Jesus said to love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. As sentimental as it sounds, this isn’t commonsense advice, and most people consider it bad advice. Yet, what happens to us when we don’t take this command seriously?
In the last paragraph of Matthew 5, Jesus says to “pray for those persecuting you” (Matt. 5:44). What, exactly, counts as “persecution”? The New Testament uses the word “persecution” without ever really defining it. So does U.S. immigration law. Over the years, U.S. case law outlined that “persecution” is more than mere harassment, but it can include a lot more than just physical harm. Persecution can take the form of physical violence, torture, other violations of human rights, threats of harm, unlawful detention, infliction of mental, emotional or psychological harm, or even substantial economic discrimination or harm.
Love your enemy: “More important than what persecution is, we need to ask why.”
More important than what persecution is, we need to ask why. Why does persecution happen? When it comes to Christians being persecuted for their faith, it’s easy to instinctively assume that persecution happens because the persecutors are simply evil people who hate God. But if we look at persecution in general, we find that it is often far more complicated and, unfortunately, far more human.
In their book Why Not Kill Them All, Chirot and McCauley look at the conditions that lead to genocide. Since genocide is basically the most extreme form of persecution, their observations can tell us a lot about why persecution happens. There are certain psychological conditions needed for a person to engage in persecution. We could call this path “How to become a persecutor.”
First, view people collectively, not individually.
Individuals are unique and complicated. Our conscious mind can honestly only handle so much at one time, so it is always looking for patterns—ways that it can simplify and categorize things. Including people. It’s hard to avoid doing this, but it is the first step to viewing someone as a little less than fully human. You see, the only way to make people fit into groups is to shave off some of those complicated bits that make them who they are.
Second, draw a line between “us” and “them.”
This group you just formed in your mind must be seen as definitely not your group. They are “other.” You can draw this line on almost any basis: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, membership in some social group, etc. It doesn’t matter what the line is. What matters is how sharply you draw it. There must be a clear distinction between who is “us” and who is “them.” (Of course, these lines are always way fuzzier in real life than we pretend they are.)
In and of itself, making distinctions isn’t bad. Just because I’m a Gen-Xer and you’re a Millennial doesn’t mean we’re going to war. Social scientists have to draw lines like this all the time.
But, third, you essentialize people based on this difference.
Whatever distinguishes their group from yours isn’t viewed merely as a fact about them. It’s not just one of any number of characteristics you could have chosen for your Venn diagram. Rather, this characteristic is made to capture their essence. It’s who they are. This is the “essentializing” we talked about in the article on mercy. It reduces them to that one characteristic.
Fourth, things start getting ugly when you decide that this fundamental difference between “us” and “them” is fundamentally bad.
This is the most extreme version of “othering.” This is hatred. Hatred is the perception of a negative essence. It says that this characteristic (that captures the essence of who they are) is evil. Well, if they’re evil, then the gloves are off. In the battle between good and evil, there are no holds barred. We now have justification for any measure we take against them.
Fifth, add enough fear, and you’ll feel an obligation to take any measure against them.
This is the stage at which they are perceived as some sort of threat. This threat must be answered, especially if it feels like their existence threatens ours.
It doesn’t seem like anyone should ever see Christians as an existential threat, but they often do:
- Since Christians acknowledge a higher allegiance than the state, a totalitarian regime like China doesn’t feel that it can count on their loyalty.
- A Hindu community in India may define themselves by their religious purity. (When a group fears that their purity is threatened, things can get especially nasty.) Christians, simply by existing, threaten that purity.
- Groups like Columbian Marxist rebels need a flow of new recruits to survive. They won’t get any from a village where the Christian message has taken root.
Love your enemy: “It doesn’t seem like anyone should ever see Christians as an existential threat, but they often do.”
In all of these cases, Christians can be seen as a threat simply for trying to live out their faith in Jesus.
And finally, power.
If you check off all of these boxes—you see individuals as part of a group, that group as different than yours, that difference as essential and fundamentally bad, and that group as a threat—then the only ingredient left is power. Get enough of it, and persecution will occur. It’s not always the state that persecutes. If the state either doesn’t care what a community or other group does, or isn’t strong enough to stop them, then it’s not hard for that community or group to persecute. And they already have the will to do so.
If you object to something these persecutors do, no matter how horrifying it may seem, they respond, “You don’t understand. These are evil people who hate everything good.”
If you’ve ever thought that about a persecutor, then the two of you have something in common, after all. This “path to persecution” is not a process that is unique to some special kind of monster. It begins in places that are all too familiar. The instinctive attitude we can have toward a persecutor is the exact attitude that can turn us into a persecutor.
“The instinctive attitude we can have toward a persecutor is the exact attitude that can turn us into a persecutor.”
This “path to persecution” is clearly the dynamic playing out in our culture—essentializing, hatred, fear. To what extent will these psychological conditions find a home in the American church? As I write this, I have an ominous sense that this is exactly the plan. This is what the devil is working to bring about in our time—a Christian community that feels so threatened that it does unspeakable things.
In our culture, some Christians are afraid that branches of the Left are threatening their freedoms. The danger for anyone who feels this way is that the fear of persecution can easily become the fear that leads one to persecute. That’s the trap. That fear is exactly what could fuel, say, some Christian Nationalist movement that blurs the distinction between Jesus’ Kingdom and the United States. They could use political power and control to eliminate the threat.
But in doing so, they would profane everything Christ stands for. Therefore, other Christians could see them as the danger, and fight against them accordingly. While everyone claims to be opposites, this fear-fueled power struggle for the very existence of the good blinds everyone into walking down the exact same path—the path of the persecutor. The call of Jesus, the call of the Sermon on the Mount, is for his people walk back from the brink.
Love your enemy: “The call of Jesus, the call of the Sermon on the Mount, is for his people walk back from the brink.”
Against power, Jesus has already praised meekness (Matt. 5:5). Power is not the weapon his people use (Matt. 26:52; John 18:36).
Against fear, chapter 6 will remind us that our treasure is in heaven. There’s nothing we value that the world can take away.
Against hatred, Jesus urges mercy (Matt. 5:7) and love (Matt. 5:44).
Finally, nearly every paragraph here at the end of chapter 5 is about humanizing people—about not reducing their unique, God-given individuality and dignity. Whom are you afraid of? Ask Jesus how you can humanize them.
Love your enemy: “Whom are you afraid of? Ask Jesus how you can humanize them.”
A powerful tool for doing this is prayer. Not just prayer about them. Prayer for them (Matt. 5:44). Again, when Andrew Brunson spent two years in prison in Turkey for his faith, he prayed despite his feelings. The prayer he developed for his persecutors was that God’s kingdom and blessing would come to them. In my limited experience, I’ve found that Jesus’ prayer from the cross is also powerful: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34). This is God’s heart for them. In praying for them, we offer to let God’s heart for them become our heart for them.
Instead of walking the path of dehumanization, hatred, and fear, I would rather walk Jesus’ path. Jesus’ path means losing the world, but it also means saving my soul. His path won’t keep me from encountering a persecutor, but it will keep me from becoming one.
 Ilona Bray, (2021), What Counts as Persecution When Applying for Asylum or Refugee Status, NOLO, https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/what-counts-persecution-when-applying-asylum-refugee-status.html