Can we love our enemies and kill them?

Mar 1, 2018 by

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Jesus told us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). This has been the cornerstone of Christian pacifist theology — whether you look at the early church, or the Anabaptists or the early Pentecostals, they all agreed that loving enemies is incompatible with killing them, and hence they refused to wage wars or use violence against other human beings.

For this reason, the Christian non-pacifist has to argue for one of the following positions:

  1. Killing is an act of love toward the one you kill.
  2. We should not follow Jesus’ command to love enemies when we decide to kill people.

There are serious problems with both of these ideas. Let’s start with the first one.

Killing or kissing

C.S. Lewis famously argued that it’s possible to love people that you kill and that this is in fact what we ought to do: “We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating.” Augustine argued in his just-war theory that declaring and fighting a war could be an act of love, even though it admittedly manifests as something different than what love usually looks like.

However, this clashes with the fact that those who are trained for combat are molded into hating and dehumanizing their enemy. An army that actually loves those it is supposed to kill isn’t a good army. It’s already psychologically challenging to kill a human being even if he’s just a stranger to you, and loving him only makes it worse.

Beyond that, if killing really is among the range of actions that we consider loving, then why is murder wrong? Knowing that Lewis basically sees killing and kissing as morally equivalent, would you let him babysit your children? And if killing already is an act of love, what is Jesus’ point when he says that we should love our enemies? Frankly, all attempts to demonstrate that killing is loving is just presenting a twisted alternate definition of love that nobody seriously believes in.

Following Jesus — when I want to

What about the second option, that Jesus’ command to enemy love doesn’t apply when we, for example, join the army? This is essentially the Two Kingdoms doctrine in Lutheran theology. Martin Luther rejected the idea above and argued that loving our enemies obviously means that we should not kill or hurt them — rather the Christian should be self-sacrificial and fight injustices through nonviolence.

Now, if that doesn’t sound very Lutheran to you, that is because he famously thought that this Christian ethic detailed in the Sermon on the Mount was expelled whenever a Christian did the duties of the state. Luther (mis-)interpreted Romans 13 to mean that whatever the state wanted you to do, it’s God’s will. So even though a Christian normally should not kill people, if he is commanded by the state to execute a criminal or fight a war, he should do it.

This means that all the Lutheran priests and theologians who supported Hitler, his war and his genocide, were pretty good Lutherans. Luther had a lot of faith that the authorities would always do God’s will, so much so that he didn’t allow for any exceptions of the “state trumps Jesus” ethic of the Two Kingdoms doctrine.

Now, few Christian non-pacifists would take this principle as far as defending nazism. Usually, they use a modified version of Luther’s argument saying that state rules expel the Sermon on the Mount with some exceptions.

But these exceptions are always arbitrary and based on something else than the Bible. To Luther’s merit, he realized that if Romans 13 means that state law reflects God’s will, then there are no exceptions — because Romans 13 doesn’t list those exceptions. If we are to include all New Testament ethics in our list of exceptions, enemy love will be part of them. But if we pick some other ethical principles and leave out enemy love, we’re arbitrary again.

An enormous challenge

I would say that this, together with the pacifist consensus in the early church, is an enormous challenge for the Christian who thinks it’s OK to kill enemies. Naturally, many don’t want to talk about it, but throw questions to the pacifist instead, like how we view Old Testament violence, or what we do if a violent aggressor attacks our family.

And sure, we can talk about that.

But the non-pacifist first has to show either how killing is an act of love, or why Christians who kill don’t have to follow Jesus’ teaching. As long as they can’t show that, we’re all in the same pacifist boat wrestling with the same questions on where we go from here as we try to be obedient to our radical Rabbi.

Micael Grenholm is an author, speaker and evangelist from Sweden. He is the editor-in-chief for the website of Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & JusticeHe blogs about charismatic Anabaptism at Holy Spirit Activism, where this post first appeared.

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