Love Thy Enemy

It ended Friday night. At 8:42pm, “The suspect is in custody” echoed over the airwaves, with a Boston police tweet not far behind. As quickly as they had come, the scattered gunshots, the chopping drone of the assault helicopters, the heavy boots of the SWAT teams, the hiss and crack of voices over the police scanner melted away into a raucous block party as Watertown returned to normalcy.

A couple of hours earlier, when the end’s imminence had become clear, Reverend Michael Rogers had sat down to write: “Dear Dzhokhar,” he typed. “I will pray for you. When the first pitch is thrown on Patriots day at Fenway, I will pray that somehow you will know joy…”1 He was not alone. Minutes after the capture, the Father Manny Alvarez went to his Twitter: “A wise young lady just reminded me that as we pray for everyone in Boston, we must pray for this 19 year old too…because we’re Catholic.”2 Their sentiments ricocheted across the internet as Christians tweeted, blogged, posted, and re-​​tweeted similar thoughts.

Not all responses were so sympathetic. Take New York State Senator Greg Ball’s tweet, for instance: “So, scum bag #2 in custody. Who wouldn’t use torture on this punk to save more lives?”3 In response to @csalafia’s call for Christians to pray,4 @DonivanRiddle requested that the prayers specify that the remaining Tsarnaev brother “dies slowly & in pain”.5 In contrast to the Christian call for forgiveness, others called for justice to be served.

Our deepest loyalties are laid bare in tragedies. For Christians, a commitment to Jesus’ call to love one’s enemies and pray for them (Matt 5:44) is one that ought to hold even when every fiber of one’s being is crying out with the pain of the Boston Marathon victims. But the flurry of Christian responses does raise a serious question: What about justice? The Facebook group “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev” has 78 members declaring to the hospitalized suspect “we always love you bro” and encouraging him to “Get well soon”.6 In what sense are Christians different than these supporters who want to laud the Boston Bombings as heroes of sorts?

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach took the outpouring of Christian sentiment on behalf of the suspect as an opportunity to make a provocative statement:

The reason that tragedies, like the outrageous terrorist bombing in Boston this week, continue to take place is not because the world lacks love but rather because it doesn’t have enough hate. Living in a Christian world that teaches us to ‘love the sinner,’ we find excuses for evil and refuse to [dedicate] ourselves fully to its destruction.7

To distinguish between the sin and the sinner, in a case when the sinner does not immediately repent, is for Boteach an abomination and an evil. “For us to extend forgiveness and compassion to them [an unrepentant sinner] in the name of religion is not just insidious, it is a mockery of God who has mercy for all yet demands justice for the innocent.”8

Boteach’s remarks are not new. In 2003, another Rabbi penned an article questioning why Jews and Christians differed so strongly on the question of hate and forgiveness.9 In exploring the “Virtue of Hate”, Meir Soloveichik suggested that the Christian aversion against hating even evildoers in this life represented a devaluing of the agency of those who know perfectly well what they do but refuse to repent of it. “[W]hile no human being is denied the chance to become worthy of God’s love,” he writes, “not every human being engages in actions so as to be worthy of that love, and those unworthy of divine love do not deserve our love either.”

Jewish perspectives, however, are not the only ones at odds with the Christian ethic of justice and forgiveness.10 Over a hundred years earlier, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche railed against the ways in which the Christianized Europe had developed a moral philosophy that was able to too-​​sharply distinguish between an agent and his or her deed, a phenomenon and its essence, an appearance and reality.11 This distinction between the unseen “cause” and the seen “effect,” for Nietzsche, represented a way for weak individuals who had not the will or courage to make something of themselves to abrogate their own responsibility and make those who were taking responsibility for their own lives – the strong – feel bad for being strong. Oddly enough, Nietzsche’s final diagnosis is echoed in Soloveichik’s musings: The problem with Christianity is that it is too otherworldly. In emphasizing universal sinfulness and the potential for universal salvation, Christians have put a deep wedge into their abilities to take seriously the injustices and agencies of others in this present reality. The crux of the issue is this: in relegating justice into an eschatological “final judgment” and focusing on God’s unconditional, self-​​giving agape love, Christians have given up the pursuit of justice in this present day and age.12

This is not to say that Christians cannot claim to care for justice in the here and now. Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, for instance, has made a valiant effort to articulate how true Christian love must take into concern the requirements of justice in order to truly be love.13 In other words, Christian love must be just; and as a philosopher, he has written against apartheid in South Africa and done much to draw attention to injustices committed against Palestinians in the West Bank to put his money where his mouth is. But when push comes to shove, one would not be amiss to suspect that Christian rhetoric of “justice” is just all show, especially when bowing their heads in prayer for the health, safety, and welfare of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. In continuing to hope for his redemption even now, Christians seem to be perpetuating the very kind of disregard of consequences that, in Boteach’s view, allows too much injustice to continue without condemnation. If everyone is a sinner, and yet no one is beyond redemption, how can any Christian take anyone’s actions in this life seriously at all? Are Christians merely ignoring the horrible things that the Boston bomber has done in praying for him? Is Rabbi Boteach right to claim that “[T]o show kindness to the murderer,” as the Christians are doing, “is to violate the victim yet again”?

For Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, the difference between the Christian response calling for love and those responses calling for justice is not that the Christian gives up on justice altogether, but that she holds a “will-​​to-​​embrace” in the midst of seeking for justice.14 For Volf, the Christian’s aversion towards exclusion and hate stems from a deep appreciation of the myriad problems that hate – especially when justified – brings into our world today. As Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre discusses in his book Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, questions on justice are often also questions of whose justice we ought to enact.15 While many of us may rage at the seeming meaninglessness of the Boston bombings, one cannot help but suspect that somehow, there was a logic in the Tsarnaev brothers’ minds that made such an act make sense. Perhaps, like Osama bin Laden and the September 11th attackers, they may have even seen their acts to represent a – from our perspective – twisted sort of justice.16

For Volf, the Christian response to injustice is not complicity because it strives for a higher kind of justice, a justice that hopes for a future reconciliation that must constantly be on guard against the temptation of establishing a temporary peace by the use of violence and selective exclusion. We must also be wary of any attempt at re-​​education that is willing to coercively remake the sinner in our own image. We are rightfully angry at the violence perpetrated by the bombers because they have truly wronged us. Christians, however, choose not to respond with calls for retribution because they are seeking to break the cycle of vengeance and violence, and thus even Dzhokhar might not be past redemption.

But the Christian abandonment of hate and violence is not simply an abandonment of justice. Rather, they are relinquishing the right to judge to the God who judges justly, who has broken the cycle of hate and violence by Himself dying on the cross. Here’s what Volf has to say about it:

Without entrusting oneself to the God who judges justly, it will hardly be possible to follow the crucified Messiah and refuse to retaliate when abused. The certainty of God’s just judgment at the end of history is the presupposition for the renunciation of violence in the middle of it. The divine system of judgment is not the flip side of the human reign of terror, but a necessary correlate of human nonviolence. Since the search for truth and the practice of justice cannot be given up, the only way in which nonviolence and forgiveness will be possible in a world of violence is through displacement or transference of violence, not through its complete relinquishment.17

The “otherworldliness” of Christianity, far from being a relinquishment of responsibility and justice as Nietzsche would suggest, is actually the necessary condition for any view that takes justice seriously while hoping to bring an end to the cycles of injustice that plagues our world. In praying for Dzhokhar, Christians are expressing the hope that the distinction between sin and sinner will be able to be made, that reconciliation will be possible when his violence is returned, not with violence in return, but with suffering love. The Christian does not ignore the deed – that would certainly be the abrogation of responsibility; rather, he or she acknowledges it and nevertheless chooses to absorb it in love.

At the center of it all stands a man from Nazareth who was “made… to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). You may complain that there is a sort of magical switcheroo going on here, that Christians are insisting on a distinction between sin and sinner that is so outrageous so as to be unbelievable. The sin of the sinner is displaced onto Jesus such that the sinner can be declared righteous instead; and instead of responding to violence with his own violence, Jesus absorbed it in an embrace that tries to overcome evil by doing good. Followers of Jesus are called to do the same.

That it is an alien logic should not be a surprise, for it is the logic of a world wholly different from our own, a world in which deception and injustice no longer exists and love reigns supreme. In our troubled times, when full forgiveness must remain contingent upon repentance, the “will-​​to-​​embrace” must nevertheless be there, the willingness to hope against hope that such reconciliation is possible and refuse to write off anyone as a lost cause. As the Rev. Rogers wrote, “Dear Dzhokhar, I will pray for you next year when the first shot is fired in the annual reenactment of the battle of Lexington in Concord, that you will come to know that PEACE and LOVE are the only ways in which the world will ever be changed.”

So we pray.

  1. []
  2. []
  3. []
  4. “If you call yourself Christian, tonight a 19yo Chechen needs your prayers. #JesusSaidSo” []
  5. []
  6. []
  7. []
  8. Ibid. []
  9. []
  10. Indeed, not all Jews would agree with Boteach and Soloveichik’s interpretation of Judaism, nor Christians on the relationship between justice and forgiveness, for that matter. See, for instance, some of the articles penned in response to Soloveichik’s article: See also Claudia Ricci’s reflections on Cain and Abel for a different Jewish take on the Boston Bombings. One might say, however, that her article is just the first half of a Christian sermon which would appropriately end with a quotation from Hebrews 12: “You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (vv. 23–24). []
  11. “For just as the popular mind separates the lightning from its flash and takes the latter for an action, for the operation of a subject called lightning, so popular morality also separates strength from expressions of strength, as if there were a neutral substratum behind the strong man, which was free to express strength or not to do so. But there is no such sub-​​stratum; there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; “the doer” is merely a fiction added to the deed ­­– the deed is everything.” Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), Essay 1, Section 13. []
  12. Nietzsche, of course, would doubt whether “justice” is the right virtue to be seeking. For him, even “Christian justice” would just be one kind of justice that just so happens to be in vogue at this point in history; alternate value systems and ways of dealing with those with whom one disapproves have existed and may exist once more. As for a Christian view that declares love to have eclipsed justice, see, for instance, Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros, in which God’s agape love in Jesus is contrasted with the “calculating” concerns of justice. []
  13. See Nicholas, Wolterstorff’s Justice in Love (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s, 2011). []
  14. See Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996). []
  15. See MacIntyre, Alasdair. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (London: Duckworth, 1988). []
  16. If you have not read Osama bin Laden’s 1996 “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places” you might want to consider reading it. Whereas Americans may have seen the 911 attacks to constitute a senseless, unprovoked assault on American lives, bin Laden saw it as a justified retaliation against the many ways that the Americans were violently occupying Muslim territories in the Middle East. In other words, bin Laden thought himself to be on the side of justice; for him, Americans were the original terrorists. See, for instance, a copy of the text here: See also, a second 1998 declaration expressing similar sentiments: []
  17. Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 302. []

Enoch Kuo is a senior in the Religion Department who enjoys thinking, reading, and writing about the Christian faith (and life in general).

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,