I have a refugee friend in the US who is a member of a minority stateless people group. Being traditionally nomadic, his ancestors migrated from their original country to the country next door. This was about a hundred years ago, when the concept of the nation-state and firm borders was still very new in this part of the world – and for nomads, not really relevant. They had always migrated back and forth across the borders of empires, and even built a lifestyle around the advantages of this (such as smuggling). However, once the nation-state they settled in became more centralized and formalized, the government refused to recognize this people group as citizens. Their original country wouldn’t take them either. So they were stuck, and to this day no one really claims them.
My friend was eventually resettled in the US. But in his final years over in this part of the world he was taken hostage by a terrorist group. Rescue came just in time, when the group was getting ready to execute him. But – and my friend was very keen on pointing this out – he made it through this situation whole and with all of his teeth. He was not so fortunate as a new refugee in the US. For questionable reasons American city governments like to resettle refugees from war zones in some of the most dangerous parts of their new host communities. The idealistic claim is that refugees will use all their immigrant drive and energy to revitalize these drug and crime-afflicted urban neighborhoods. The result, not surprisingly, is often to add trauma on top of trauma. My friend came from a desert country where walking the streets late at night was very normal and mostly safe – even families with small kids are out shopping at midnight. But in his first weeks in the the States he was out walking at 1:00 am and he was mugged – getting one of his front teeth knocked out. “I get kidnapped by terrorists, I keep all my teeth. I come to America, I lose my tooth! Why?” he often asked. All we could do was shake our heads and try to empathize with him.
This friend started studying the Bible with me and even visited church with us regularly for a season. He would show up, long-haired, in a suit that was too big with a collared shirt unbuttoned and showing chest hair, 1970’s style. My fellow bible college students always complimented him on his unique Central Asian style. I had high hopes that as we studied the Bible together, my friend would come to see the beauty of the gospel.
Things went pretty well until we reached Matthew 5:43, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” My friend, far from being struck by the beauty of this kind of teaching, was instead deeply offended.
“If you follow Jesus,” I explained to him, “He will ask you to love your worst enemies and no longer to hate them.”
“What?!” He responded. “Even them? Do you know what they did to my people?” He was alluding to one of the dominant regional people groups that had historically oppressed and committed genocide against his minority group.
“Yes, even them. That is what it means to follow Jesus. We can’t naturally do this. But God loves us when we are his enemies, he gives us new hearts, then he calls us to love our enemies.”
“If that is what it means to follow Jesus, then I will never follow him. I will never stop hating them. It is impossible!”
And with that, he closed his Bible, and disappeared out of my life for the next year and a half. We all know that the truth of the gospel can be offensive. Some doctrines are naturally compelling to certain individuals and cultures while others are naturally offensive. Timothy Keller has called these the A doctrines and the B doctrines. For my friend, the call to love his enemies was a bridge too far. For many a Westerner, this teaching is one of the A doctrines, one of the outcomes of the good news that we find very compelling. But for my friend, coming from a minority oppressed people group who had suffered for centuries, even suffered genocide, it proved to be the teaching that was too hard to bear. He would hold onto his hatred of his enemies rather than be forgiven – and asked to forgive.
The more I learn about how much suffering has taken place in this part of the world, the more I understand his reaction. Every group here has experienced incredible suffering – and has dirt. Just go far enough back in history and everyone is guilty of taking someone else’s land, committing slaughter and genocide, and oppressing the groups weaker than theirs. In fact, this is not only true of our region, but of the whole world. We just lack the historical memory or records sometimes and so we become fixated on the actions of the most recent dynamics of oppressors vs.oppressed within a society. And yet it’s never this simple. My friend’s Muslim people group had been victims of genocide in the last few decades. But few of them knew their own history well enough to know that one hundred years ago they had been active participants in the genocide of ethnic Christian groups. And they are by no means unique. Throughout human history, the oppressed became the oppressors almost every single time. Yes, the Jewish Israelis have some very real historical grievances. Yes, but so do the Palestinians. And both have in turn done some terrible things. How then should we think about justice and forgiveness when all of our ancestors are genocidal murderers? Or do we somehow believe that the victimization of our more recent ancestors somehow wipes away the atrocities of our more distant ancestors? No, to believe that we come from a line any less tainted with oppression than any other line is to embrace both a historical and a biblical naivete.
We don’t often remember the historical context of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. The Jews by that point had been under the thumb of foreign domination for five hundred years – with only a brief interlude of Maccabean independence (and even that full of corruption). The things that the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and then the Greeks and the Romans did to the Jewish people were horrific. A little perusal of the life of Antiochus Ephiphanes will give you a sense of how bad it got, including 80,000 residents of Jerusalem at one point slaughtered in cold blood. So when Jesus said those little words, love your enemies, it’s remarkable that he didn’t spark a violent riot on the spot. This deeply offensive posture – that the deepest problem of the oppressed was not their societal and political oppression, but their slavery to sin – was one of the reasons the political right and left of his day got together to support his sham trial and unjust murder. And yet, Jesus knew every detail of their oppression to an infinitely greater degree than they did. And into this deep knowledge of their suffering and injustice he told them to go two miles if their oppressor asked them to go one, to turn to their head and expose cheek if their oppressor hit them in the face, and to even pray for and love these very real and very cruel enemy occupiers. How shameful. How offensive. How inhuman. How desperately needed in places like this – in a world like this. Nothing else can break the cycle.
My friend eventually got back in contact with me, years later. I’ve gotten to share the gospel with him a few more times in depth. I still pray for him. He has softened considerably toward his enemies, through the comradery that comes to be built between former enemies who simply struggle through the refugee experience together. But he still doesn’t know Jesus. He doesn’t know yet what it is to live inside of God’s love for his enemies – a love so powerful it makes them adopted sons and heirs. I pray that one day he will know this love and be transformed by it. And in doing so, become a reflection of God himself.
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:44-45 ESV)