What Did Jesus Mean When He Said to Love Your Enemy?

Alan explains what Jesus meant when he said to love your enemy and how that relates to governments protecting citizens.


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What does Jesus mean in Matthew 5:44 when he says “love your enemies,” especially in light of our response to the terrorist organization, Isis? I have two thoughts about this: What I think Jesus did mean and what I think Jesus did not mean.

Let's start with what I think He did mean. When Jesus says to love your enemies here, He’s talking about personal ethics; how we are supposed to respond to individuals in our life that might treat us with disrespect, lie to us, try to hurt us, etc. These are individuals that we know. We can tell this is the case based on the context. Elsewhere in this passage, we see Jesus talking about taking oaths, marriage, divorce, adultery, and other matters that pertained to individual interactions with others. This is why we know that Jesus intends “love your enemies” to be about personal interactions with individuals that we know. What He’s simply saying is this: Those people who mistreat you, who lie about you, who try to hurt you, we are not to respond to them with evil, but rather we are to love them and treat them with dignity and respect.” That's what Jesus means by “love your enemy.” 

Jesus probably does not mean that “love your enemies” is an admonition or command intended for the United States or for some other country or government to deal with foreign policy. Remember, this is about personal ethics, not about how governments should conduct themselves. So, governments are supposed to protect their own citizens. They should do whatever they can in their power to protect their citizens. For the United States to protect itself from things like Isis is not in any way a violation of the command to love your enemies. 

Indeed, we see this mentioned in Scripture. God talks about how the government is an institution that is given by God to man to mitigate the impact of evil in the world. We see this in 1 Peter 2 and Romans 13 where God says that governments are intended to protect innocent people and to punish evildoers. That's why, when governments become corrupt, evil flourishes. 

There's no justification for using Jesus' command to love your enemies as a directive for governments to somehow lay down their arms and not do anything about terrorist threats like Isis. Rather, Jesus here is talking about personal ethics that you and I are supposed to engage in when we deal with people who are against us.

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Alan Shlemon