It has always surprised me that the assigned Gospel reading for July 4 is Matthew 5:43-48, which includes Jesus saying this: 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, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. This commission doesn’t seem to fit with fireworks and triumphant march music. On a day when we commemorate victorious nationalism, it seems odd that the church wants us to focus on love and prayer.
And still, loving those we have every reason to resent chips away at our self-righteousness. Praying for people who have hurt us reminds us that God can work wonders in the human heart. Engaging these processes pull us toward another focus of July 4th: freedom. When we refuse to give into emotions and actions that emerge from a place of vengeance, we are liberated from the need to justify destruction. We are freed from focusing on the negative and released into a place of possibility.
Is Jesus recommending passivity here? I don’t think so. Does Jesus mean that we should sacrifice our own identities as beloved of God in order to preserve a superficial peace? That would not be consistent with the many times in the Gospel where He upends convention so as to insist on the worth of all God’s children. Jesus reminds us here that loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us brings us closer to God; as close as a parent is to a child. While anger can be a productive force for change, energy diverted from hate is then available for the essential work of building God’s kingdom of love.