When I was nineteen years old, I received a notice from our local draft board informing me that I was being drafted for military service. As a member of an historical peace church, I had the option of choosing alternative service as a religious conscientious objector. I did, and served for two years as an orderly in psychiatric ward. This raised hard questions that I have wrestled with ever since.
Like many of my generation, I detested the War in Vietnam and had absolutely no inclination to participate in it. As a farm boy, it felt strange that Vietnamese farmers and villagers, who lived on the other side of the world, were my enemies even if my government told me they were. Nations always create some external enemy. But then, didn’t Jesus teach us to love our enemies?
This was in the midst of the Cold War and that helps explain why we were fighting in Vietnam. Cold War strategists believed that Communist countries like the Soviet Union and China were determined to forcibly spread communism throughout the world. This had to be stopped at all costs. This may be hard for younger generations to believe but that fear and anxiety was considerably greater than the fear of radical Islamic extremism today.
A vivid memory is that Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of the Soviet Union, provocatively said that he wasn’t Jesus Christ and didn’t need to love his enemies. As a teenager, that caught my attention. He was certainly right. As an acclaimed atheist, Khrushchev certainly didn’t have to love his enemies. But what about those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus? What makes us assume that it’s okay for us to kill our enemies?
We assume that because nation-states are addicted to violence and we have become intoxicated along with them. We swallowed the myth of “American exceptionalism” hook, line, and sinker, along with the claims that we need to fight our enemies to protect our freedom, democracy, and capitalism.
My next post will examine the history of how followers of Jesus’ gradually abandoned Jesus teaching about loving our enemies.
Earl, this is a great history lesson, as well as a moral one. Thank you for your words well spoken on Jesus’ mandate for us. – Margie
To refuse to fight and kill those we have no actual enmity toward is certainly the right thing to do, but is that really what it is to love our enemies?
Julia, at a minimum, killing my enemy certainly isn’t loving that person. I would add, however, that love needs to be proactive and engage the other in ways that are caring, just, and respectful. I will speak to that in future posts on this topic.
I agree completely. I just get doubtful of our nonviolent bragging rights for “loving enemies” who were never really our enemies in the first place.
And that’s another thing: to be loving is at minimum not to kill, but not killing someone doesn’t necessarily mean you love them.
I agree. You say it well.