How to Relate to Enemies the Jesus Way?

Evangelical Christians are quick to pull out the golden rule of proper behavior. “What would Jesus say?” is that rule. In times of war, however, the rule seems not to apply for the vast majority of Christians. Christians turn instead to just war theory, enroll in the military, and resist the enemy by force. The questions might still be allowed, What did Jesus say about our relationship to enemies and what is a just war?

Jesus answers the question in his Sermon on the Mount. He says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48 NIV)

And again:

 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-36 NIV)

Jesus proposes the most radical relation to one´s enemy—love instead of hate. He bases his argument on the fact that his disciples are children of their heavenly father, who cares for the righteous as well as for the evil. And he does it because he is perfect or, as the Greek term may also be translated, complete. And in turn, the children of the perfect father must also be perfect and complete. And this completeness is expressed by mercifulness and justice. Children of God live by mercy and exercise mercy in the spirit of their heavenly father. As such they convince the wrongdoer by good deeds. Apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Rome:

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:17-21).

Turn Your Other Cheek to Them.

It is truly not easy to live by “what Jesus says.” I became a follower of Jesus in the former Soviet Union. My pastoral friend who discipled me taught me to love my enemy. I was heavily involved in boxing in those days and my friend asked me to change to other sports, since in boxing I would hurt my competitor and lead him to hate. “Loving,” he explained, “excludes hurting.” He also taught me to love my enemies, and this excluded any armed military service. In the Soviet Union there was no conscientious objection possible.

As soon as I declared my decision not to take up arms, the secret police started their program of mind change, a hell on Earth. One day the officer came into the interrogation room with a New Testament in his hand. He opened the book and read to me Luke 6:29: “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also.”

“Do you believe this nonsense?” he asked me. “Yes, I do”, I replied proudly, “I believe every word in the Bible.”

“All right, then let´s see,” said the officer with an ugly laugh on his lips. He called a small boy into the room and commanded him to hit one tooth out of my mouth. The boy was weak and my teeth were strong. It took some time until finally a tooth fell to the ground. The procedure was repeated night after night. Most of my teeth were gone. I did not hit back, but my whole being was rebelling in me. Honestly speaking, I started to hate the small boy whom the Soviets forced to hit me.

Finally, after weeks of such treatment, a day before Good Friday, I was given a whole day off. “Go and think about your life”, the officer yelled at me. “And if you stay stubborn, we will kill you tomorrow, as the Jews killed your Lord 2000 years ago.” I went to a hidden spot in the compound, knelt down before God and cried for hours. No, it was less my life, which I was going to lose, it was the deep hate in my heart which grew in me while loosing tooth after tooth. “Why can´t I love my enemy as you did, Jesus?,” I cried to him for hours. And he graciously bowed down to me and said: “You need my grace, Johannes. You can´t love an enemy out of human strength.” So, I begged him for grace. All over sudden, an indescribable power entered my body. I literally fell flat and laying on the ground experienced unspeakable love of God.

The next night, I was ordered to the interrogation room. The officer asked me what my decision was, and I freely told him that I would rather die then forsake my Lord Jesus Christ. He slowly approached me, swinging his big fist to hit me in my face. But the fist stopped right in front of my eyes and the man looked at me with big open eyes and yelled: “Why are you loving me?” Honestly, I did not intend to show the man any love, but God´s love in me was convincing the man of something I could not even express myself.[1]

No, loving our enemies is in no way an easy matter. It requires God´s special grace on us. The relationship to the heavenly father is seen when we are able to love our enemies.

Just War: Overcoming the Enemy by Force

A vast majority of Christians however apply a different strategy to overcome the enemy, especially when the enemy becomes a threat to the community, society, or nation. They argue that a society must be able to protect herself from an unjustified attack from an enemy. And they may do this by engaging in a just war.[2] The theological justification for such a just war is found in Romans 13:1-4. Apostle Paul writes to the Romans:

The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. (Rom. 13:1-5)

The authorities are installed by God as “servants for good.” They are set to promote good living and punish those who endanger it. For this sake they have been entrusted with the sword to punish the wrongdoer. The state is in a position to claim divine authority, but only where it keeps to the godly mission entrusted to him. Here, however, God himself allows the state authority to use power, even with the consequence that it might kill the wrongdoer.

Christians are, according to Paul, also under the authority of the state and must obey the servant of good. In the first centuries of Christian history this obedience excluded Christian service in the army. It was the church father Origen who first permitted Christians to become soldiers, yet he also distinguished clearly between just and unjust wars.[3] According to the church fathers, Christians were only permitted to participate in just wars. With Christianity becoming a religia legitima (a state recognized religion) in the Roman Empire, this perspective changed drastically. Now Christians were even obliged to serve in the military. Since the Council of Arles (314) the church has even viewed military service as a divine obligation. Christians who rejected this service could be excluded from the sacraments, which in turn meant nothing less than excommunication from the Church.[4] It was understood that all military involvement of Christians aimed for peace. This was, for instance, the position of the church father Augustine.[5]

Two Kingdoms Citizenship

The formal decision of the church to send her members to fight in just war, does, of course not alleviate Jesus´ command to love one´s enemies. Christians are not just citizens of a given state, they are “not of this world” (John 17:18), their citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20). They are called out of the world to accept responsibility for the world (Matt. 16:18), sent to all nations of the world to make them disciples of Jesus and teach them everything Jesus has told them (Matt. 28:19). Their mission is a mission of reconciliation and peace (2 Cor. 5:18-21). Will they ever be able to participate in war, to kill the aggressor—and is this what Jesus expects from them? The tension between the command of Jesus and the general submission under the authority of a so-called just government is obvious.

The reformer Martin Luther suggested a solution. He proposed the theory of the two kingdoms, or two regiments. Christians live in both, as long as they live on Earth. The kingdom to your left, Luther said, is ruled by the government of the given state, who carries the sword entrusted him by God and who might call all its citizens to enter a just war against an unjust aggressor. The kingdom to your right, however, is ruled by Christ, the Prince of Peace, who engages his church in a ministry of reconciliation. Here the Christian is in a ministry of reconciliation and peace.

For Luther both kingdoms demand Christian obedience.[6] Christians in countries under unjust attack of an aggressor will follow the call of their president, pick up arms and kill the enemies to protect their own country.

The logic of the argument of just war proponents is easy to understand, but how does one love an enemy and at the same time point a deadly weapon against them? Is killing at all possible without a certain portion of “anger in the stomach”? How can one love one’s neighbor and at the same time obey the command of an authority to kill that very same neighbor?

I have not yet met any Christian soldier who was able to give me a satisfactory answer to such a question. Even those American evangelicals sent by their churches into the army to fight as soldiers and at the same time evangelize Buddhists in Vietnam came home deeply traumatized by the killings they were involved in.[7] Some evangelical pilots reported that when they would drop bombs on the Vietnamese, they would also drop tracts, such as The Four Spiritual Laws, telling the victims of their attack how much God loves them. This double action gave the pilots a sense of satisfaction. They did not just kill their enemies, but also offered them a chance to repent and follow Jesus, even if this might happen right after the bombing.[8]

When I first heard such stories I was deeply disturbed. How schizophrenic is this? You point your gun at a person ready to kill, but pause a minute to read the four spiritual laws. And no, the pseudo-evangelistic actions seldom helped the warriors to forget the killings. Instead, many of them reported psychological distress and illness after returning from the battle ground.

Can There Ever Be a Just War?

Other Christians reject any violent participation in a war as a principle. In their view, no war involving killing can be just. They reject obedience to state authority when the state forces them to join violent conflicts, regardless of the situation. For them, Jesus’ claim that “whoever takes up the sword will die from the sword” (Matt. 26:52) is an unwritten law.[9] I confess—this is precisely my personal position.

We, pacifists, know the value of a just state and support authorities in any good action, except violence. We are guided in everything by the kingdom of God and not by the kings and principalities of the world, however just they may be (Matt. 6:33). God´s kingdom is a kingdom of peace and not of war. In consequence the Christian mission is a mission of reconciliation and peacebuilding (2 Cor. 5:18-21). In fact, reconciliation is the paradigm of Christian missional being.

The proponents of just war theory blame the pacifists for sacrificing freedom in society on the altar of their theological conviction. Well, wars demand sacrifices. Thousands of people die because all wars are also about the killing of enemies. Even the most just war is still a killing event. Would it not be appropriate to consider, with the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas, that the sacrifice of killing is possibly the biggest sacrifice?[10]

This is what Jesus has in mind when he calls his disciples to love their enemies (Matt. 5:43-48). As a consequence, “to be a follower of Jesus is to have a problem with war,” says Stanley Hauerwas.[11] I could not agree more.

 An Easy Way Out or a Missionary Responsibility?

Some hardliners among the proponents of just war theory blame pacifists for what they call “an easy way out.” But history, and even my own story, prove that peace loving Christians were never among those who run away from their responsibility to secure good living in their own nations. And their peace engagement has often demanded from them their own life. But they would rather die, than accept killing.

My good friend Andrey is such pacifist. He is an American missionary to Ukraine who decided to stay in the country when the war started. Many other missionaries left, as did numerous Ukrainian pastors who did not want to join the battlefield. Andrey stayed behind in the city of Kharkiv. He wanted to be near his people, Christians as well as non-Christians, in the darkest hours of their lives. He enrolled as a chaplain, a counselor to the defense force around the city. Unarmed he soon became an easy target for the enemy. Andrey reports that on many occasions he almost lost his life. But the daily dangers did not convince him to leave. He stayed and is a soldier of peace.

In the beginning, fellow soldiers were skeptical to accept this funny fellow who dared to fight without a weapon. “Your prayers will obviously help nothing when the Russians attack,” they claimed. But the many stories of protection changed their attitudes. “Today I am the most welcomed person among them,” Andrey reports. “They come to me with their fears, emotional distress, seek protection in the midst of severe bombardments, ask for food and medicine.” And Andrey is constantly on the move. He finds food, orders medicine, and creates shelters in the city of Kharkiv.

Andrey is not Ukrainian. He is a Russian Jew who migrated to the US and then came to Ukraine to start a church. “When the war began,” his comrades say, “we started to hate all Russians. But you prove to us daily that not all Russians are alike. You love us and care for us, you do not fear to die and risk your life by saving our wounded comrades. You have become to most important source of encouragement. When you came we were laughing and joking about you and your prayers, but today we pray ourselves. You are our angel.” And some soldiers even wish there would be similar angels engaged on the other side of the front. “Maybe then less war crimes would happen, less people would be killed and peace would come near soon.”

Andrey is by far not alone in Kharkiv. More then seventy local Christians have decided to join his mission of peace. They are keen to stay in the midst of war, pray for peace and assist those in need, both civilians and soldiers. They put their trust in God rather than in weapons, knowing that at the end it is him who is in charge, even if some rulers may believe in their unending power on Earth. Foolish as they are, they do not see that God may end their life in a blink of a moment. God in whom they trust. He allowed the war to start, He has all the power the end it.

“I know, the war is cruel. Putin´s army is disastrously evil,” Andrey says. “But even they are humans, worthy to be loved and cared for. I hope some Russian Christians find their way to them. They need Jesus to be freed from the demonic forces misusing them in Ukraine. And this is our holy responsibility to pray for freedom in the hearts of those soldiers and even for Mr. Putin. He is human too. Maybe spirit possessed. But didn´t Jesus cast out such demons? He can free also Putin.”


Dr. Johannes Reimer is direct of the Department of Public Engagement of the world Evangelical Alliance (WEA).

[1] See the story in Johannes Reimer, Liberty in Confinement: A Story of Faith in the Red Army (Winnipeg: Kindred, 2000).

[2] See, e.g., on the historical developments, Josef Rief: Die bellum-iustum-Theorie historisch, in Norbert Glatzel and Ernst Josef Nagel, eds., Frieden in Sicherheit, Zur Weiterentwicklung der Katholischen Friedensethik (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1981).

[3] Origen, Contra Celsum, IV, 82; VIII, 73.

[4] Heinz-Horst Schrey, Artikel Krieg IV, in Theologische Realenzyklopädie, Band 20, (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter 1990), 29 ff.

[5]  Rief, Die bellum-justum-theorie, 25. Siehe auch: Wolfgang Huber, Hans-Richard Reuter: Friedensethik. 1990, S. 49 ff.

[6] On Luther’s two kingdom theology and its relation to peace theology, see Huber, Friedensethik, 67ff.

[7] See more in George Bogaski, American Protestants and the Debate over the Vietnam War: Evil was Loose in the World. (Plymouth: Lexington Books 2014), 181–183.

[8] Reg Reimer, an American missionary to Vietnam in his unpublished biography.

[9] On arguments for pacifism, see among other resources, Clarence Baumann, Gewaltlosigkeit als Kennzeichen der Gemeinde, in Hans-Jürgen Goertz, ed., Die Mennoniten (Stuttgart: Evangelisches Verlagswerk 1971); R.H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace (New York: Abingdon Press 1960).

[10] Stanley Hauerwas, “Sacrificing the Sacrifices of War,” Criswell Theological Review 4 (2007), 80.

[11] Ibid.