We live in a divided age. Republicans vs. Democrats, rich vs. poor, English-speakers vs. Spanish-speakers, citizens vs. immigrants, Christians vs. Muslims, good guys vs. bad guys, peaceful people vs. terrorists: we have so many ways to categorize ourselves and our enemies. I use the term “enemies” very broadly to cover opponents, strangers, foreigners, people with whom we disagree, even people whom we choose to unfollow or unfriend on Facebook. Sometimes, given our emotions and our perceived level of risk, we wish harm on our enemies. Sometimes we even enact harm on our enemies. Sometimes we restrain ourselves from physical violence but use words that are quite damaging by themselves.
For people of faith (and Christians in particular), the temptation to harm our enemies is just as strong as it is for anyone else. We fool ourselves if we say we are innocent of this temptation while hating members of ISIS, cheering the latest lethal injection, or even ridiculing fellow church members who voted for the other candidate.
Christians are to follow the example of Jesus, who famously prayed that all his followers might be one as he and God the Father are one (see John 17). We have made quite a mess of Christianity by creating so many divisions, even within single congregations. But church unity is a red herring; God’s real desire is for all people to be reconciled to him and to each other.
The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel writes:
Do you think that I like to see wicked people die? says the Sovereign LORD. Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live. (Ezekiel 18:23 NLT)
As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness, O people of Israel! Why should you die? (Ezekiel 33:11 NLT)
God is pro-life, in the broadest, most universal sense of the term.
Five hundred years ago, a man named John Redford served as the organist and choirmaster of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He is considered the author of a medieval poem which has been set to choral music, a piece which Tara and I have learned as part of a Holy Week choral service in which we will participate next month. Below are its lyrics:
Nolo mortem peccatoris; Haec sunt verba Salvatoris.*
Father I am thine only Son, sent down from heav’n mankind to save.
Father, all things fulfilled and done according to thy will, I have.
Father, my will now all is this: Nolo mortem peccatoris.
Father, behold my painful smart, taken for man on ev’ry side;
Ev’n from my birth to death most tart, no kind of pain I have denied,
but suffered all, and all for this: Nolo mortem peccatoris.
* Translation: “I do not wish the death of a sinner.” These are the words of the Savior.
As far as I can tell, Jesus did not say the words attributed to him in this poem, but he certainly lived out their meaning. Whether he met a woman caught in adultery, ten lepers, or a Roman centurion, Jesus consistently worked toward their life and well-being. Even his greatest enemies, the super-religious Pharisees, were people whom Jesus loved: after speaking strong words of condemnation against them, he expressed how much he longed to gather them together “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Matthew 23:37).
What if we lived our lives after Jesus’s example? What if our motto was nolo mortem peccatoris, “I do not wish the death of a sinner”? How would we live differently?
Who is your enemy, and how can you love him or her today?
(You can read the full text of this medieval poem here.)