Why love for enemies is a crucial practice of the church: reading Romans 12 with Dietrich Bonhoeffer


April 10, 2013 by jmar198013

Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord. Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good. (Romans 12.16-21 CEB)

I mentioned in my last post on this blog that it is best to read Romans 12 as a commentary on Matt. 5.38-48. In Rom. 12.16-21, Paul is teaching the Christians at Rome how to put Jesus’ call to non-retaliation and enemy love into practice. Reflecting more upon the passage, I remembered a sermon Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached on it. What strikes me as important about Bonhoeffer’s approach to the text is that he bases the call to love our enemies upon the same premise that Jesus does: the character of God. When Jesus called his disciples to love their enemies in Matt. 5.43-48, he imagined that their love would model the Father’s care of us. He also called for disciples to be as all-inclusive in their love as the Father is (Matt. 5.48). On this side of the Cross, our experience of God’s care of us is given an added dimension: we were at war with God. We killed his dear Son. And still, God seeks us out to make peace with us. Bonhoeffer’s comments help us put our enemies in perspective: they, like we, are people who stand in need of forgiveness. Said Bonhoeffer:

Our text … speaks about the behavior of Christians in relation to their enemies or how Christians‘overcome’ their enemies. This question will always be of great importance for the life of the individual and of the Christian church-community. Yet we are so absolutely ignorant about this, and we have such completely wrong thoughts, that our text begins with, ‘Do not claim to be wise.’ First and foremost, this might be a reminder of how incomprehensible God’s way with us was to our wisdom. Truly, it is foreign and inaccessible to our wisdom that God sought us, forgave us, that our Father sacrificed his Son for us, and thereby won over and converted our hearts. With that we are told: If you meet an enemy, think first about your own enmity against God and about God’s mercy towards you … Or do we think that God would love us more than our enemies? … The cross is not the private property of any human being, but belongs to all human beings; it is valid for all human beings. God loves our enemies–this is what the cross tells us. God suffers for their sake, experiences misery and pain for their sake; the Father has given his dear Son for them. Everything depends on this: that whenever we meet an enemy, we immediately think: this is someone whom God loves; God has given everything for this person. Therefore, do not consider yourselves to be wise. Concerning our attitude toward our enemies, this means first and foremost: Remember that you as well were God’s enemy and mercy has happened to you without your merit or deserving. Remember that God also went to the cross for your enemy and loves your enemy as dearly as you. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Loving Our Enemies,” in The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Douglas W. Stott, trans.; Isabel Best, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 195-96.

One thing that stands out here is Bonhoeffer connects the love of enemies with Rom. 12.16’s word: Don’t think that you’re so smart. What counts for smarts in the world is that you repay evil for evil, not good for evil. In the eyes of the world, repaying good for evil can be seen as weakness and irresponsibility. The call to love, bless, and do good for our enemies depends upon our experience of having been enemies of God and God showing mercy to us. That we would feed a hungry enemy and water a thirsty one, rather than delivering the death blow to put the enemy out of our world, makes sense only because God feeds and waters his enemies (Matt. 5.45). Our experience of being forgiven even for the wanton murder of God’s Child puts a different perspective on how we relate to our enemies. We know them first as people God loves, as people who, like ourselves, need to be forgiven. To bypass love, forgiveness, reconciliation and presume to try and harm or destroy our enemies mocks the Cross in a way that makes Andres Serrano’s infamous photograph seem quite tame by comparison.

Bonhoeffer goes on to reflect further on the person of the enemy and their need for redemptive love. Our eyes made new by God’s love for us in the Cross allow us to see the enemy as a person in need. And what was it Jesus said about how we relate to people in need? Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you (Matt. 5.42 CEB). Our enemy is a beggar and a borrower. So are we, who pray: Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our debts (Matt. 6.11-12 RSV). The enemy is in a precarious position; we are, too.

Let’s be very clear: there is a person, a neighbor, or someone else who continuously speaks ill of me, who vilifies me, who openly wrongs me, who plagues and tortures me at every opportunity. I only have to see this person and my blood boils and I am filled by a terrible, threatening anger. The one who causes that within me is the enemy. But now I have to be careful. Now I need to remember quickly: mercy has happened to me, not by my human doing, but by God, and for this person Jesus Christ died–and suddenly everything changes. Now we hear: do not repay anyone evil for evil … What can the evildoer do against you? … Suffering injustice does not hurt any Christian. But the doing of injustice causes harm. The evil one wants to instill one thing in you, namely, that you will also become evil. But with that, evil would surely win. Therefore, do not repay anyone evil for evil. You will harm not the other but yourself. You are not in danger when evil is done to you, but the other person is in danger. (Bonhoeffer, “Loving Our Enemies,” 196)

It is when we are convinced that if we repay evil for evil, “You will harm not the other but yourself,” that we are given grace to love our enemy without flinching. Because when we retaliate, we are no longer acting as God’s children: we are playing at being God. The willingness to love our enemies rather than destroy them means that we have humbled ourselves before God’s judgement of us in the Cross. When we practice to love our enemies, the meaning of the word, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble (James 4.6 AV) will be revealed to us, in us, and through us. This was Bonhoeffer’s next movement in his sermon:

If I take revenge into my own hands, I am making myself the judge of the world and of humankind. The revenge I wanted to take will come upon my own head. In seeking revenge, I take the life of my enemy into my own hands and forget that God’s hand already rests upon this person for whom Christ died on the cross. Whoever seeks revenge on a human being undoes the death of Christ and becomes guilty of denying the blood of reconciliation. (Bonhoeffer, “Loving Our Enemies,” 198)

And yet, the God who tells us not to avenge ourselves also promises: Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back. Dare we console ourselves, then, with the thought that our enemies will fall into the wrathful hands of our Father who visits vengeance? Not so, said Bonhoeffer, for God has already made any repayment that needs to be made in the Cross:

This is God’s vengeance, namely, that of accepting self-inflicted pain and suffering while sparing and accepting us. This is God’s vengeance, namely that of carrying the suffering on God’s own shoulders and forgiving all enemies. Does it not resonate in us: Do not consider yourselves to be wise! God’s paths to you are too wonderful and too superior, too merciful and too loving! (Bonhoeffer, “Loving Our Enemies,” 198)

And so Bonhoeffer brings it back round to his starting point: Don’t think that you’re so smart. To let go of retaliation is to stop asserting yourself as God of your own life. It is a freeing of ourselves from the powers by which the Evil One binds us. For the only effects our own claims to wisdom have ever wrought is violence and judgment. 

The devil promised wisdom to Adam and Eve, offering to make them wise as God, and they were to know what is good and evil … With that they were supposed to become judges over good and evil … They imagined that they would now know how to deal with God and with humankind. With the aid of their wisdom, they would now certainly build a good world. But what happened? The first son of Adam and Eve was Cain, the murderer of his brother … The first human being born of humans on this earth was a murderer of his brother … This was the fruit of the wisdom of the first human beings! … Do not believe that you know how to deal with human beings, with enemies, or that you know what is good or evil, or otherwise human beings will devour each other. ‘Do not claim to be wise,’ but focus on God’s path to humankind. “Loving Our Enemies,” 195)

The fruit of human wisdom is that we kill our brothers. Letting go of vengeance is a part of renouncing our human claims to wisdom. People who don’t know any better than to give holy things to dogs or throw your pearls in front of pigs (Matt. 7.6 CEB) simply have no business judging for ourselves what is good and what is evil. We are just not that smart. It is our sense of justice, that we are able to know for ourselves what is good and what is evil, after all, that balks at the word of God through Christ that we will not repay evil for evil, but we will do good to our enemy. As long as we allow this word to offend us, we are playing at being God. We are gagging on the forbidden fruit of Eden. The Cross is God’s judgment on our wisdom (1 Cor. 1.18-31). Once we accept this judgment as true, we confess humbly that we do not know what is good and what is evil. We do not know how to deal with our enemy. Then we can accept Paul’s word in Rom. 12.16-21. We can accept Jesus’ word in Matt. 5.38-48. They are inviting us to model God’s care of us–his care in feeding his enemies, his care for his enemies in the Cross–for our enemies. And we are participating in a marvelous transformation–the insurgency of God’s kingdom, the new creation. For modeling God’s care for us, even for our enemies, means that we are learning to resume humanity’s intended vocation: to faithfully image God in God’s earth (Gen. 1.27).


2 thoughts on “Why love for enemies is a crucial practice of the church: reading Romans 12 with Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  1. Jack Hairston says:

    You always make me think, Jeremy.

  2. jmar198013 says:

    Thanks, Jack. I’ve missed talking to you. Don’t be a stranger.

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