Tommy (the Rev. Tom Hartman, my pal) and I would often joke about what would be the hardest thing for each of us to accept if we converted. For me, the hardest Christian belief to understand and accept was the Trinity. The idea of three Gods who were really one God, but also three, but really one ... was a mystery wrapped up in a riddle. Tommy thought the hardest thing about becoming Jewish would be tuna fish. He saw Jews, particularly Orthodox Jews, eating a lot of tuna fish sandwiches, and he hated tuna fish. I never made progress with Tommy on the tuna fish front, but he was able to help me understand more deeply what Christians meant by the Trinity (the three leaves of a clover was a part of his explanation).
Over time, however, a different Christian belief brought me up short and froze me. I consider it the most important and unique and unprecedented and revolutionary of all Christian beliefs. I cannot find a way to understand or accept it, though I admire it deeply. This singular Christian belief is connected through Jesus' Sermon on the Mount to, among others, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose tragic murder and heroic life we honor Jan. 21. The belief is recorded in Matthew 5:44 and in Luke 6:27-36, "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."
I do not know of any Christian teaching that confronts our normal human instincts more directly. What makes a person our enemy is precisely that he or she has done something to hurt us or those we love and that hurt was purposeful, vicious and unrepentant. If you do not hate someone who has savaged your loved ones, who would you hate? Moreover, Jesus' teaching is not just a command to forgive an enemy who has come to you with a sincere appeal for forgiveness and repentance. No, Jesus is teaching his followers to actually love an unrepentant enemy! It is not only that I cannot accept this teaching, but I do not even understand it.
Judaism teaches, as does Christianity, that we must "love our neighbor as we love ourselves." (Leviticus 19:18). This is the Golden Rule, the foundation of all true morality. Our holiness is the same as the holiness of others. But it is a commandment to love innocent neighbors, not unrepentant enemies. To this day, "love your enemies" is a teaching that is outside my heart.
All of which brings us to King, who wrote in 1963, quoting Matthew 5:44 and offering this interpretation of his Savior's teaching:
"Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to 'love your enemies.' Some men have sincerely felt that its actual practice is not possible. It is easy, they say, to love those who love you, but how can one love those who openly and insidiously seek to defeat you? Others, like the philosopher Nietzsche, contend that Jesus' exhortation to love one's enemies is testimony to the fact that the Christian ethic is designed for the weak and cowardly, and not for the strong and courageous. Jesus, they say, was an impractical idealist. Despite these insistent questions and persistent objections, this command of Jesus challenges us with new urgency. Upheaval after upheaval has reminded us that modern man is traveling along a road called hate, in a journey that will bring us to destruction and damnation. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one's enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world. Jesus is not an impractical idealist: he is the practical realist."
I am deeply moved but still deeply unconvinced by either Jesus or King. Love is affirmation and acceptance, and the hostile acts of an enemy defy both. To be commanded to love what cannot be loved just cheapens love and deprives us of the right to be outraged at an immoral and unjust assault on our life and freedom.
I do agree that hate is a spiritually corrosive emotion. Hate, it has been said, is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. I get that but I cannot make the leap into loving my attacker. Perhaps I can diminish my hate by pursuing just punishment for my enemy, but love is a bridge too far. Jesus and King preached unconditional love and, from afar, I admire both the purity and the human impossibility of their remote human teaching.