all the rhetoric, invective, slander, and inflammatory language, and it does something to us inside, does it not? It makes us angry. But angry in one of two ways. Either we get angry and want to grab our torches and pitch forks and join the mob. Or we feel repulsed by all the hate speech and demagoguery, people using intolerance (against minorities, the weak, and outcasts) as a means to gain power. Bullies do it to gain social standing. Politicians, too. From the beginning of time, there have been those who will play upon the very worst in human nature just to get a vote. And to a certain extent, I suppose, we expect that from the world. At least, it should not surprise us. But when we see Christians, or those who use the name, doing the same thing, it should grieve us; it should alarm us, make us angry. I hope it does you.
In the summer of 2010, the town of Temecula, California, was up in arms over the proposed building of an Islamic Center in their town, right across from two established churches. So some “concerned citizens” banded together and told each other, “Bring your guns, your Bibles, and your dogs, and meet us for a rally in front of the site.” (Dogs, of course, are considered unclean to most Muslims.)
Meanwhile, 3000 miles away, in Manhattan, a similar controversy was brewing—one that involved the whole country—regarding whether a certain Islamic religious center should be built near Ground Zero. That same summer a crowd of “patriotic” citizens gathered at the site to protest, which is their constitutional right. But when they saw two tan-skinned men walk by, chatting in what sounded suspiciously like Arabic, they surrounded and started menacing them, hurling racial and religious slurs, spewing hatred. The police had to come to rescue these men. As they were led away, one of the men shouted, “But we’re Christians!” They were Copts, Orthodox Christians from Egypt. Did you know that some of the oldest churches in the world are Arabic-speaking? That did not matter. It certainly did not make up for speaking with an Arab accent. Once a crowd becomes a mob, it has no brain; it thinks with its fists. There is something about a mob that seems to give courage and legitimacy to stupidity and ignorance.
You do not have to agree with someone’s religion or their politics to love them. Is that what Jesus said? “Love your enemies, but only those whose religion you agree with or whose politics you like?”
Jesus and the Qur’an
The Qur’an (Islam’s holy book) says some amazing things about Jesus. It refers to him as “the Messiah” (Q 3:45), the “Word of God” (Q 4:171), “conceived by God’s Spirit” (Q 19:27), “born of a Virgin” (Q 19:20), “he died according to God’s plan” (Q 8:17), “God raised him to himself” (Q 4:158). Some of this almost sounds like the Apostles’ Creed. But wait, there is more. The Qur’an also says that Jesus intercedes with God according to God’s will (Q2:255), that he was without sin (Q 19:19), that God gave him miracles (Q 2:87,253) and the New Testament, in which is guidance and light (Q 5:46).[iv]
There is, of course, an important difference: Islam clearly teaches that Jesus is not God’s Son and therefore not God. Muslims consider any claim to his divinity to be blasphemy. That is a big problem for Christians, but recall there were Jews who thought the same thing. Most still do. Yet Christians still love and pray for them. In particular, I remember a man named Saul from Tarsus, who just did not get it. God was willing to work with him.
The Qur’an makes other statements we might not agree with, some that could be interpreted as hostile to Christians and Jews. Whether these verses were intended for all times, or limited by circumstance and context, is debated. Yet, why begin there? Why not start with what unites us? Why not use love to build bridges, instead of fear to erect walls?
Yes, there are huge obstacles. But what a great start! With what other religion, besides Judaism, do we have such an advantage and so much in common? They even call him by name! Yesa-al-Mesih. Jesus the Messiah. The prophet Muhammed, despite his errors, had a profound respect and reverence for Jesus Christ, and he commanded his followers to have the same. Our Gospels make up part of Islam’s holy books. The vast majority of Muslims have more reverence for our Lord and follow more of his teaching than many people who are superficially Christian. They have no problem with Jesus; they revere him. Like the rest of the world, it is Christians and Christianity they cannot stand. They fear us, and for good reasons (over a thousand years’ worth of Crusades, colonialism, and Western meddling in the region).
Think of Rais Bhuiyan, the man who was shot in Texas, a very devout Muslim. Does he seem so far from the kingdom of God that we should reject him? Perhaps some would agree that he is at least more “outwardly Christian” than many of us who use the name. Can we deny that the Holy Spirit is doing a remarkable work in and through this man’s life? Does it not seem ironic, but very much like God, that he would use such a person to teach us something deeply significant about forgiveness? Did not Jesus frequently use foreigners, Gentiles, even Samaritans, as examples of righteousness and faith to rouse his fellow Jews to repentance? (cf. Mt 8:5-13; 15:21-28; Mk 15:39; Lk 4:25-27; 10:25-37; 17:11-19; Ac 10:1-8.)
Do you think God wants to reach these people? After all, our enemy is not the real enemy, right? The Enemy (Satan) is our enemy. I have been discussing loving our enemies, when in reality, these people are not our enemies at all! Our real enemies are our own fear and ignorance, which are tools of Satan’s kingdom.
What is really at stake here? Why has Satan worked so hard over fourteen centuries to keep Muslims and Christians at each others’ throats, to keep us living in fear of one another? There are a billion and a half souls, one quarter of humanity, who follow Islam. We cannot dismiss them with a wave of the hand—certainly not when so many are so close to the kingdom of God!
Did you know there are some Muslims who follow Christ but still call themselves “Muslim”? They love Jesus, follow his teaching, and call him Lord and Savior. There are thousands of Iranians who have had open visions of Jesus Christ. There are churches being planted in the Middle East every day, in very hostile soil. Why do we want to make it harder for them? Why do we want to push them away? God is doing something there, and we can either join in by praying and loving them or—as the church has done so often throughout its history—we can resist what God is doing and work against him instead of for him, and the angels will weep for us.
We were created, God chose us to become like Christ. So let us become like Christ, not conformed to the hatred and bigotry of this world. There are people in positions of power in this country and in the media who want to control and manipulate us with fear, to make us become part of a mob that hates and persecutes. Hysterical voices tell us, “They want to kill us! They want to impose their Sharia law on us!” That may be true of some, but definitely not the vast majority of Muslims, who are peaceful. They want the same things, the same opportunities for themselves and their children: peace, health, a good job, education, even democracy.
Islamophobia is a huge industry. Hate sells. So does fear. Together, they sell guns, bombs, and wars. Do not be led by these. Be led by God’s Spirit, his holy Word, and the teachings of our Lord and Savior. As God told the prophet Isaiah: “Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it” (Isa. 8:12). Fear God alone. Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.” In other words, we are to be good citizens, but when push comes to shove, there is a higher loyalty, a higher citizenship. If loving our enemies seems foolish or unpatriotic, then so be it.
God came to reconcile himself to a world that was his enemy—that is at the heart of our gospel.
[i] “Muslim Victim Forgives, Texas Executes,” Press TV, (22 July 2011). Web. PressTV.ir.
[ii] Kari Huus, “A Victim of 9/11 Hate Crime Now Fights for His Attacker’s Life,” NBC News, (30 June 2011). Web. NBCNews.com.
[iii] John Rudolf, “Rais Bhuiyan, Victim of Post-9/11 Shooting Spree, Pleads To Spare Attacker Mark Stroman’s Life,” Huffington Post, (18 July 2011). Web. HuffingtonPost.com.
[iv] Carl Medearis, Muslims, Christians, and Jesus: Gaining Understanding and Building Relationships (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2008), 70-72.