Can We Love Our Enemies And Kill Them in War?

This is my final post on Luke 10:25-37, which contains the parable of the good Samaritan.  I said in my first post that I would try to think about politics and violence by way of interpreting this passage.  In my second post, I discussed politics.  In this post, I will discuss how I think we should apply this passage to violence.  For simplicity’s sake, I will focus on the violence of war.

The Good Samaritan and War

The application of this passage to war can be put in a very straightforward way.  This passage asks us to love our neighbours as ourselves.  The enemies of our nations are our neighbours.  They are therefore to be recipients of this love. 

Furthermore, the love we are invited to have in this passage is merciful and caring; it heals; it is active in pursuing the good of our neighbour; it sees the most unlikely people as capable of embodying this love.  One cannot love the enemies of one’s nation in this way and seek to kill them.  Therefore, this passage challenges us to give up the violence of war.

Although this application is straightforward, it is often met with a series of objections.  Because this is a blog post, I only have time to address one.  It is the one I find most common, and the one I believed for a long time.

An Objection: We Can Love our Enemies and Kill Them

In response to the type of argument I gave above, many people wonder whether it might be possible to follow the instruction to love our enemies by having a loving internal disposition toward them while, at the same time, seeking to kill them in a just and honourable way and in a war that has a worthy end. 

This response has an impressive pedigree. 

C.S. Lewis, faced with the task of defending the idea of forgiveness for a people fighting for their very existence as the Germans bombed their cities, reduces forgiveness to an inward disposition.  He writes: “We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating.  We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it.  In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one’s own back, must simply be killed” (120).  This is difficult enough for a people at war.  Moreover, this conclusion is based on an analysis of the idea that we should love our neighbours as ourselves.  According to Lewis, proper love for ourselves includes allowing ourselves to be punished, even to the point of death, when we have done something to deserve it (119).

Aquinas comes to a similar conclusion about loving one’s enemies.  Augustine writes that nonresistance to enemies demands “not a bodily action but an inward disposition” (Augustine quoted in Hauerwas and Willimon 82).

A Response

One problem with Lewis’ account of forgiveness is that he thinks of sentencing a criminal to death and killing a soldier in the same way.  His reason for treating both as consistent with loving one’s neighbour as oneself is the following.  In loving oneself, one should allow oneself to be put to death if one does something to deserve it, like commit murder.  So we can love both criminals and enemy soldiers as ourselves, while putting them to death.   However, it is clearly wrong to think of killing soldiers as justly punishing them.  Moreover, in war, one not only allows enemy soldiers to be killed, but actually kills them.  So, it is difficult to see how Lewis’ reasoning about how one loves oneself supports the idea that one can both love enemy soldiers and kill them.

In the end, the objection to my argument fails because it is not consistent with Luke 10:25-37 or other passages about love in the scriptures. 

Matthew describes Jesus giving his disciples a very specific and concrete way of putting forgiveness into practice (Matthew 18:15-35).  Lewis simply misses this.  He dismisses the idea of applying any such concrete plan for reconciliation to the Germans as out of hand.  What Lewis misses is that this instruction is meant for the church and not for England.  Of course, it will still be difficult for disciples of Jesus to forgive their enemies in the way described in Matthew 18.  However, we do have the advantage of knowing that our very existence as disciples is based on such forgiveness being extended to us.

In Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the good Samaritan is a sort of midrash on the command to love your neighbour as yourself.  The parable does not portray love as merely an inward disposition.  One of the points of the parable is the contrast between the action of the Samaritan, who thereby loves his neighbour, and the negligence of the Temple staff, who thereby do not.  If this is the case, then it is untenable to read this passage as allowing love for one’s neighbour to be consistent with outward actions most like those of the robbers who left the unnamed man half dead.

Although I find myself compelled to accept this reasoning, it still worries me to find the likes of Lewis, Aquinas and Augustine opposed to me.  I therefore find it necessary to end this post with a quotation from someone I consider in the same league as these three: Søren Kierkegaard.

Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard draws attention to yet another relevant passage in the Gospels.  He writes that, “if any overexcited and enthusiastic or hypocritical person were to teach that love is such a hidden feeling that the fruits proved nothing for or against, yes, even that poisonous fruits proved nothing – then we should remember the words of the gospel, ‘The tree shall be known by its fruits.'” (31). 

Kierkegaard is harsh, but he makes his point personal for a reason.  I have tried to answer the question of this post with an objective consideration of arguments.  But this is an abstraction.  Kierkegaard recognizes that the command to love one’s neighbor is addressed to us in the storm of our subjectivity, in all its passion and desire, pride and insecurity, self-love and self-deceit.  This is where the argument really takes place for each of us.

Sources

Hauerwas, Stanley and William Willimon. Resident Aliens. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. Trans. Howard and Edna Hong. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.

Lewis, C.S.. Mere Christianity. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

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