Here’s an extended quote from Marcus Borg that does a great (and somewhat discomforting) job applying Jesus’ command for enemy love by considering it in light of the original context.
“Love your enemies” thus had the connotation of “Love your non-compatriots.” What would this have meant in teaching directed to Israel in the late twenties of the first century? It had an inescapable and identifiable political implication: the non-Jewish enemy was, above all, Rome. To say “Love your enemy” would have meant, “Love the Romans; do not join the resistance movement,” whatever other implications it might have had. That it would carry this meaning in a milieu of political conflict is illustrated by what the saying would be understood to mean when uttered in a modern situation of conflict, whether in Northern Ireland or Central America or elsewhere. To say “Love your enemies” would have a concrete as opposed to generalized meaning. It would not simply inculcate a discarnate attitude of benevolence, but would meant to eschew acts of terrorism and revenge” (Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus, 142).
The most important feature of this paragraph is the way it pushes us to think concretely about the identity of our enemies. Borg is right that when we read Jesus’ command to “Love your enemies” we tend to think of that as vague kindness or simply being a generally nice person. You know, not getting too mad when someone cuts you off in traffic. But the implications are much more striking and serious when we consider that Jesus spoke those words in a day when Israel was being occupied and heavily taxed by the world’s most powerful military. Borg argues that Jesus’ conflicts with various parties arose out of competing visions of holiness. Some saw holiness as rigorous law observance; others as purifying and preparing oneself to do battle with the enemies of God and his people. It was a time when powerful social and cultural forces pressured young Jewish men to join resistance movements against Rome. Against these movements, Jesus challenged his hearers to think of holiness in terms of love, and love for enemies not least. He taught that holiness was manifest in bearing the burdens of the occupying forces and interceding before God on behalf of those who levied taxes so heavy it was near impossible to put food on the table. That’s tough. Real tough. Jesus’ command for enemy love stands in stark counter-cultural contrast to the typical perspectives of his day.
How do we appropriate this for the church today? Borg’s book was originally published in 1984; so his references to modern day conflict are somewhat dated. But if you want to feel the force of Jesus’ command, pause for a moment to consider it in light of ongoing world conflicts. Then read Matthew 5:46-48 and ask yourself (if you dare): Who are my enemies? Who are the people who seek to do me harm? Do I love them? Do I pray for them? Do I believe Jesus? Am I obeying him? Am I holy?