“You have heard it said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” Jesus said in one of his more head turning sermons. “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
It’s hard to imagine an enemy more deserving of hatred, more despicable than the Islamic State, and its leader Abu Bakr. Can you imagine prayers offered for Abu Bakr at your pulpit next Sunday, or a heartfelt call for loving the Islamic State even as video of its latest atrocities shocks the world once again? God, apparently, can. And he gave us an example of what can happen in the person of Paul.
It’s sometimes forgotten that Paul was the proto-ISIS of Jesus’ time, a man after Abu Bakr’s heart. True, he became one of the most famous apostles, someone who wrote 13 books (letters) of the Bible. He is considered one of the most influential apostles because his letters were powerful testament of how the church should live. Lay Christians and theologians study his writing with great reverence. However, we often glaze over the fact that he was also a ferocious persecutor who, using terroristic-style violence, hunted and killed many Christians before his encounter with Christ on the Road to Damascus.
The book of Acts describes the persecution of the early church. Stephen is remembered as the first martyr of the early Church. In Acts 7 we read the account:
“When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.' When he had said this, he fell asleep.” [Emphasis added].
Stephen was stoned to death for blasphemy and apostasy. It is a fate that has not passed from the history of the Middle East. Nor, if we take Jesus’ teaching seriously, should Stephen’s prayer: Lord, do not hold this sin against them.
Are tomorrow’s Paul’s somewhere in Syria and Iraq today? If God could use a man like Saul, he certainly could change the hearts of some members of ISIS, who just as Paul did, think that killing Christians is part of their religious doctrine. One modern day example of a terrorist who later became a Christian is Kamal Saleem. He was an Islamic jihadist who used to work with terrorists in Lebanon. Since his conversion, he has become an ordained Christian minister and started Koom Ministries, a Christian organization that teaches the power of prayer and how to pray for enemies.
To pray the prayer of Stephen—Lord, do not hold this sin against them— doesn't mean we condone or support the actions of ISIS or ignore the plight and grief of those who suffer in the Middle East; far from it. Just as God hates sin, we hate the crimes they commit against Muslims, Christians, and others in the Middle East. But according to Christ, we have to go beyond hatred and love them radically for his glory and his kingdom.
When Jesus calls us to love and to pray for our enemies, will we actually follow this radical commandment for one of the greatest enemies of our day? God wants us to love our enemies and pray for them because love is more powerful than death. God loves every one of the members of ISIS; He wants every single one of them to be reconciled to Him. Saul, the archetype of history’s persecutors and Jesus-haters, miraculously became Paul, anointed for a ministry of such enduring power that his words have become canonized as Holy Scripture. May God humble our hearts to love our enemies—enemies who one day may be transformed and win hearts and minds for Christ Jesus.
-Courtney Brode is Associate Program Officer for East Asia at the Institute for Global Engagement in Washington, D.C.