I too have been shocked by the violence in Paris over the weekend. It is almost incomprehensible to me that people would walk into a public space, fire off rounds from a machine gun with the sole intention of killing people, then blow themselves up. It makes me both angry and sad. But it also makes me wonder how I should respond. In particular, how do I respond as a follower of Jesus?
Here I am left with some uncomfortable challenges, for Jesus’s instruction seems quite clear.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour 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 love only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”.
Those words were not easily spoken, nor I suspect were they easily received. Jesus spoke to people who lived under the control of an occupying army. Thousands of Jews were crucified by the Romans during the time of Jesus; soldiers used their power to extort money from already poor people; indiscriminate acts of violence were perpetrated; and the merest hint of rebellion was brutally crushed. Jesus spoke to people who had very real enemies, and there would barely be a family in Israel that had not suffered at the hands of Rome and its puppets.
Jesus’s answer was not to return violence with violence, hatred with hatred, but to meet violence with kindness and hatred with love. In practical terms that meant should a soldier force me to carry his pack for a mile, I could offer to carry it for 2 miles. If somebody struck me on the cheek, instead of striking them back I could turn the other cheek, defiantly refusing to meet their violence with further violence.
Some argue that Jesus is here offering us a personal ethic, or even an ethic simply for disciples, and that the state must operate according to a different logic. I don’t buy that. Jesus calls us to love our enemy precisely because that is how God treats his enemies. So it would seem utterly strange were we to argue that the state should follow a different approach to its creator. Jesus, it seems, calls us to a completely new way, holding out the hope that love will create new possibilities.
Part of me screams out that this is ridiculous, that the only way to respond to violence is to meet it with violence; that the only way to respond to ISIS is to bomb the bastards off the face of the earth. But that hasn’t worked out well for us so far. The European powers carved up the Middle East after conquering it, creating states out of rival groups that could only be governed by a strong dictator. We went to war once more to topple the dictators, and hundreds of thousands of dead bodies later, the Middle East remains mired in tribal violence. Perhaps Jesus was right. Perhaps the only way to break this vicious cycle is to love our enemies.
What would that mean? At the level of my own personal response I think Jesus calls me to refuse to participate in the retaliatory spirit that inevitably emerges at times like these. I think Jesus calls me to pray for the well-being of both the victims of terror and the perpetrators
What would love look like at the collective level? I’m not 100% sure, but I suspect it would mean we would try to understand our enemy. We like to bathe ourselves in the rhetoric that the terrorists hate us because of our values, that they are driven by a visceral hatred of freedom. But behind every hatred of something is an aspiration for something else. Love would surely say at start by listening to aspirations.
Love surely would demand we have a fierce opposition to violence and abuse, that we do all we can to protect those who are being victimised. Maybe in a mixed up world such as the one we face, that leaves us with choices that are all bad, that some level of force is inescapable if we are to protect the vulnerable. But let us not kid ourselves. That has never been the reason we have gone to war.
Love operates with a simple maxim: you can do your damnedest, but I will meet every escalating act of violence with an escalating act of kindness. That, after all, is what Jesus did, and while it came at great personal cost it opened up the possibilities of resurrection. Perhaps if we gave ourselves both personally and collectively to loving our enemies we would see possibilities open up that we never dared to dream.