The National Rifle Associaition has responded to escalating gun violence by insisting that the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Legislators in various states have passed laws permitting people to carry guns in barrooms, schools and chuches. A prominent leader of the religious right has even claimed that when Jesus Christ returns, he will come armed with an AR-15 – the same weapon used to massacre 20 first-graders and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
Every culture has strong taboos against killing their own kind, which means that when we take up arms against our neighbors, we must first satisfy ourselves that they are not our own kind. History would suggest that this is not hard to do. People of another race, religion, nationality or political ideology are all fair game. The trouble is, we can’t always tell who our enemy is unless they are wearing a uniform that is different from your own. During the “ethnic cleansing” that took place in Bosnia during the 1990s, I remember asking my father-in-law why the Serbs often attacked Croatian people they knew rather than strangers. He had been an American intelligence officer stationed in Yugoslavia during World War II. He explained that Serbs and Croats looked the same and spoke the same language, so it was not easy to identify your enemies unless you knew them personally.
So how exactly do we decide who is our own kind, thereby enabling us to separate friend from foe? The process for most of us begins as soon as we develop a sense of “me,” which is simultanueosly when we develop a sense of “not me,” or “other.” We define ourselves as much by what we are not as by what we are. Of course, not everyone identified as “other” winds up as a foe. We bond with family and members of our own tribe, however we may define our tribal affiliations. A friend in one context may be a foe in another; for example, a fellow citizen may root for a sports team we don’t like. Nonetheless, it is generally considered bad form to kill fans of the visiting team.
When Jesus commanded people to love one another, he did not distinguish between friend and foe. In fact, he went out of his way to include one’s enemies in this admonition: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Contrary to the implication here, the Old Testament does not sanction hating one’s enemy; in fact, there are numerous passages urging people to treat their enemies with kindness. However, Jesus takes it a step further by urging people to love their enemies. Admittedly, this is hard to do. But part of the problem may be in the translation of the New Testament Greek. Agape --the word translated as “love” in these passages -- is generally not used when talking about the love we have for a friend, much less for a romantic love. We are not being asked to have warm feelings for people we don’t like. Agape love runs far deeper than our personal feelings. The normal feelings we have for another person are based on a relationship between self and other, whereas agape love is based on the understanding that each is the other. This is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” To truly grasp what he meant when he called on us to love one another, the focus should not be on the word “another” but on the word “one.”