Jesus was an undocumented child refugee. After his birth Jesus and his family had to flee to Egypt in order to escape the madness of King Herod.
Not only that, but Jesus lived in a place that was occupied by the ruthless Roman empire, which routinely killed, tortured, and imprisoned anyone who even thought about revolution. There is ample evidence that a Roman General named Varis slaughtered thousands by crucifixion in a town called Sephoris. The town of Sephoris was roughly three miles from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. It’s safe to say that Jesus and his family were in some way affected by this senseless act of terrorism.
If there was anyone that wanted to fight evil with force it would be Jesus. If there was anyone that wanted swift justice by any means possible it would be Jesus. If there was anyone that had a distrust of violent foreigners it would be Jesus. If there was anyone that wanted to repay violence with violence it would be an undocumented child refugee who lived under the threat of death for most of his life.
It’s incredibly surprising when Jesus addresses the issue of retribution of one’s enemies. Jesus does not say for evil to be repaid with evil. Instead Jesus says this,
But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. – Matthew 5:39.
How demoralizing for anyone looking for a good fight.
But what Jesus is doing here is way more powerful than any use of violence. What Jesus is doing is essentially saying there is incredible power in enemy love. There is incredible power in doing the opposite of what’s expected. There is incredible power in showing selfless love in the face of fear.
I often imagine a Roman soldier beating a Christ follower only to have that Christ follower stand up and say, “Do it again. Go ahead.” That would shock a soldier in ways that violent retribution never could. I often imagine how bewildered the Roman soldier might be when they asked a Christ follower for their jacket and the follower gave their shirt too. How mind blowing for a soldier to ask someone to carry their pack for a mile and have that Christ follower refuse to stop. Instead they carry the pack for two miles.
Jesus is telling us that there is incredible power in withholding power. There is incredible power in loving ones’ enemies. It’s that power that starts a movement. It’s that power that changes lives. It’s that power that grows the church. It’s that power that causes a ruthless Empire to adopt Christianity as its religion just a couple of hundred years later.
There is incredible power in withholding power and showing love to our enemies.
If I’m being honest that is frustrating and impractical. It’s certainly not satisfying.
I’ve seen the ISIS videos. I’ve watched the Paris attacks. I’ve read about refugees who have turned around and caused destruction upon the same people who welcomed them in. If I’m being honest I want swift and violent retribution . I want to see terrorists bombed. I want to close borders. I want to be safe. It is understandable that many of us want the same. It’s understandable that we want to bring acts of terrorism to an end by any means possible. I would even say it’s justified.
But what if we actually followed this impractical, difficult, life changing teaching of Jesus? What if we showed love and forgiveness for those who tried to hurt us? What if we served those who slander our names? What if we gave to refugees instead of debating their worthiness? What if we urged our governors to open their doors in the face of fear? What if we offered compassion in the face of cruelty? What if we took the time to recognize that a hate group does not represent the entire Muslim population? What if we prayed for ISIS? What if we prayed not for their death and defeat but really prayed for each member?
Would it start a movement?
Would it bring lasting change?
Would it reshape our world?
As Christ followers, to do any less than this is to deny the mystery of Jesus Christ. To do any less sends a message that we’re far more concerned with self justification. To do any less is in direct conflict with the powerful teachings of Jesus.
As Christ followers let us practice the impractical. Let’s embrace the mystery of Christ. Let us find great power in withholding our power and showing love to our enemies.
Jonathan is the Senior Pastor of Forefront Church in New York City. Forefront is a congregation dedicated to fostering renewal through its core values of humility, diversity, community, and generosity.