Bonhoeffer and Loving Our Enemies

Every Christian needs to be informed of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A theologian and pastor, he also enters the historical record as a spy, a cultural prophet, and eventually a martyr. He pastored and led during the rise of Nazi Germany, through World War II, and lost his life in a concentration camp hours before it was liberated by the Allies.

There is a lot about his life worth noting and emulating today. He stood firm as a leader of the “confessing church” when the State made it illegal to gather, and he led a group of young pastors through a very trying and complicated time. Among his several works, perhaps the best known is The Cost of Discipleship. One insight that has stayed with me since the first time I read it was how he treated the passage of Scripture in which Christ tells his disciples to love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-44). The confusion in that passage is often the seeming contradiction between simultaneously considering someone my enemy and loving them. Typically, those are two very different ways of treating people.

Bonhoeffer provides a profound clarification:

In the New Testament our enemies are those who harbor hostility against us, not those against whom we cherish hostility, for Jesus refuses to reckon with such a possibility. The Christian must treat his enemy as a brother, and requite his hostility with love. His behavior must be determined not by the way others treat him, but by the treatment he himself receives from Jesus; it has only one source, and that is the will of Jesus.

What a clarification and a challenge! As a follower of Jesus, I should not look at people as if they are my enemies and harbor hate for them. But the reality is that there are those who consider me their enemy and my response should be the love of Christ. I treat others with the love I have received in Christ, after all, when I was still his enemy he showed me mercy.

Bonhoeffer’s next paragraph begins:

By our enemies Jesus means those who are quite intractable and utterly unresponsive to our love, who forgive us nothing when we forgive them all, who requite our love with hatred and our service with derision.

It is brutal, but true – those who genuinely consider Christians and Christianity their enemies behave this way. It is stunning and baffling, but common. But this becomes one of the ways in which the Christian has an opportunity to be genuinely different from the world around them. You might even say it is a chance to become morally attractive to others.

This becomes one of the ways in which the Christian has an opportunity to be genuinely different from the world around them. You might even say it is a chance to become morally attractive to others.

One reason this is an important topic is that American Christians are facing this in ways we may not have seen coming. There has always been a derision for the Christian faith among some, but you knew where to go and who to read to find it. By in large, a distaste for Christianity was left out of the public square. Times change, however. And because they change, we need to find biblical and faithful witnesses in the lives of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who put his life on the line to preach Christ, train pastors, and teach us how to love our enemies.

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