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Be Kind to the Wicked

In Luke’s account of Jesus’ “love your enemies” command there’s an interesting difference from the better-known iteration in Matthew. Luke 6:35 reads “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Matthew, by contrast gives the rationale as being “for he [God] makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt 5:45).

In Matthew the rationale for enemy-love is a sort of universally equal divine regard for the evil and the good alike (everybody gets sunshine and rain from God). Luke however states emphatically that God is kind to the wicked. This is a different matter altogether. We can generally countenance “loving” our enemies in the sense of hard-nosedly refusing to do them harm out of reluctant obedience to God (ostensibly thus heaping some lovely coals on their eternal souls, cf. Rom 12:20). But, are we willing to be kind to the evildoers, the oppressors, the enemy?

Taking this sort of notion seriously will always be a transgressive act, unnameable to most causes. Will Campbell, to my mind, bears out this sort of unconscionable ethic better than anyone else I know of. Consider his somewhat outrageous advocacy on behalf of members of the Kl Klux Klan:

Several months ago the Columbia Broadcasting System did a documentary film which was called “Ku Klux Klan: The Invisible Empire.” It showed the horror of such things as lynching and floggings, night riding and bombings, the castration of Judge Aaron in Alabama, the murder of four Sunday school children at prayer in Birmingham. All dreadful crimes. But there were many important things they did not tell us. They did not tell us that the same thing produced them as produces the violence born of frustration and deprivation in the black ghetto. The film did not tell us that the white redneck ghetto is produced by the same social forces as produces the black ghetto.

It did not tell us about a man, who is a friend of mine who is a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. I have no parish. I have no pulpit, and he has no church that wants him. So, you might say, I am his priest and pastor. Mr. CBS did not tell us about how his father left him when he was six years old. How his mother went to work in a textile sweat shop where for 37 years, she sewed the seam down the right leg of overalls. They did not tell us about how this boy was sent to reform school; how he ran away because he was a big boy and joined the army at 14, was jumping out of airplanes when he was 16, leading a platoon when he was 18. How for 17 years he learned from us the fine art of torture, interrogation, and guerilla warfare.

The film did not tell us that the same social forces produced the Klan’s violence that produced the violence of Watts, Rochester, Cleveland, Washington, and Nashville, and will produce much more. They did not tell us that the Klansmen are victims of the same social isolation, deprivation, economic conditions, rejections, under and unemployment, broken homes, ignorance, poor schools, no hospitals, bad diets, all the rest. (Writings on Resistance and Reconciliation, 37-38)

Too often our inclination towards peaceableness and social justice easily dispenses with our call, not merely to love victims, but to love the wicked, the evil, unrepentant, ungrateful ones whom Christ no less came to serve, die, and be resurrected for. The truly subversive word of the cross is not merely that God is on the side of the oppressed—Oh how easy is it for for us to facilely find a way to lump ourselves on the side of the victims!—but that God is on the side of all whom he has made. That God in Jesus bled and died no less for Hitler than for Gandhi.

Is that a word that we can stand? Can we stand the notion that God is kind to the wicked? That they, no less than the oppressed are slaves of the powers whom God has chosen, with his very blood, to liberate? Do we really dare to accept a liberation with and alongside the wicked? Because God in Christ offers no other liberation. And thanks be to God.


  1. david wrote:

    This just goes to show – again! – how totally counter to all our intuitions and gut-responses Christianity really is (if taken seriously). Sometimes it’s hard enough to trust that God can forgive my own sin (or attempts at sin – all done in the best middle-class taste, of course), never mind that of genocidal maniacs or people who actually like alcohol-free beer.
    It’s funny to think that Nietzsche hated Christianity because in his eyes it inverted the proper order and placed the meek and oppressed at the top, when in fact, as you point out, the hand of mercy and kindness is extended just as much to the downright wicked (or “noble” according to him).

    Sunday, January 17, 2010 at 11:15 pm | Permalink
  2. Brad A. wrote:

    Amen and amen. Moreover, the logic forces us to confront the extent to which we, ourselves, are the evildoer and the oppressor. Not just along alongside the wicked, but in many contexts as the wicked – the enemy even – are we liberated by Christ.

    Monday, January 18, 2010 at 8:04 am | Permalink
  3. Chris Donato wrote:

    I’d suggest in every context, Brad: “While were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

    Good word from Campbell. Reminds me of Kierkegaard:

    “When Christianity came into the world, it did not need to call attention (even though it did so) to the fact that it was contrary to human nature and human understanding, for the world discovered that easily enough. But now that we are on intimate terms with Christianity, we must awaken the collision. The possibility of offense must again be preached to life. Only the possibility of offense (the antidote to the apologists’ sleeping potion) is able to waken those who have fallen asleep, is able to break the spell so that Christianity is itself again.

    “Woe to him, therefore, who preaches Christianity without the possibility of offense. …Woe to the person who speaks of the mystery of the atonement [indeed, even for one associated with the KKK] without detecting in it anything of the possibility of offense” (The Offense).

    Monday, January 18, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  4. Brad A. wrote:

    Precisely, Chris.

    Monday, January 18, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink
  5. rasselas wrote:

    here’s some love (bang-head-against-wall)

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  6. Kampen wrote:

    Hey Halden, I was going to comment here but then realized I had much more to say than was appropriate for a comment. So I posted a comment post on this post at ortusmemoria. I don’t know if you get link notifications from wordpress or not.

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  7. Moltmann is not much in vogue these days, but I’m reminded of his response when he was repeatedly challenged over his insistence that the Son is handed over by the Father for the punishment of sins (The Way of Jesus Christ; 172-78). This “handing over” had meaning for Moltmann that it has for very few of us, though one that we should perhaps be quicker to recognize.

    For Moltmann, it meant that Jesus took the place of the guilty in solidarity. The Father’s handing over of the Son (also not much in vogue these days) points to a hidden, and totally unexpected solidarity of Jesus with the culprits, oppressors, and terrorizers of history, and not only the victims. Of course, Jesus is in the place of the victims of injustice, and this must not be set aside (and Moltmann would be the last to do so…), but Jesus is also found among the guilty, taking their guilt.

    For someone who served even so brief a stint in the Nazi army as did Moltmann, that solidarity was a source of great hope.

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

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