Friday, December 5, 2008

On Loving Our Enemies: Shmuley Boteach and the Mumbai Attacks

The atrocities committed in Mumbai this week are a stark reminder of just how fragile a world we continue to live in. Since 9/11 Americans have been more attuned to this fact, but events like last week's remind us, brutally, that right now peace -- that is, a lack of violence -- in any place is simply not a reality.

For Christians the reminder is similar, but even harder. We are the people called to witness to the peace of God made manifest in the cross and resurrection of Christ, ostensibly perpetuated and embodied by God's Spirit in his people, the church. Such theological claims sound airy and meaningless in times like these, but there they remain. Is God's church such a witnessing community, and do such theological claims have any import for horrors like the murder rampage of Mumbai?

I believe the answer is yes, and the reason I am writing is to address an article written in direct response to the Mumbai attacks. However, I do not want to trivialize what happened. The first response of the Christian community in times of terror must be the ability to mourn with those who are mourning. The practice of mourning we received from Israel, whose Psalms remain our resource for crying out to God in the midst of injustice and great evil. The Psalms reveal to us that no emotion, no feeling, no reaction is too strong for the God of Israel to hear and take into himself. Everything goes to God, and he can handle it. To refuse our honest terror and anger and hatred from God is contrary to the witness of Scripture.

The second, and not necessarily subsequent, practice of Christians is silence. We do not know what to say, and we do not have easy answers. We do not proclaim God having "done" this thing, we do not know "why" it happened; it merely did, and we reside in the same ignorance, disbelief, and tension of the victims. We simply do not know, and that is painful.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his reflections on 9/11, Writing in the Dust, writes that silence creates a space in which we can search together for coherence, for ground solid enough to place our feet again and to stand up. After 9/11 that silence was filled with cries for vengeance, militaristic unity, nationalistic fervor, and zealous action. God knows there will be (and already have been) similar responses to Mumbai, and may God grant wisdom to those leaders forced to make impossible decisions in the wake of the attacks. And, possibly more important, may God grant his people the power and wisdom to respond with the silence and compassionate mourning the world and the victims need. Healing will come; for now we will cry, somehow learning to be still.

In such a way do I want to be sensitive to the fact that droning on about theology can sound not just inappropriate, but downright malicious, in a time like this. But it is precisely times like these that call for God's people to witness to an alternative way, so I will proceed with diffidence and an deep awareness of the potential for tone deafness.

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The author of the article I plan to address is Shmuley Boteach, writing Monday, December 1st, in The Jerusalem Post. Boteach is an American Orthodox Rabbi, a weekly syndicated columnist for the Post, and a popular Jewish author on a number of cultural and religious issues.

The gist of his article is that we ought to reserve our compassion for the victims of the Mumbai attacks, and wholeheartedly hate the murderers. As an Orthodox Jew, Boteach is not a Christian, but as a friend of Christians directly addresses Jesus's command to love our enemies. He writes: response is that our enemies and God's enemies are different parties altogether. Jesus meant to love those who steal your girlfriend, cut you off on the road or swindle you in a business deal. But to love those who indiscriminately murder God's children is an abomination against all that is sacred. Is there a man who is human whose heart is not filled with moral revulsion against terrorists who target a rabbi who feeds the hungry? Would God or Jesus ask me to extend even one morsel of my limited capacity for compassion to fiends rather than saving every last particle for their victims instead?

Could God really be so unreasonable, could Jesus be so cruel, as to ask me to love baby-killers? And would such a God be moral if He did? Could I pray to a God who loves terrorists? Could I find comfort in Him knowing that He offers them comfort as well? No, such a god would be my enemy. He would abide in Hades rather than heaven. And I would be damned before I would worship him. I will accept an eternity in purgatory rather than a moment of celestial bliss shared with these beasts.

Furthermore, he takes into account the concrete example of enemy-loving Christians like Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I am well aware that my hero Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." But surely the great man never meant for this to apply to people like Hitler, who was never going to be stopped by love but only by an eloquent loathing, as articulated by Winston Churchill, which summoned an Allied campaign to carpet-bomb his war-making apparatus into oblivion. Indeed, had King's nonviolent movement not been protected, at crucial times, by federal marshalls and the National Guard, the terrorist thugs of the Ku Klux Klan might have killed every last one of them.

I want to be utterly respectful and honoring of the moral seriousness with which Boteach engages his topic and makes his claims. Furthermore, because he is an Orthodox Jew and not a Christian, I have no intention of holding him to the expectations of Christian discipleship, just as he would not expect me to act in accord with Orthodox Judaism.

However, I profoundly disagree with him, and because he himself raises the issue of Christ's command to love our enemies, I think it fair to critique his treatment. I will do my best, though, not to engage him as a person (I know very little about the man to begin with), but to interact with and critique his argument -- which I believe to be solidly representative of a host of American Christians, who are in any case the truer opponent I have in mind.

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(I don't feel I have qualified strongly enough: as a Christian, discussing an article written by a Jew, not 65 years removed from the Holocaust, as he expresses his dismay at the murder of a Jewish family serving in a foreign country -- it is difficult to put into words how uncomfortable that makes me. What words do I have to say? What right to say them? I belong to a history implicated in the worst possible violence against his ancestors, my very own religious forebears, God's people Israel. When he mentions Hitler, it is personal; when Islamist fanatics single out Jews, it is personal; violence against Jews is real and not imaginary. It is historical and familial.

So let us do this: please read his article and take his argument seriously. But from here on out, I am not arguing with Smuley Boteach; I am discussing an issue pertinent to Christians in America, because we belong to the most militarily powerful nation in the history of the planet and I believe the call of Jesus to love our enemies remains. His article was the impetus, but he is not my adversary. It is the argument of the article -- herewith personified -- which I want to address regarding my brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow members of the church. Let that be our stance as we proceed.)

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First, I want to distinguish between the witness of the Psalms and that of the article. While the Psalms offer a glimpse into situations of desperate crisis and seeming hopelessness -- and thus into the emotions of rage, anger, and vengeance that follow -- their witness is directing, funneling, those feelings to God, the only One authorized to act in response. The article, on the other hand, is arguing that we ought to hate evildoers.

Moving toward the New Testament -- and doing my best not to over-exegete -- put simply, the enemies of God and the enemies of the people of God are one and the same. When Jesus says, "Love your enemies," not only does he ground this command in the character of God (Matthew 5; Luke 6), he is speaking to the community of his followers whom he also calls to cross-carrying. That is, "Love your enemies until they kill you." This isn't an empty command because we know the end of Jesus's story.

All attempts at softening or spiritualizing the enemies Jesus has in mind simply do not take into account the way in which Jesus's teaching is inseparable both from his life and death and from the community he formed around himself. The enemies of Jesus who crucified him are the genocide-enacting, Israel-occupying, religion-blaspheming, revolution-stifling, rebel-executing, prophet-crucifying religious and political forces of the empire of Caesar. By virtue of following Jesus, these enemies become the enemies of Jesus's disciples. Thus the book called "Acts of the Apostles": Peter and John imprisoned and whipped, Stephen stoned, James beheaded, Paul tortured, the church persecuted. The acts of God's Jesus-emissaries are met at every turn with punishment and suffering and persecution by the religious and political powers of Caesar.

(I am choosing not to parse the specific instances where it is the religious authorities rather than the political authorities who act as persecuting enemies of Jesus/God/church; the story, point, and result are the same.)

So we see that, in the witness of the New Testament -- at least the Gospels and Acts, alongside Paul, though we could include others, especially 1 Peter and Revelation -- the enemies whom Jesus commands his followers to love are clearly and undeniably not "those who steal your girlfriend, cut you off on the road or swindle you in a business deal." In fact, to use the article's own words, they are precisely "those who indiscriminately murder God's children," because these are the same enemies who, in order to try to kill the baby Messiah, employed genocide. They indiscriminately murdered God's children, and Jesus died for them.

That claim, of course, opens up a whole new hornet's nest of theological disagreement. Did Jesus die for terrorists? Did he die for those who die without faith? I believe the answer to both is yes, but for Christians the only answer we need to know is the former, because God alone will judge us all.

So, how do we know that Jesus died for terrorists? Because the apostle to the gentiles, called by the Lord Jesus himself in a vision -- a vision reported no less than five times in the New Testament -- was a terrorist. Saul of Tarsus was a religious zealot intent on righteous persecution, punishment, and execution of the religiously heterodox, those wavering from the true faith and leading others astray. Fully righteous himself, wholly convinced, and in the midst of his violent campaign, the crucified and risen Lord comes to Saul the terrorist and calls him to be the apostle to the gentiles, his gospel messenger to the ends of the earth.

Painted larger: Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish carpenter who taught his followers to love their enemies and carry their own crosses, the one who submitted to torture, carried his cross, and forgave his executioners at the brink of death, the one raised by God and installed as Lord of all the earth, who sent his Spirit to his followers and called them to spread the good news of his death and resurrection, of the forgiveness of sins and the offer of peaceable community and victory over death and freedom and empowerment for love -- this Jesus, one and the same from beginning to end, calls his greatest enemy, the terrorist Saul, to be his ambassador to the nations. Forgives him. Renames him. Baptizes him. Gives him his Spirit. Authorizes him to form and lead churches, local communities of Jesus-followers.

And this Saul, renamed Paul, patiently endures every kind of suffering (see 2 Corinthians 11) in answering his call. This once violent man now never raising a finger to defend himself, this former religious zealot now submitting himself to the authorities -- those same powers and forces of the empire who stood as crucifying enemies of his Lord -- ultimately dying as a martyr in the heart of the empire, Rome, as one of the greatest witnesses the church has ever known.

It is difficult to respond to the claims of an argument like this one without simply retelling the story of Jesus and his followers. Where in that (truncated form) of the New Testament's story do we get the impression that Jesus did not mean concrete, death-dealing, murderous powers when he called his followers, as a community, to love their enemies? that Jesus's own life did not demonstrate that love? that Jesus's followers did not understand that love in the exact same way? that the martyrdoms of James, Stephen, Peter, Paul, and countless others do not witness to that same enemy-love?

The article thus misunderstands the modern example of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King did not subscribe to "an eloquent loathing," because he understood militarism to be no less evil or deathly a social enemy than racism or greed. Dr. King did not lead his nonviolent movement based on the assumption that they would be protected by armed authorities. His nonviolence was based neither on prudence nor the presumption of not being killed. His end, like that of Jesus and Paul, witnesses to the length to which he believed only light can drive out darkness. It is a misreading of both his thought and his life to assume that "surely" King didn't mean there were no exceptions. If it applied to Pilate and to Caesar, then it applied to Bull Connor and to the KKK.

And it applies, now, to the murderers of Mumbai, India.

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If this account of God's all-encompassing love, both for victim and murderer alike, is true, then the article's author makes abundantly clear that he wants nothing to do with such a God. For him this kind of God has no moral coherence, and an amoral God is an immoral God. Who wants to worship a God who can't tell the difference between a terrorist and an innocent family?

First, we ought to distinguish between hatred of evil and hatred of people who do evil. THe article seems to be advocating collapsing the two -- or rather, making the argument that they must be the same for us to be morally healthy -- but they are not necessarily so. Evidence abounds in the Bible of God hating evil, and specifically (because God is always specific) hating evil acts; and, indeed, there are even accounts of God hating evildoers.

However, we must recognize what happened in the cross: namely, God died for evildoers. In Christ God did not simply die by the hand of evildoers, but intimately and precisely for evildoers.

That is why, in the book of Acts, the resurrection is good news. We don't hear it as freshly, but doesn't it seem odd that the apostles' preaching to Jesus's murderers in Jerusalem would be "good" news? One would likely expect divine vengeance, swift reciprocity. Bad news indeed. The reason the news is good instead of bad is that the crucified victim, utterly innocent and undeserving of his execution, comes in forgiveness for his executioners. The mob that cried "Crucify!" is told by the Crucified that they are forgiven.

So we see that in the cross God puts to death sin, evil, and death itself, but in so doing rescues those propagating that same sin, evil, and death. And in the resurrection God offers true, lasting, fearless forgiveness. Evildoers hear good news in the raising of their victim.

Second, we realize at this point, as Paul reminds us in Romans 5, that before the cross all of us stand as enemies of God. All of us at some point have stood in the mob and cried for crucifixion. Though we have all also stood in the place of the victim, each of us participates in the same violence that crucified the Son of God -- whether as coercive friends, abusive spouses, manipulative parents, spoiled children, oppressive employers, whatever. We are all sinners; we are all doers of evil.

Of course, while Christianity has traditionally leveled the line ("the democracy of sinners"), as if sometimes to equate mass murder with a white lie, at the same time we do know that there is a fundamental difference between the mass murders of Mumbai, 9/11, or the Holocaust and fibbing to a friend. The God of Israel is, if he is anything, just; and, as both Old Testament and New proclaim, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord" (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30), which is exactly why we are called to love our enemies, not to repay evil for evil, and to be subject to the governing authorities. Justice and judgment await with God; it is our job, our calling, our vocation to be the cruciform community that witnesses to a love that reaches even the cruelest of evildoers and sinners.

Thus we see that God is indeed morally coherent, but not in the way we might expect, or even hope. He is the gracious Father who unconditionally loves his children, his creation, through whatever evil they might perpetrate -- to death, to the very depths of hell. The argument rightly perceives the scandal: "...would such a God be moral if he did [ask me to love babykillers]? Could I pray to a God who loves terrorists?"

These are impossible questions. But, as I understand it and have explicated it here, the answer of the gospel is that God is the one who dies for babykillers -- the same babykillers who attempted to kill the baby Jesus -- out of the incomprehensible love and hope that they might repent, be saved, and be transformed. God is undeniably a God who asks his people to love babykillers and to pray for terrorists, not because babykillers or terrorists are not evil or undeserving of vengeance, but because love and prayer are neither feelings nor well-wishing, but the divine willingness to die for an undeserving evildoer in the hope of transformation. The enemy-love of God is not sappiness or sentimentality; it is the hard stare which refuses to allow evil to win, which looks a terrorist in the face and sees a kernel of the image of God, as yet not wholly extinguished, as yet possibly the seed of redemption and resurrection, of divine infusion and transformation and wholeness. The good news, right here and right now, for every evildoer and terrorist and sinner and human being, is that God is actually powerful enough to change them -- dogged enough to not relent -- hellbent enough to see the task to death. The God of Jesus Christ, hater of evil and wholly good, sees the murderer, comes to him, and asks him to repent, follow, and be made new.

That is the gospel. That is the point. That is the God Christians worship. It is scandalous and ugly and unacceptable, yet it is the kingdom and power and glory of God bursting in on a cruel and unforgiving world of murder and rape and death. And it is good.

So. Before anything -- and I can't stress this enough -- we do not neglect the innocent and slaughtered victims of this horrific tragedy. We must not yield to some romantic notion that the perpetrators did anything other than vile, vicious, hellish evil, deserving of swift (though unvengeful) justice. We do our best to create silence for and to mourn with those who are suffering. That is where the presence of Christ is this very moment: with those who are suffering and mourning.

But while we mourn with the victims and families of Mumbai, India, and the world over, we also remember to pray for their murderers and for those yet unknown behind the attacks. May they know the great evil they have committed; may they repent; may they know that forgiveness and reconciliation and peace are possible; and may they know that even as enemies the church of Jesus Christ loves them, because God loves them.


  1. Thank you. The humility, theological depth and Christian commitment in this post makes it one of the best things I have read in a long time.

  2. Pondering what you said, a TV add from those days replays in my head "Dr. Pepper, so misunderstood, if anyone would try you, they'd know you taste good". Rudolf fit well with the 1960's cultural moment. I was a young teen the first time it came on, I think, and knew it was promoting acceptance of our African American fellow citizens as well as others.