There was a man riding a motorcycle through my neighborhood with a swastika on the back of his leather jacket.
It’s easy to write him off as a bad egg. He is evil. He is the enemy. He is wicked.
But when Jesus says to love our enemies, he asks us to look deeper. Looking deeper, we can see see underneath his hate is fear.
Hatred is rooted in fear. Fear of what the world might look like if the people we think are our enemies are allowed to flourish.
What if their ideologies live on, their traditions impinge on our own, or their desires clash with what we see as right?
Through the lens of fear, life is a zero-sum game.
If they win, I have to lose.
If they gain, I have to lose.
If they live, I have to die.
When we fear loss--of physical life, of life as we know it, or of life as we think it should be--we will go to great lengths to preserve what we feel is ours.
If left unchecked, what starts as self-preservation so often morphs into hatred.
What begins as the need to protect turns into the need to attack.
It is what Yoda means when he says, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
This is why Jesus tells his followers not to be afraid. He knew he would overcome the thing they were most scared of.
Standing in that truth, they could trust that even if their enemies impinged on their lives, they had nothing to fear.
What are we most scared of in a zero-sum game? Loss. What is the ultimate loss? Death.
When we do not fear losing even our lives, then there is no loss that is insurmountable.
Of course, "do not be afraid” is easy to write. It is hard to believe and feels impossible to live out. Something for the true saints--the people we do not believe ourselves capable of becoming.
And yet, the Bible gives us hope in the story of Peter.
One of Jesus’ closest disciples, Peter is by his side every day for years. He sees Jesus perform miracle after miracle and is even the first of the disciples to admit his rabbi is the Son of God.
When Jesus is about to be betrayed and crucified, Peter naturally jumps in with confidence. Lord, I am ready to go to prison with you, even to die with you.
Yet before that night fully turns to day, Peter denies knowing Jesus three times. He was afraid to be crucified alongside his lord.
The man who had followed Jesus for years, seeing and believing the miraculous, hid.
Years later, do you know how Peter died? Crucified upside down on a cross. For he deemed himself unworthy to die upright like his savior.
How did this happen? How did Peter go from the scared disciple hiding from Jesus’ persecutors to the martyr willing to hang on a cross to show his captors the love of God?
Much of it is a mystery to me, but the one thing that’s evident is that his transformation was rooted in forgiveness.
When Christ is risen and meets Peter again, they both know what happened. Peter betrayed his greatest friend in his hour of greatest need. It is not just awkward and humiliating; it is painful.
Yet Jesus doesn’t confront Peter with condemnation. Instead, he does something surprising.
Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. There is no accusation. There is only a desire to reconcile with his friend.
And in this ultimate forgiveness, there is nothing Peter fears losing--not even his life, not even for his enemies.
A heart so full of love cannot help but give what it has received. An accepted heart cannot help but accept. A consoled heart cannot help but console. A forgiven heart cannot help but forgive.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” - 1 John 4:18
I am not ready to die upside down on a cross. Will I ever be? I don’t know, and I hope I won’t have to find out. But it’s becoming clear that the big thing standing in the way of love is my struggle to be forgiven. When I don't know I'm forgiven, I feel the need defend myself. When I know I am forgiven, I am free to love.
If the path to the dark side starts with fear, the path to light starts with forgiveness.
“Forgiveness, can you imagine?” - It’s Quiet Uptown, Lin-Manuel Miranda