Loving Enemies?

D. Stephen Long

What is the relationship between the command to love one’s enemies and the use of violence and/or other coercive political means? Two important contemporary approaches to Christian ethics offer different, perhaps incommensurable, answers. On the one hand, the Neo-Augustinians suggest that an unwillingness to defend what is good, true, and beautiful in this life through coercive means stems from a hatred of the world emerging from bad apocalypticism. On the other hand, Neo-Anabaptists accuse those who would preserve what is true, good, and beautiful through violence of turning away from Jesus’s eschatological ethic and toward a “Constantinian” desire to rule history. NeoAnabaptists worry that metaphysics takes precedence over eschatology. NeoAugustinians worry that eschatology, or apocalypticism, takes precedence over metaphysics. Are these two approaches, and worries, forever divided, or can the two be reconciled?

Any reconciliation, certainly premature at this stage, first requires clarity on differences and similarities between the two influential approaches. Such clarity is not readily forthcoming, for the terms “NeoAugustinians” and “NeoAnabaptists” potentially obfuscate as much as, if not more than, they clarify. The terms are inadequate, but recognizable. James Davison Hunter used the term “neo-Anabaptist” in his thoughtful work, To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010). His sympathetic critique frames one of the questions this essay addresses. He stated, “In effect, theirs is a world-hating theology. It is not impossible but it is rare, all the same to find among any of its prominent theologians or its popularizers, any affirmation of good in the social world and any acknowledgement of beauty in creation or truth shared in common with those outside of the church” (174.) His affirmation of good, beauty, and truth discloses Augustinian-Platonist proclivities. If there is good, truth, and beauty in the world, and only the worst form of Manichaeism would argue there is not, is it not worth defending? Are “NeoAnabaptists” forced to deny the goodness, truth, and beauty of creation and allow these transcendental predicates of being to dissolve in an apocalyptic blaze?

Let me illustrate the problem with two different events at theological conferences. I was giving small talk at a conference that had Anabaptist sympathies, extolling the virtues of a recently purchase carbon fiber bicycle, when one of the participants said, “You know, when the eschaton arrives, it too will be consumed in the great fire.” I found that to be an odd and unconvincing statement. Why would Jesus desire to take something as beautiful as a carbon fiber bicycle and destroy it? The participant’s statement was an example of apocalyptic gone bad. At another conference I was involved in a “private” audience with the pope, which meant I was in a theater of five thousand people waiting on the Pope to arrive for an address. When he arrived, the crowd went wild, standing and cheering. A theologian more attuned to Augustinianism found this all quite compelling and turned to me and said, “This is just how it must have been when the Emperor returned to Rome.” I thought the same, but worried. Neither of these events represent “NeoAnabaptists” or “NeoAugustinians” well. They exemplify caricatures, but they also justify the worries noted above. Does the NeoAnabaptist position require abandoning our proper loves, including a proper love of the world? Does the NeoAugustinian position love the world too much, unable to distinguish between the vicar of Christ and the Emperor? In the next few installments for Catalyst, I will explore the similarities and differences between these two theological approaches to ethics, seeking to identify their similarities and differences around the command to love one’s enemies. What does it require of us?

First, a caveat. Anyone familiar with the “NeoAnabaptist” approach will know that beginning with love already moves more in the direction of Augustinians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey than it does with them. Niebuhr and Ramsey were responsible for an Augustinian renaissance in mid-twentieth century Christian ethics that made “love” the primary concern. There are, of course, good reasons to do so. The New and Old Testaments agree that love is the basic meaning of the commands: love God and love one’s neighbor. Ramsey understood just war as based on the command to love one’s neighbor. Although that may seem counterintuitive, his argument has some plausibility. Stanley Hauerwas has been suspicious of love. He once wrote, “When love becomes what Christianity is all about, we can make no sense of Jesus’s death and resurrection” (“What’s Love Got to Do with It? The Politics of the Cross,” ABC Religion and Ethics, 3 April 2015). No theologian attentive to Scripture can oppose Jesus’s command to love our neighbors and our enemies, so future installments will also need to address why Hauerwas is suspicious of love. For now, we are left with a question. Can killing one’s enemies fulfill the command to love them? What is Jesus asking of us, and who is the “us” being asked, when he tells us to love our enemies?

Posted May 02, 2016

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