Learning from Jesus How to Treat Our Enemies
By H. Wallace Goddard
Jesus taught a lofty standard:
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; (Matthew 5:44)
This command has that unique trademark of holiness: It is so unreasonable that any sensible person knows it is only possible when we have the mind of Christ.
Who responds to assaults and insults with kindness? Who offers goodness in trade for abuse? Who wishes spiritual blessings on those who mistreat them? 1 I strain to think of people in my own circle who are equal to the expectation. Some do quite well. Most of us fail regularly and abysmally. Jesus is the one who was able to live so charitably.
Jesus Practiced what He Preached
I think of the time the malicious Pharisee/lawyer came trying to embarrass Jesus. Jesus responded by sharing the story that is one of the greatest ever told, the story of the Good Samaritan.
Jesus frequently hung out with the most disagreeable people; He was “the friend of publicans and sinners” (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34). He acted as if He liked and valued those whom others found unworthy of fellowship.
Jesus held up outsiders and losers as deserving of our love: the woman at the well, lepers, adulterers and sinners, and Samaritans. Jesus saw goodness and earnestness where others saw only disgrace.
His goodness was so ingrained that even when He was in His final pains, His instinctive action was to pray for forgiveness for those who imposed that pain.
Jesus is always shocking us, always elevating our vision of the possible.
Practicing Good Will in the Modern World
Our modern public discourse seems more harsh and judgmental than ever. We label those we disagree with as evil. We presume to know the motives of those we have never met. We use labels that make the angels blush. While we are inclined to defeat our enemies with hand-to-hand combat, Jesus invites us to win through transcendent goodness.
As regular targets of foul mischaracterization, Latter-day Saints should be especially inclined toward compassion, open-mindedness, and generosity. Our people have been driven from place to place. We have been treated as a scourge. Even now we are regularly reminded that we do not meet the minimum requirements for the “Christian” label.
What a wonderful opportunity! To the extent we are people of sorrows and acquainted with grief, we may be, like Jesus, more tender and more compassionate. We may, as President Packer suggested in general conference, respond to persecution with enlarged patriotism.
Elements of a Better Dialogue
The scriptures regularly command us not to judge each other (2 Chronicles 19:6, Matthew 7:1, Luke 6:37, John 7:24, 3 Nephi 14:1, Mormon 8:20). In that area as all others, Jesus goes the extra mile. He looks for goodness where others see badness. In the broken-down soul He sees humility. In the sinner He sees emptiness and readiness. He perfectly practiced the charity He preached. He invites us to see each other with “kindness and pure knowledge” (2 Cor. 6:6, D&C 121:42). If we are to see each other right, we must first be willing to see goodness.
For example, I have had lively discussions with colleagues of the National Council on Family Relations about same sex marriage. Some of my best friends in the organization become livid when I speak in behalf of traditional marriage. But this is not because they are evil people who want to undermine society. It is because they value equality so highly.
Perhaps their vision is limited because they are not blessed with the words of modern prophets. I can give them credit for their love of equality and fairness. And I can seek heavenly inspiration to help us bring more eternal principles into our discussions – if I am willing to be like Jesus. They are not likely to be persuaded. Yet I can still be a disciple of the Peacemaker.
I saw this generosity of spirit manifest in the writings of Jonathan Haidt. While he is clearly a liberal himself, he shows great respect for conservatives. He appreciates that each side of the political divide must bring its strengths if we are to flourish as a country – just as each partner in a marriage must bring his or her strengths if the partnership is to thrive.
Although I am a political liberal, I believe that conservatives have a better understanding of moral development. My research confirms the common perception that liberals are experts in thinking about issues of victimization, equality, autonomy, and the rights of individuals, particularly those of minorities and nonconformists. Conservatives, on the other hand, are experts in thinking about loyalty to the group, respect for authority and tradition, and sacredness. When one side overwhelms the other, the results are likely to be ugly. A society without liberals would be harsh and oppressive to many individuals. A society without conservatives would lose many of the social structures and constraints that … are so valuable. ( Happiness Hypothesis , pp. 178, 242)
Haidt further observes that “liberals and conservatives are opponents in the most literal sense, each using the myth of pure evil to demonize the other side and unite their own” (p. 242). When we vilify our enemies and distance ourselves from them, we seem to be violating Jesus’ invitation to a better way, His way. He invites us to be open to each other, to learn from each other, and to bless each other.
We should not assume that truth and goodness will be victorious in our mortal encounters; they suffered regularly in Jesus’ lifetime and they have ever since Adam and Eve entered this world of thorns and thistles. The triumph that seems to matter most to Him is not the cultural one but the personal one. He wants us to become, like Him, appreciators and cultivators of goodness.
Of course He does not want us to be smiling dolts. He invited us to be as wise as serpents while being as harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16; c.f., D&C 111:11). He wants us to be well-informed, persuasive, and strategic. But the vitriol has no place in our discussions with brothers and sisters.
Political and Personal Applications
My primary reason for writing about this subject is not the uncivil dialogue that is raging in our sacred nation. It is the uncivil dialogue that so often happens in my own soul.
As I grew up, I learned to preempt disagreement with my views by use of strong arguments and direct assaults on those who disagreed with me. This worked pretty well (pragmatically speaking) with my younger siblings.
But now, having passed my 60 th birthday, I am begging heaven to teach me better ways. I want to be less judgmental. I want to overcome hardening of the categories and see goodness and earnestness where many see lowness and badness. I want to listen better to the hearts and minds of others. I want to be fully unafraid to speak the truth while doing so in kindness and love. I want to reach out to God’s most neglected and hurting children and treat them as He would. I want to be like Jesus.
I know that the sought change will require a miracle – the mighty change of heart. I know that any substantial change is likely to take years. Yet I am encouraged that God has taught me discontent with my old ways. I am grateful that He is patiently and lovingly inviting me to better ways. I pray that He may hasten His work that I may have some years to practice His way before I die.
May God help us all to speak, listen, love, and bless as Jesus did and does.
1 This is not to suggest that abuse victims should continue to allow themselves to be abused. Victims are wise to remove themselves from hopeless situations. Yet they should continue to offer good will and spiritual blessing to the abusers.