“He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.”
Have you become discouraged with the breakdown of dialogue that is pervasive today in many levels of society? I know I have. Perhaps conversations which are political in nature have been contentious for all time, but the contention seems to have spread beyond political “dialogue”—if you can call it that—to just about any topic one can name. When the end goal is to arrive at truth together, dissension is a useful tool, as the testing of ideas and concepts against one another reveal to us the ideas that are buoyant and the ones that take on water.
That being said, very little of our dialogue—at least on the most visible stages—are approached in this way. Our dissent has metastasized beyond just ideas and concepts onto the people who hold them. What is even more disheartening are the sheer number of words that bombard us daily presenting a knotted tangle of truths, half-truths, and flat-out falsities. This can leave those who esteem truth to feel impotent as words at best lose their value, and at worst conceal reality.
We need not think very hard on the myriad of hot topics today to see just how difficult it can be for one to wade through a bombardment of information to get to the actuality of a matter. To name a few, the breakdown of conversations in America immediately following the onset of the Covid pandemic, the treatment and murder of George Floyd, and the U.S. presidential elections placed this divide on full display. I wondered how Christ would be in a time such as ours. What positions would he take? How would he bridge the gap? How did he address similar matters during his time on earth and would those strategies be relevant now?
To be certain, Christ stood with the hurting and both acknowledged and addressed injustices faced by the oppressed. As he did this, he did not undermine truth, but managed to erase the divide between offender and offended as evidenced by the immediate communities that were formed in the wake of his bodily absence. That pattern is available to us now and the opportunity is ripe for us to reclaim Christ’s way of being in a world lost in a cycle of dissent.
Contention in Judea and in America
To get a better understanding of this, let’s turn our minds to the world into which Jesus was born. At the time of Jesus’s birth, Herod the Great ruled Judea as a client king for the Romans—a post which he held for nearly four decades. For all his feats and with his best attempts at conforming to Jewish laws, Herod did everything in his power to placate the Romans—a major factor in enabling him to rule for as long as he did.1 High taxes, his constant prioritization of the Romans over the children of Abraham, and his insensitivity to Jewish customs, laws, and agendas had brought tensions in Judea to a boiling point. The overwhelming desire in Judea was to break free of Roman rule, but solutions and the groups that proposed them varied wildly.
The Zealots were in favor of a violent overthrow and had already made several attempts. The Pharisees, the religious elite, thought strict accordance to the law of God was their way of breaking free of Roman rule. And, Sadducees, opted to cooperate with the Romans, most-likely to secure a more comfortable existence for themselves.2 By the time of Jesus’ ministry, the Jewish people were simultaneously fearful of losing their standing with the Romans, yet highly contentious with one another in how to bring about their end goal of finding freedom from their pagan overlords. We now find ourselves in a similar situation—with a host of imminent issues which threaten us and dissenting groups jockeying for the platforms to offer their solutions.
Challenging Prevailing Assumptions
A lot of Jesus’s teaching had to do with challenging prevailing assumptions—long held, entrenched modes of thought and behavior that have been accepted to the point that people don’t give it a second thought. Dallas Willard points out that, “He (Christ) does this by pointing out that the case before him provides an exception and shows the general assumption or practice to be an unreliable guide to life under God.3” You see a succession of these in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not murder.’” (Matt. 5:21) “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’”(Matt. 5:27) “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not break your oaths.’”(Matt. 5:33) And Jesus follows up these assumptions and others like it with, “But I tell you” and challenges the dogma. This challenging of prevailing assumption was most apparent within his parables. However, the sentiment was also visible in the treatment of the people immediately around him. Much of it ranged from provocative to all-out offensive.
Being removed from the gospel accounts by two millennia robs us of the offensiveness of Christ. Or if we do understand its gravity, we may be led to think that Christ was only offensive to those who were in power. It is true, that perhaps who Christ most offended were the religious elite; however, he was just as offensive to common folk. The tax collector was not only hated by the Pharisee, he was despised by his kin for being a tool of the Romans to extort money. The Samaritan, half-Jew and half-Gentile, was considered worse than a dog by his “full-blooded” Jewish counterparts. And Women, societally, were considered second class citizens whose testimony held no weight. Yet, Jesus approached each of these archetypes with an invitation into the kingdom, and each time he did so he left those around him—elite and common folk alike—perplexed, having to reconcile the goodness they saw in Christ with the depravity they saw in his friends.
Affirming the Enemy
We see one such example of this when a Roman centurion sends friends to ask Christ to heal a servant who had fallen ill. For Jesus to enter the home of a gentile would have made him ceremonially unclean. The centurion understood this and responded with the following:
When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well. (Luke 7:6-10 Emphasis Mine)
Jesus did not seem to be bothered by becoming unclean by entering the centurion’s home, but how the centurion responded stopped him in his tracks. The centurion understood authority, and he discerned correctly that Christ was a man who had authority. He understood that Christ’s authority extended beyond the physical world—that he didn’t have to be present in order to heal.
This was a shock to Jesus, because try as he might he could not shake the ingrained idea of the Israelites that their Messiah would be a military leader, that his Kingdom was not of this world. Not even the twelve that followed him most closely understood this—at least not yet. But this centurion, a pagan, military leader, very clearly understood this and articulated it not only in word, but in action. “But say the word, and let my servant be healed.” The centurion understood that kings don’t go to battle; they say the word and battles happen. That is a king’s authority, and Jesus had it.
Can we imagine how this vignette landed with the Jewish people around him at that moment? Here is Christ, a prophet by all accounts, giving credence to a Roman centurion, a ranking official in the government who is, at least if only by position, actively oppressing them. To further raise the temperature in the cauldron, Jesus points to the pagan officer as an example of faith which the Israelites lacked.
This event even puzzled John the Baptist as further down the chapter he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is “the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Luke 7: 18). Christ responds with, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Luke 7:22) Jesus was relaying to John that he stood with the hurting and the oppressed, even if the hurting is the Roman “oppressor.” And understanding John’s bewilderment over the matter, Christ concludes with “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Luke 7:23)
Serving the Enemy
With a similar sentiment, we see Jesus drive another nail to the heart of this point when he asks his followers to go the second mile when asked to go one. His hearers would have clearly understood to what Christ was alluding—the Roman soldier who can make any Jew, by law, carry a burden for a maximum of one mile. I am apt to think that this point dropped like a pile of bricks on the chests of his Jewish listeners.
I wonder how the oppressed felt when asked to go above what was required of them for the oppressor. I’m certain objections of injustice about laws such as this one and corrupt taxation abounded among the Jewish people. Yet, here is Christ, asking them to act in love when it is good and right for them to do so. Perhaps, in his foreknowledge, Christ knew that it would be himself that would soon be the beneficiary of such a policy—when a Roman soldier would compel a common Jew to carry his burden—leading to his death on the cross.
In the above scenarios Christ is simply putting on display what he plainly says in the Sermon on the Mount—perhaps his magnum opus as far as challenging a prevailing assumption—that of loving our enemies:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends 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.” (Matthew 5:43-45)
Loving the Enemy: Our Opportunity to Look Like Christ
When we think of Christ’s charge to love our enemies as well as our neighbors, it is natural for our minds to begin to think in categories. An enemy would certainly be someone who is hostile to us or who wishes to cause us harm. A few weeks before I wrote this, a 6-year-old was shot and killed on the highway between my home and my office in a road-rage incident. The event shook our community, especially those of us who are parents. I would not want to know firsthand what it would take to forgive such a person. And in all likelihood, most of us never have to. However, it may be a useful exercise for us to think through who specifically an enemy would be to us. In his context, Christ put on display the Romans as the ones the Jews had identified as enemies. Jews were raised to despise the Romans. Not only were the Romans unclean gentiles with Pagan practices that opposed God, but they were actively oppressing the Jewish people. Jesus neither confirms nor denies this ethos, but asks those listening to him to see past categories through to the need of a person. From our perspective our enemies are those who are working against us, but from God’s vantage point the person we consider an adversary is another child “knit together in their mother’s womb…fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:13-14)
Perhaps our propensity to place our enemies into categories is short sighted. Surely, murderers and thieves are enemies to humanity. Maybe also racists and bigots, womanizers, and chauvinists. Depending on our group identification it might be the white supremacist or the white evangelical. The Antifa rioter. The Capital insurrectionist. The BLM protestor. The anti-vaxxer and the vaccine mandator. The Covid-19 denier and the mask Nazi. The progressive. The conservative. The apolitical. Certainly, the landscape of who is “in” and who is “out” evolves from a human perspective and largely depends upon the groups with whom we associate, our clicks, and what we hold to be our moral standard—though many of us fall short both of our personal and group ethics. However, the dignity and value of those left outside by the gatekeepers of each group is undoubtedly recognized by Christ.
Perhaps broadening our definition of enemies to including adversaries—anyone who is working against us, even if unintentionally or unmaliciously—may make the command to love them both obtainable and unavoidably necessary. Christ was not peddling pious dogma meant for the religious elite or the super Christian—though at times heroics are needed. He was plainly revealing a foundational necessity of human relationships.
To be human is to have adversaries, and it does not necessarily have to do with sin or unrighteousness. The person who is going up against me for the job promotion is my adversary. The person with different values and political beliefs is my adversary. I, often, am an adversary to my own children when I stand in the way of their desires. My wife is an adversary to me when we are disagreeing on a topic that may direct the family in one direction or another. Our fellow Christ-follower could be our adversary. To not love my enemy, in many cases the exact people that mean the most to me, is to live an impossible existence. In the giving of his examples of the Roman soldier, the person who has slapped you, and the person suing you, Jesus understood our propensity to not see past our pain and the injustices done to us. Christ sees the pain on both sides. We can join him.
The opportunities available to us to love one another, friend and adversary alike, abound. It has, of course, always been here, but with dissenting voices at a screaming pitch, perhaps we can “quiet it with our love.” (Zeph. 3:17) We need not look very far to start. We can begin with those immediately around us in our homes, our offices, and our churches. Dissent with those with whom we already have relationships can serve as training grounds for loving those who wish to do us harm in greater degrees. We can also challenge ourselves to see past categories and labels placed on a person and treat them as unique, image bearers of Christ. Associating with people whom others hold in contempt may come at a personal cost to our reputation, but would we want anything less for ourselves? And as we treat each person with the dignity bestowed on them by God, we can join Christ in gently bringing justice to pass.