In Matthew 5, Jesus is reported as saying, “‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies.'”
I disagree with this.
After meditating on the parable of the good Samaritan, I think there’s an apparent contradiction here and I’ve fallen on one side of it. That parable was told to answer the question, “who is my neighbour?” Yet all too often, stripped of his social and historical context, we treat it as a story of loving compassion from one human being to another, with an implicit criticism of the Jewish religious authorities.
I don’t read it like that. The parable has given rise to the use of the term ‘Samaritan’ as someone who does good, even to the extent of being the name of a national charity that does everything it can to give a listening ear to those in need and to do everything that can to prevent suicide. But this use of the word misses the cultural aspects to which Jesus was appealing. To a Jewish audience in the 1st century A.D. the inhabitants of Samaria were an anathema.
The whole parable relies on a presupposition of sectarian hatred. It’s a hatred that gets turned on its head in the course of the story. To portray the parable as being about how to be nice to people is to dilute its shock value. To the people Jesus was speaking to, there was nothing good about a Samaritan. If I were to try to update it to today, I would choose one of 2 scenarios. Instead of speaking to a Jewish audience about a Samaritan, I would opt for:
- An audience of UKIP supporters about an unemployed Romanian migrant who wishes to claim child benefit for his 3 children.
- An audience of disabled activists about Iain Duncan Smith.
The point of the story, as I understand it, is that even those people about whom every fibre of your being says is no good, is your neighbour. The term enemy isn’t used here. Who is my neighbour? My neighbour is the Robert Mugabe. My neighbour is Kim Yong Un. My neighbours are Westboro Baptist Church. My neighbours are members of the EDL. My neighbour is Katie Hopkins. My neighbour is Richard Dawkins. My neighbours have joined ISIS/ISIL/IS.
To define who my enemy is, is to create an ‘us and them’ mentality. Christians are great at doing this, despite how unhelpful it is. We set up discussions as ‘Christians v Atheists’, ‘Christians v Muslims’, ‘Christians v The World’. The language of alienation is itself alien to the christian ethic that sees only neighbours and which refuses to define anyone as its enemy.
If someone else calls me their enemy, so be it; I will not reciprocate the epithet.
In short, I refuse to love my enemies because I refuse to have enemies. I have only neighbours, and I am called to love them.